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A Really Slow Brew

TIMES STAFF WRITER

”...And I will make it a felony to drink small beer.” Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2

To those who know their Dopple Bocks and celebrate the Cascade hop, who cherish fine malts and cheer sweet yeasts . . . well, to them, the whole thing had begun to smell less like a good brew and more like a conspiracy.

Here it was, the 1990s, and years after most of the West Coast had discovered the decidedly un-American art of flavorful beer-making. And the San Fernando Valley--which, were it a city, would be the sixth-largest in the nation--had not a single microbrewery.

The Valley did, however, have a megabrewery, that of Anheuser-Busch in Van Nuys. And from time to time--when rumors would spread that a Valley microbrewery might be opening, but never actually did--anxious connoisseurs began to wonder if the King of Beer-makers was not somehow squashing sudsy uprisings through sheer political clout.

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The Anheuser-Busch brewery, after all, is the second-most-valuable property in the Valley, after Universal CityWalk, with an assessed tax value of $279 million. It was once home to Adolphus Busch’s famous gardens. And, by the Valley’s simple, suburban, cheaper-by-the-six-pack nature, this has long been Bud country.

Now comes news sure to put beer in the belly and goodwill in the hearts of guzzlers across the Southland: The Valley has a microbrewery, Northridge’s new Country Club Brewery and Restaurant. One of its owners is the son of a veteran Anheuser-Busch brewer. And the brewmasters studied under another, retired, Anheuser-Busch meisterbrau.

“Ahhhhh,” said Dwain Anderson after a long pull on a cold--but not Bud-cold--glass of Birdee Pale Ale one recent evening. “That [glug] is [glug] good.”

“We live here in the Valley and had to go clear over the hill,” added friend Dan Diaz in a tone suggesting it might be a crime to make a beer lover drive 40 miles to a microbrewery.

The story of how the Valley--whose 1.5 million inhabitants give it a population slightly larger than San Diego’s and slightly smaller than Philadelphia’s--finally got a microbrewery goes back to the summer of 1992.

It begins with two pals named Joe and the beer tab they rang up during a single week of boating on the Colorado River.

On the way home to jobs at a Burbank title insurance company, Joe Vogel said to friend Joey Tremonti, “Jeez, how much did you spend on beer? I think we drank too much.”

After some consideration, the two settled on a total of $400, said Tremonti, 29. And then they stopped to bemoan their diminished bank accounts.

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At a microbrewery. That’s where they did the bemoaning.

The light dawned.

“Hey,” the 33-year-old Vogel offered, “we should make our own beer. That’d be cheaper.”

Indeed. And the timing was right.

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Years after the American beer-making troika of Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors ran most smaller players out of Dodge, new small brewers had begun to stage a serious counteroffensive by exploiting a market The Bigs had neglected. Although Budweiser, Miller and Coors--in their various Lite, Ice, Draft and Dry incarnations--are widely regarded as well-balanced, well-made brews, they are also viewed as beverages to be consumed ice-cold and in quantity.

What was missing was American beer that could be enjoyed--sipped and rolled about the palate, even--at a temperature that actually encouraged the flavors to emerge, over a conversation, perhaps, rather than the din of beer commercials during the football game.

(A similar niche was revealing itself in the coffee market--a void to be filled by the likes of Starbucks.)

Microbreweries, those that produce fewer than 15,000 barrels a year by the industry’s definition, began to pop up by the dozen in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco. Trendy with a capital T.

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But they were notably--painfully, beer lovers will tell you--scarce in Los Angeles.

And the first effort of the two Joes to bring one to the Valley went nowhere.

A psychology graduate of Cal State Northridge, Tremonti proposed a site near CSUN. Who, after all, drinks more beer--good beer, bad beer, atrocious beer--than college students?

But permits and permission, notoriously difficult to secure in the city of Los Angeles, become even more so when you want to serve food as well as manufacture, serve and distribute beer all from one locale. And in 1995, after two years of frustration, the two headed for Simi Valley.

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That valley got Joe Joe’s Brewing Company, which in a matter of months was winning gold medals with its ales. This Valley got squat.

The grumbling about Anheuser-Busch’s dominance began again, and grew a bit louder when, in July, three Northern California microbreweries filed suit, accusing Anheuser-Busch of encouraging wholesalers to drop boutique brews. Anheuser-Busch denies the charge and the suit is awaiting a hearing.

(Those less prone to conspiracy theories suggest Los Angeles’ dearth of microbreweries might have more to do with its lack of tight-knit, gather-at-the-bar, the gang-down-at-Cheers neighborhoods than any nefarious antitrust alliances.)

But for beer drinkers who live north of the Santa Monicas and south of the Santa Susanas, a bit of serendipity took place just 10 days after Joe Joe’s opened in Simi Valley.

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It ran out of beer.

And customers had to wait two weeks for the next batch to ferment.

The two Joes worked out such glitches over the next couple of years, but never stopped dreaming of a bigger shop, with more vats, more food, and more customers.

So, earlier this month, they opened the Country Club Brewery and Restaurant in Northridge. Through a series of 300-gallon stainless steel vats placed decoratively, temptingly, behind glass, they can whip up 1,800 gallons of Hip Hop Wheat, Stoney Mountain Stout, Red Madness, and a host of others every 12 days or so.

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Kegs of the stuff should be heading to local distributors within the week, the Joes say, bottles in about six months.

If you ask the experts, it’s a risky time to be selling your homes, boats and motorcycles to invest in beer, as did the two Joes. Beer sales nationally have been flatter than stale ale for a decade, with the Big Three locked in a price-slashing brawl. And even the once-rocketing specialty-brew industry is experiencing a serious leveling off. For once, a trend surfaced late in the San Fernando Valley, after the big wave had already passed in places like Yakima.

The way to get into the market, suggested Roy Burry, a beverage analyst with the New York investment firm CIBC Oppenheimer, is to focus on a limited market and lure local customers with good beer and good food.

Well, isn’t that handy, Vogel said, raving about the pork chop his chef has just served him. “Great food,” he insisted. “Great beer.”

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And just one problem.

Six years after the beer-guzzling river trip that sent the two on their quest for better, cheaper suds, Joey Tremonti’s beer palate is about exhausted. He’s malted out.

“When I go out,” he confessed, “I sometimes drink wine.”


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