Good Brewers Make Good Neighbors

The Business of Beer by | Jun 2014 | Issue #89

It has been difficult for craft beer fans in the baffling beer desert of Los Angeles County. But that’s changing, in part thanks to two new, wildly different brewers who are putting the brewery-friendly city of Torrance on the map.

The South Bay—a diverse collection of neighborhoods, beach towns and light industrial zones along the coast of southern Los Angeles County—began to germinate as a center of LA’s craft beer culture when Strand Brewing Co. opened in Torrance in 2009. In contrast to the tangled bureaucracy of Los Angeles, Torrance is welcoming to breweries. The city government there works with startups through the planning and permitting process, and it’s attracted a cadre of craft brewing operations in recent years. For Henry Nguyen, the local government’s permissiveness, and his native ties to the South Bay, were good reasons to launch Monkish Brewing there in 2012.

Nguyen, who co-owns Monkish with his wife, Adriana, explores the fringes of craft beer with an eye to incorporating uncommon flavors into his Belgian-inspired brews. “I’m always trying to find balance, a certain softness and finesse in order not to overpower the subtle esters and phenolic flavors of the Belgian yeast,” he says.

Nguyen gets inspiration from a number of places (“I brewed one beer based on a dream that I had,” he says), but it’s usually other beverages that spark his creativity. “I drink cocktails. I’m always drinking tea—that’s where I got my spice influence and exposure to a lot of different flavors—but cocktails are something that have really shaped the way I approach beer.”

A year after Monkish launched, Jonathan Porter opened Smog City Brewing about 1,500 feet away. The brand predated the brewery, though. Porter first trained under the celebrated Owen Williams, original head brewer at the BJ’s Brewhouse chain. In 2011, while working as head brewer at nearby Tustin Brewing Co., Porter started making Smog City beers on Tustin’s brewpub system when he found time. In 2012, he won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for his Groundwork Coffee Porter.

Now, his brick-and-mortar taproom has become one of the favorite gathering places for LA’s craft fans, who come to sample Porter’s tropical IPAs, infusions of foraged produce (fennel flowers in a Scotch Ale, kumquats off his own tree in a Saison), and the Grape Ape series of IPAs brewed with wine grapes.

Porter has used a different grape- and hop-varietal combination (Semillon and Mosaic, Chardonnay and Simcoe) for each batch, aiming to create a fruit-forward hoppy beer, rather than making a “crossover” beer. “Where some brewers use simple sugar to lighten the body of an IPA without flavor contribution to let the hops shine, we use grape must to do the same thing, except it contributes a complex fruit character to flavor and aroma that can’t be achieved with hops,” Porter says. “It’s beautiful!”

“I don’t know if we’ll ever find one [Grape Ape] recipe that’s perfect,” he says, adding that “it’s an educational thing—for us, and for people’s palates.”

When Smog City and other newcomers, like Absolution and King Harbor, opened so close to him, Nguyen says, “It took some getting used to.” But now, “Because I can count on Porter to create new beers, I find more motivation and affirmation to indulge in creative and expressive brewing.”

Nguyen, a former Marine who pursued a doctorate in biblical studies before discovering a love for homebrewing, also takes his cues from flavors beyond beer. “Everything goes back to spices,” Nguyen says. “Currently filed in the back of my mind are about 50 or so spices that I want to use in a beer,” including anise hyssop, saffron, various teas and “a number of herbs I’ve eaten growing up but don’t know the English names for.”

For Nguyen, brewing is a way to express himself. “Beer is my creative outlet,” he says. There are no flagship beers at Monkish, no pilot batches either. Roughly every other week, Nguyen brews a full-scale batch of a new beer, and he has a deep well of ideas for more beers. This year, he’ll toe the 1,000-barrel line. But for Nguyen, it’s more about experience than hitting a production goal.

“Everything for me is so spiritual,” he says. “Since my wife and I built the place, there is an energy that I get from it and more importantly an energy that I give it. So I walk the brewhouse and tanks often, and gauge the energy levels. I know this sounds new-age silly, but it’s something I have found out to be true.” That means he won’t brew when the energy is off. “There are days when [Adriana] senses that I am off and I shouldn’t [brew], but I still do,” he says. “As a result, I have made several mistakes, like milling in wrong grains, leaving valves open.”

Whereas Nguyen operates by a free-flowing philosophy, Porter, who has a degree in photography, is moving away from his purely intuitive brewing style and becoming more process oriented, with a focus on analysis and measurement. “Sometimes I do things a little differently [than other brewers],” he says of his instinctive approach to brewing. “Now I’m trying to find ways to measure these things.” He’s piecing together a lab and just hired a brewer with an M.S. in biochemistry to bring even more precision into the brewhouse, with an eye to the future when he won’t be making every batch of beer (“sadly,” he notes).

“The thing about brewing is it’s kind of unlimited,” Porter says. “It’s an open field of whatever you want to put in.”