Southland Ales: LA’s Young Beer Scene Looks to the Future
Whether you live here or not, you probably have opinions about LA, and a quick word association game might produce some typical results: Hollywood, sunshine, phonies, yoga, the beach, the 405, tacos. One word that doesn’t come to mind right away: beer.
Well, let’s get a few things straight right off the bat. Yeah, there are a lot of celebrities in Los Angeles, and yes, residents randomly bump into them at everyday places. The skies are blue and the sun shines pretty much all the time (barring the El Niño winters). Our tacos are good, our traffic is bad and now, more than ever, we too enjoy a locally brewed pint.
LA is the cultural capital of California (shh, don’t let San Francisco read that), a state that played a starring role in the revitalization of American beer. Nonetheless, the second largest city in the country lags significantly behind craft brewing havens like San Diego and the Bay Area. Perhaps the most emblematic expression of Los Angeles’ delayed arrival to the beer scene is the eponymous Los Angeles Brewery, which isn’t a brewing facility at all, but a home for artist lofts and studios. The only way that last sentence could be more LA is if the Los Angeles Brewery also housed a vegan juice bar.
But late to the party or not, Los Angeles is emerging from the shadows of its better beer neighbors to tell its own story. And like the city itself, that story is diverse, progressive and undeniably cool.
For as long as LA and Hollywood have been culturally relevant, the cocktail has been king. Humphrey Bogart didn’t drink beer, and neither does James Bond. If beer didn’t have a starring role on the big screen, it wasn’t going to have a starring role at the bars in town, either.
“[LA] was so stuck in a cocktail kind of trend that craft beer really hadn’t taken off yet,” says Lynne Weaver, who founded Three Weavers Brewing Company in Inglewood. “That was in 2012–13, it was just starting. It was percolating and getting exciting. New breweries were popping up, Golden Road came up the year before, and it was just starting to break.”
Despite its relative youth as a company (it opened in September 2014), Three Weavers is already considered something of an industry leader in LA. Eagle Rock Brewery, located in the northeast neighborhood of Glassell Park, is one of the city’s veteran craft breweries at the ripe old age of seven.
“There really wasn’t much of a beer scene,” says Jeremy Raub, who started Eagle Rock with his wife, Ting Su, and father, Steve Raub, in 2009. “A lot of people complained that LA was like this black hole of good beer. You could easily find a variety of really good cocktails, and a variety of big-name beers, but [it was] very, very hard to find small craft beer at that time.”
Hollywood and the film industry cultivated the cult of cocktails in the area, and a handful of brewery owners also started their careers in The Industry, as it’s known here, including Raub and Martin Svab, who owns Phantom Carriage Brewing Company in Carson. However, the reality is there were simply too many thirsty Angelenos looking for good beer for cocktails to remain on top forever.
“I guess seeing the way the trend is going and the interest people have now, I don’t think it would be accurate to say that craft beer is ‘not for us’ as a town,” Raub says. “Now, people are like, ‘Oh wow, great. There’s all this variety and all these small companies producing all this great beer.’ People [in LA] are really getting into this trend now and also restaurants and bars are redoing their whole beer programs, focusing on craft beer and local beer.”
Bright Lights, Big Market
To say that there was never good beer in Los Angeles was always a stretch though. A handful of dedicated beer bars like The Surly Goat, Father’s Office, Blue Palms and Tony’s Darts Away are as responsible for the current beer boom as much as the breweries that have popped up in the last few years—16 since 2015 and 39 since 2011. But a smattering of beer bars, cool as they may be, and fewer than 50 breweries for the nation’s most populous county leave a lot of room for growth.
With eyes toward filling some of that void, established breweries like Lagunitas, Modern Times and Firestone Walker are coming in to stake their claim in what could be craft brewing’s next gold rush. In April, Paso Robles-based Firestone Walker opened a satellite taproom, restaurant and barrel cellar (with a pilot brewery to come) in Venice called the Propagator. According to co-founder David Walker, the logic behind the decision was simple: “Los Angeles has lots of people. Brewers like people to drink their beer, and the closer they are to the brewery, the better the beer tastes.” Modern Times is expected to open later this year, with Lagunitas coming to Azusa in 2017.
It’s the same kind of mindset that prompted Tony Yanow, proprietor of the aforementioned Tony’s Darts Away and the co-founder of Golden Road, to go big when he opened his brewery in Atwater Village with business partner Meg Gill.
“I’d say from owning and running Tony’s Darts Away and Mohawk Bend that I knew what the beer scene was up to in Los Angeles,” explains the former Golden Road owner. “The scene was pretty small […] I recognized from the beginning there was an opportunity to be a big craft brewery in LA […] And it just so happened that LA is such an enormous market.”
As LA’s largest brewery with approximately 45,000 barrels of beer sold in 2015 (compared to regionals from San Diego like Stone, which made 325,000 barrels last year), Golden Road, which launched in 2011, did a lot to introduce the casual drinker to the concept of local beer. It wasn’t the first brewery in town, but it quickly stepped into the spotlight, launching with a session-friendly IPA and an approachable Hefeweizen. And in true Hollywood fashion, it delivered a plot twist for the ages when Yanow and Gill sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev last year. The move certainly sent shockwaves throughout the Southland, but not all of the reviews were negative.
“It definitely had an impact and is a hot topic of discussions, I’m sure, around many barstools,” says Raub. “I feel like it can have both a good and bad impact. It’s beneficial from the standpoint that it brings attention to our industry, it’s beneficial from the standpoint of having more variety of beer out there and it’s also beneficial for creating more opportunities for beer in general. The potential downside is that those big-money companies [can also] use their power and influence to create less opportunity [for smaller brewers]. So the good and bad side of it is kind of part of that same coin.”
In the short term, ever-increasing variety is the name of the game for Los Angeles beer drinkers. And while IPA still dominates tap lines and grocery store shelves, Angelenos have a wide selection in front of them that mirrors the diverse nature of the region itself. That includes English-style cask ales in Van Nuys at MacLeod Ale Brewing Company and super-hoppy IPAs at El Segundo Brewing and Highland Park.
Others, like The Brewery at Abigaile in Hermosa Beach, are as much about the impressive food at the pub as they are about the beer itself. Monkish Brewing and Brouwerij West are putting innovative spins on Belgian-style beer in the South Bay, not far from where newly opened State Brewing turns out classic American and German styles. For the more experimental, Carson’s Phantom Carriage and Beachwood Blendery in Long Beach are home to ambitious barrel-aging programs. There are the Latin-influenced ales at Pacific Plate east of the city in Monrovia, and a surprising bevvy of hop-forward breweries in the nearby Antelope Valley that includes Kinetic, Bravery and Lucky Luke. Basically, there’s something for everyone.
“There’s so many people in Los Angeles County […] and everyone is becoming more aware of ‘good’ beer and supporting good local breweries, and that’s the key to all this,” says Phantom Carriage’s Svab.
And although the film industry may revel in dragging up old tropes and rebooting tired storylines, Los Angeles won’t be typecast. The idea that beer is for guys with beards and beer bellies is a stale plotline, and at least in this regard the City of Angels is not playing catch-up. It’s such an outmoded concept that most members of the local industry don’t consider it noteworthy that LA has many prominent female owners, brewers and personalities.
“Honestly, it’s not anything I ever think about,” says MacLeod Ales’ co-owner Jennifer Febre Boase. And when Cyrena Nouzille decided to open a French-inspired brewpub with her husband in Agoura Hills in 2009, she didn’t worry whether the odds were against her or not as a woman. In the years since, the greater metro area has embraced Ladyface Ale Companie and its readiness to challenge perceptions about beer. Nouzille now stands as a key figure in the Los Angeles scene, and her willingness to stake an early claim and break whatever barriers may have existed at the time set the stage for the next wave of brewers and owners.
“I still get asked that question a lot about what is it like to be a woman in the beer industry, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, what’s it like to have a penis?’” Three Weavers brewmaster Alexandra Nowell says. “You know? Why don’t you ask about recipe development or something like that?”
Nobody in LA is patting themselves on the back for having a prominent female presence. Instead, the focus remains on making high-quality beer. So after years of waiting and watching from the wings, that’s exactly what Los Angeles is trying to do.
“We’re probably 15 years behind San Diego or so,” Boase says, “but I think what’s cool is we’ve all been to the breweries now so we know where the bar is set. I think a lot of the new breweries coming in know how good they have to be to compete and do well. Breweries are starting at a pretty high level. They’re very serious, many of them are very, very good. I’m really excited about it.”
Los Angeles may have taken its time getting to the party, but that’s just because it couldn’t just show up in any old thing. And in hindsight, there’s a good chance beer pundits will agree that when it did finally arrive on the national stage, LA made a fabulous entrance. ■