Richard Belliveau, a mechanical engineer who had relocated cross-country from Maine to Los Angeles, surveyed his adopted city’s beer scene in the early 1980s and came to this conclusion about starting his own brewery: “Nobody’s doing it here, I’m going to get rich.”
That wasn’t technically true. Anheuser-Busch had opened a brewery in the mid-1950s in L.A.’s Van Nuys neighborhood, followed more than 10 years later by a 17-acre addition that became the company’s latest Busch Gardens amusement park. Two regional breweries, the Maier Brewing Co. and the old Los Angeles Brewing Co., had spent decades, before and after Prohibition, battling it out in L.A., before both succumbing in the 1970s to a wave of consolidation in the U.S. brewing industry.
Belliveau was correct, though, in that nobody was doing smaller breweries in the megalopolis—surely not in the way that they had taken hold over the previous 20 years in Northern California, especially around San Francisco. There, smaller breweries were sprouting like flowers through sidewalk cracks. In Southern California—in L.A. in particular, which is marking its sixth annual LA Beer Week this week—not so much.
Belliveau’s Angeles Brewing Co., incorporated with California in July 1985 and in production by the end of 1986, would be an anomaly within the city’s limits (Belliveau opened it in an old industrial park in the Chatsworth neighborhood, and struggled into the 1990s to make a profit; he never did strike it rich through small-batch brewing).
Whatever shadow San Francisco still casts, L.A.’s got nothing to be ashamed of in the beer-history department. It has, in fact, quietly turned out to be one of the more influential beer cities in the U.S. in the last 40-odd years.
Take that Busch Gardens in Van Nuys. A kid who grew up in downtown L.A. and the city’s Woodland Hills district visited the amusement park and toured the adjoining brewery—his first ever. Ken Grossman would in the late 1970s go on to co-found the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., one of the biggest breweries in the U.S. and progenitor of the so-called West Coast style of hoppier beers. He, of course, did so in the Northern California city of Chico, having split L.A. as soon as was humanly possible after high school.
Around the time Grossman was settling in the upper reaches of the state, a group of homebrewing enthusiasts was starting the first homebrewing club in America since at least Prohibition. The Maltose Falcons, started in 1974 when homebrewing was still illegal at the state and federal levels, met in a Woodland Hills winemaking shop (that wasn’t illegal) that John Daume started in 1972. (Daume’s store also subtly sold beer-making supplies, and Ken Grossman would buy goods there for his own homebrewing shop in Chico, started in 1976.)
Finally, L.A. played a pivotal role in the start of what’s now the largest craft brewery in the entire Southwestern United States, never mind Southern California. Greg Koch had returned from Ohio in 1984 to the region of his birth to attend the Guitar Institute of Technology above the Hollywood Wax Museum on L.A.’s Hollywood Boulevard. He wanted to be in rock music; and was for a while, managing bands, running rehearsal space he owned downtown, even working as the tour photographer for guitarist Steve Vai (seriously).
It was during this time that Koch frequented a dive bar at the base of the American Hotel downtown called Al’s. Thursday was “No Talent Night,” Koch’s favorite time to go. One particular Thursday night, Al’s had only two beers on draft: Lowenbrau Dark and Anchor Steam. Koch ordered an Anchor Steam, made by the small, but growing Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco. It was Koch’s damascene moment beer-wise.
In early 1996, a music career long in the rear-view mirror, Koch co-launched the Stone Brewing Co. He did so in the San Diego area, but still…
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.