Every day at 4 a.m. Blackwell, who goes by his last name only, rides his bike a mile from his home to the north end of the Belmont Shore neighborhood in Long Beach. There, at the base of the pier, is the Belmont Brewing Co., which opened in 1990 and is Southern California's oldest brewpub. Blackwell has been the head brewer at the waterfront restaurant for 16 years, and he likes to get an early start on his day's tasks of monitoring the fermentation of new batches and the washing and scrubbing that he says is the most critical aspect of running a brewery.
The Belmont Brewing Co. is a throwback to the '90s heyday of the brewpub model. "We're an old school brewpub with a limited number of beer lines," Blackwell says, calling the BBC a "neighborhood restaurant that happens to have a brewery." This helped the BBC survive the mid-'90s contraction in the beer industry that saw so many local brewpubs shutter. For years, Blackwell says, the Belmont Shore residents who packed the restaurant nightly weren't interested in experimental styles or rotating tap lists, but he's watched as Long Beach developed into a vibrant beer community. Now, he says, "all the beer geeks yell at me when I don't brew an IPA."
Long Beach has long been a town thirsty for beer, from the oversize schooners of icy-cold American lagers served alongside pickled eggs at the 92-year-old Joe Jost's on Anaheim Street to the many decades-old dive bars offering $2 drafts along 4th Street. But it wasn't until 2010 that craft beer culture began to win over the locals. "Now there's a new generation of beer lovers," says Blackwell.
Congregation Ale House founder Travis Ensling says he was struck by the lack of craft beer in L.A. County's second largest city. When Congregation opened in 2010, Ensling says, "It felt like we were the only place with the lights on [the Promenade]." He worried that craft beer would be a tough sell in Long Beach, but his anxieties were short-lived. "The locals were looking for craft beer," Ensling says. Early on there was a small but vocal group of dedicated beer geeks who would frequent Congregation, and now, "the clientele has so much general [beer] knowledge. It's like a whole generation skipped macro beers and went right to the good stuff."
"The people in Long Beach are so chill," says Danny Dib, owner of craft-beer-focused retail shop Stearns Liquor. "[Craft beer] got big because of word of mouth," he says. "The people drinking it wanted to talk about it." Craft beer outsells its macro-brewed competition at Stearns. As a result, Dib recently opened a second location in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood.
Opened in 2006, the original Beachwood restaurant in nearby Seal Beach, founded by Gabe Gordon, has long treated beer with an attention to detail more commonly seen in a fine dining restaurant's wine program, from Gordon's custom-built draft system — which allows each beer to be served at the proper temperature and carbonation level — to the collection of different beer glass shapes that best showcase each style's qualities. In 2011 Beachwood BBQ opened a second location in Long Beach, with a brewery, just steps from Congregation on the Promenade.
Whereas Belmont Brewing Co. sticks to a handful of approachable styles, Beachwood Brewing goes for diversity. Gordon says head brewer Julian Shrago has developed some 160 beers, including many world-class IPAs, since first firing up the brewhouse. Gordon chose Long Beach for the expansion because much of his regular clientele at the Seal Beach restaurant was driving in from Long Beach anyway. "Long Beach has its own vibe. We're kind of a no man's land," he says.
"Long Beach people like to support their local businesses, they don't like to leave Long Beach," says Brett Gallo, owner of the Stache Bar on East 4th Street. When Gallo opened the bar he was focused on craft cocktails but says, "After Congregation and Beachwood opened, people were more exposed to craft beer, and they got really into it." He switched his taps over to highlight California craft beer, and it wasn't long before he added four more lines to keep up with demand.
The growth shows no signs of slowing. Dog Haus — a beer-and-sausage concept with locations across Los Angeles — has opened just steps from Beachwood, and Koreatown's popular Beer Belly plans to expand to downtown Long Beach this summer. Gordon also opened Beachwood Blendery around the corner on Long Beach Boulevard, where he focuses on re-creating the flavors of Old World-style sour ales.
With no dedicated production brewery operating in Long Beach proper, breweries in the surrounding regions have found many of their most ardent fans in Long Beach. The Timeless Pints tasting room in Lakewood is often filled with Long Beachers, and Torrance's Smog City Brewing will open a satellite tasting room in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood this year. Smog City co-founder Laurie Porter spent a year looking for a location in downtown L.A. for the expansion but found the Long Beach government much easier to work with than Los Angeles'. "L.A. was excited for us [to open], but they expected us to jump through a lot of hoops." Long Beach has also attracted the attention of craft beer's biggest names: a public notice on the old Khoury's Restaurant space on the marina notes that San Diego-based craft giant Ballast Point Brewing has filed for a beer manufacturing license for the building.
Long Beach is also where many of L.A.'s beer industry workers choose to live and drink, including employees of Orange County's the Bruery and Martin Svab, the co-founder of Carson's Phantom Carriage Brewery. Beachwood especially is an industry hangout, where brewers from across Southern California often sip pints alongside award-winning home-brewers, local beer geeks and tourists who might have stopped in Long Beach to try the beer.
After a long shift in the brewhouse, Blackwell bikes home and settles into a restorative pint while he watches the sun dip into the Pacific. "I'm not interested in growth," he says. "I want to make beer for the people around me."
Where to find craft beer in Long Beach
Beachwood BBQ and Brewing: 210 E. 3rd St., Long Beach, (562) 436-4020, beachwoodbbq.com
Beachwood Blendery: 247 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, beachwoodbbq.com/blendery.html
Belmont Brewing Co.: 25 39th Place, Long Beach, (562) 433-3891, www.belmontbrewing.com
Congregation Ale House: 201 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 432-2337, congregationalehouse.com
Corked: 4100 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach
Public Beer & Wine Shop: 121 W. 4th St., Long Beach, (562) 499-0415, www.publicbeerwineshop.com
Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery: 1 Pine Ave., Long Beach, (562) 308-2255, www.rockbottom.com
Saint & Second: 4828 E. 2nd St., Long Beach, (562) 433-4828, saintandsecond.com
The Stache Bar: 941 E. 4th St., Long Beach, (562) 606-2529, www.thestachebar.com
Stearns Liquor: 4360 E. Stearns St., Long Beach, (562) 597-3984, www.stearnsliquor.com