ON a recent Friday night, three collegiate-looking young men strode into the 3rd Stop, a beer and wine bar near the Beverly Center. The first one to the bar was sure of what he wanted.
"Give me a Blue Moon," he told the bartender, referring to the citrus-tinged wheat beer from the Coors Brewing Co.
When he was politely informed that the 3rd Stop didn't carry Blue Moon, he stared blankly at the 30 or so tap handles before him. Staring back was an assortment of beers that will likely never be advertised during an NFL game: Craftsman, Allagash, Green Flash, Pizza Port and Stone Brewing, among others.
The bartender suggested a Craftsman 1903, a beer that pours honey gold with a fluffy, inch-thick white head. A bit of corn, and maybe some nuttiness, comes through in the light, slightly creamy beer. The young man accepted the bartender's suggestion, and before he even set the glass down, he declared, "I'll take two more."
What this patron likely didn't realize is that Craftsman 1903 is brewed here in Los Angeles County -- its kegs often hand-delivered by the company's 46-year-old founder, Mark Jilg. Craftsman is at the forefront of a long-overdue microbrewing renaissance in Los Angeles, where beer appreciation has long played second-class citizen to the region's wine culture. More bars and restaurants than ever are forgoing industrialized suds in favor of artisanal -- read: richer, less fizzy -- beer.
Craftsman, a 13-year-old microbrewery situated in a business park in Pasadena, has doubled its output in the last year alone -- all from its nondescript headquarters in a mini-maze of one-story edifices. There, marked by a beer keg and a 1946 Studebaker truck, operates the three-employee company that hopes to capitalize on a newfound beer awareness in Los Angeles, a city long stereotyped as a beer wasteland overrun by the "big three" -- Anheuser-Busch, the Coors Brewing Co. and the Miller Brewing Co. Angelenos pride themselves on being ahead of the curve, yet the microbrew explosion of the last 15 to 20 years was a trend that seemingly passed by L.A.
"There was a big pop in the '80s with microbrewers," says Sang Yoon, who presides over Santa's Monica's Father's Office. "Then there was a lot of consolidation, and a lot of people failed, and there wasn't enough product in L.A. for people to build a business around. The trend came and left L.A. before it became a restaurant or bar trend here, even as places in the Pacific Northwest were doing fine. It didn't stick here."
As to why, no one has a definitive answer, but everyone has a theory.
"It just seems like L.A. is a big city full of longtime tourists," says Chris Patterson, who runs downtown's Spring Street Smoke House, a barbecue joint currently showcasing the work of Torrance-based Angel City Brewery. "Like any tourist, you stick with what you know."
Or perhaps this trend-obsessed city simply bought into Madison Avenue's image of beer. Better to stick with wine -- a beverage marketed for the discerning palate.
"Someone needs to do a sophisticated beer movie, like a 'Sideways' for beer," says Christian Frizzell, who co-owns downtown's Redwood Bar and Grill, which stocks Craftsman. "Then L.A. will get beer."
L.A. always had a sprinkling of designated beer emporiums, such as Father's Office or Pasadena's Lucky Baldwin's, but it's becoming increasingly common for bars and restaurants to embrace the work of Craftsman and other top California microbreweries. Newcomers such as the York in Highland Park or Beachwood BBQ in Seal Beach, as well as celebrated eateries like the Hungry Cat in Hollywood, trade as much in hipster cool as they do distinct flavors. But perhaps the surest sign that Craftsman has arrived -- and indeed, craft beer in L.A. -- is the fact that Jilg's beers are now on tap at SoCal offerings from the Hillstone Restaurant Group, including Houston's and Gulf Stream.
"Right now, in the L.A. scene, there are a bunch of places that are starting to address the whole spectrum of what beer is," Jilg says. "It really is the tipping point, where decision makers -- restaurant owners and bar managers -- are realizing that beer is more than the big three."
And craft beer is growing around the country. Denver-based nonprofit the Brewers Assn. reports that sales of craft beer were up 12% in 2006. The trade group has craft beer representing about a 3.5% share of the overall beer market, up from 3.2% at the end of 2006.
Those numbers jibe with trends the larger American brewers are seeing. Anheuser-Busch's vice president of import, craft and specialty beers Andy Goeler says craft beer might even have a slightly higher percentage of the overall U.S. beer market, putting the number above 4%. "We're starting to see the urban areas, and L.A. being one of the big ones, where the craft brands are really taking hold," Goeler says.
Most urban areas are already associated with a brewery. San Francisco is home to Anchor Steam, San Diego boasts the presence of Stone Brewing, Chicago is linked with Goose Island and New Yorkers raise a pint from Brooklyn Brewery.
"Los Angeles has the Father's Office," says Greg Koch, chief executive of Escondido-based Stone Brewing.
Gabriel Gordon, who recently opened Beachwood BBQ, used to live down the street from Father's Office. "You mention a bar because L.A. totally lacks in breweries," he says. "San Diego has dozens of good breweries, and six to eight that are phenomenal, world-class breweries, like Stone, Pizza Port, AleSmith and Green Flash."
Not counting stand-alone brew pubs, L.A. has three -- Craftsman, Angel City and fledgling Skyscraper Brewing.
Developing a taste
There are many theories behind L.A.'s dearth of breweries. "I always thought it had something to do with the weather," Angel City founder Michael Bowe says. "Los Angeles is a very warm, temper place, and if you go to Portland and Denver, those places are cold, and big beers work better."
Others, like Stone's Koch, cite business reasons. Before Stone became the largest microbrewery in Southern California, Koch was an Angeleno, even crediting defunct downtown rock club Al's Bar with inspiring Stone, since it was one of the few spots that had Anchor Steam on tap.
When craft breweries began popping up around the country in the late '80s, L.A. was no different. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck even got into the microbrewery game, investing in brewery/restaurant concept Eureka in 1990. It closed two years later, more than $1 million in debt, The Times reported.
Brewers like Jilg believe it forever branded L.A. as a non-beer city. After all, if Puck couldn't sell craft beer in L.A., who could?
"One failure discourages five or six start-ups," Jilg says.
It may sound as if it's oversimplifying L.A. beer culture to lay the blame on one notable bust, but Koch assures it isn't. Despite opening his brewery outside of San Diego, Stone brought some L.A. baggage down south.
"We were turned down early by three sports bars," Koch says. "They had Eureka, and it failed. They said, 'I don't want to deal with you guys again.' We were all lumped together, as if Stone Brewing as going to follow the path of Eureka. It really is amazing what an unrelated company can do to you with their failure."
Yet even Stone, a brewery known for aggressive, bitter beers that can be a bit of an acquired taste, can't deny that L.A. is in the midst of a craft beer renaissance. In the past 14 months, Stone has seen its account tally in L.A. rocket from 17 to more than 70.
Non-California microbrewers are also jumping in. New Belgium has been distributing its popular Fat Tire in San Francisco for nearly four years, two years before it entered L.A. Says company spokesman Bryan Simpson: "L.A. was a few years behind the Bay Area, as far as having indigenous brewers raising awareness. It's interesting, so many trends come out of L.A., so you'd it would have gone the other direction."
The importance of Father's Office cannot can't be overstated. When Yoon purchased the bar from Lou Moench in 2000, he kept Moench's dedication to craft beer, and created a world-renowned burger, turning a dive beer-bar into a fashionable destination.
That influence can be seen in the likes of the 3rd Stop, the Village Idiot, Lucky Devils and the York, among others, and Yoon will soon open a second, bigger edition in Culver City.
"It took a place like Father's Office to do beer right, to inspire the closet beer fanatics to go to a bar and be indignant that they don't have craft beer," Jilg says.
Looking back on when he purchased Father's Office in the late '80s, Moench, now a bartender at Truxton's American Bistro, says embracing craft beer came with a cost. "When I stopped selling Bud and put Widmer Hefeweizen on that tap handle, I got a reaction," Moench says. "Every neighborhood Joe who wanted a cheap pitcher of beer was just about crapping their pants. I had to educate people."
In his new space, Yoon will offer more wine. But the goal is to put beer on an equal level with a drink Angelenos have long embraced.
"Wine paved the way here," Yoon says. "The success of wine has opened the door for craft beer, as people now have a basic understanding of wine they didn't have 20 years ago. People are realizing that beer can taste like peaches, or beer can taste like a coffee, or beer can taste like a chocolate milkshake. It's a far broader palate than wine. It's like suddenly being handed a big box of crayons."
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