THE best glass of beer I've ever had was a golden ale that the barman poured by slowly pumping a long wooden handle, drawing the beer up by vacuum from a keg beneath the bar. Fresh in the glass, the ale boiled with a creamy turbulence that after a few moments resolved itself into a snowy head. It was barely cool. Its carbonation was hardly noticeable, but its flavors danced on my tongue and lingered after I'd swallowed. With each mouthful I took, the head left another lacy ring on the inside of the glass.
This sort of experience will turn a person into a lifelong seeker of great draft beers and the establishments that treat them as an art and passion. Despite Los Angeles' reputation as a bit of a backwater when it comes to fine beer, things have been on the upswing recently, and plenty of such places exist here. Identifying them, however, requires a certain amount of sleuthing.
L.A. establishments serious about good draft range from suburban chain brew pubs to blue-collar bars, from mannered Westside taverns to kitschy ethnic-themed joints. They feature on tap frolicsome hefeweizens, rich ales, chewy porters, satiny stouts and compelling beers from Belgium, Germany and England. A few places even offer the aficionado's Holy Grail -- cask-conditioned ale, the ultra-smooth, naturally carbonated beer that's served with a simple hand pump (like the golden ale of my fond memory, which I drank some years ago in a Kalamazoo, Mich., brew pub).
If one local establishment best exemplifies the ethos and Eros of draft beer, it is probably Lucky Baldwin's pub in Pasadena. Nothing so quickens the pulse of a beer lover as happening on a place that has a rich, aromatic Belgian ale on draft, and Lucky Baldwin's had 38 of them the last time I was there.
Cramped and low-ceilinged, Lucky Baldwin's has a chummy, thrown-together feel, having been fashioned seven years ago from a space that formerly housed a bakery and a hairdresser. It has 58 taps, and in addition to its Belgians, it offers a score of draft beers from England and American microbreweries.
"We don't mind changing our lineup three times in the course of a single week," says co-owner David Farnworth. "If I find an interesting keg, I put it on."
Ask for a sip
Such an array of unfamiliar beers can be bewildering. Fortunately, Lucky Baldwin's bartenders, like those at other serious beer establishments, eagerly provide guidance, based on a customer's general preferences -- and even offer free small samples.
Beer cognoscenti from as far away as Boston fly in for Lucky Baldwin's special events, such as its Barley Wine Festival, April 5 through 13. The pub will have on tap 35 of the exceptionally rich, complex and strong brews, whose alcohol content can run to 10% and higher. Included will be six vintages of benignly monstrous Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale.
Lucky Baldwin's patrons run the gamut from beer-savvy Brit ex-pats to youthful Old Town revelers, some of whom, no doubt weaned on Bud Light, look positively stunned after they've swallowed their first mouthful of Leffe Brune, a potent Belgian.
No one kind of establishment, however, has a monopoly on good draft beer. An altogether different crowd and atmosphere thrives at the Santa Monica pub Father's Office ("Give me something brown and earthy," one well-tailored young woman with a cartoon voice commanded the bartender on a recent night). By 7 in the evening, late-harvest yuppies are raising such a din that conversation, much less beer contemplation, can be a challenge.
In Santa Monica, only the sunny Library Alehouse with its extraordinary lineup of 29 fine drafts, rivals Father's Office, which is one of the older local citadels of fine beer appreciation. Its 36 draft beers are expertly selected, and include cult favorite Arrogant Bastard Ale from Stone Brewing Co. of San Marcos.
As is true of every good brew establishment, the bartenders at Father's Office know how to draw a beer. They let it form a foamy head that releases some of the carbonation. Too much gets in the way of a beer's flavor (which is why drinking from a bottle is a bad idea). Pouring with a head also allows flavors and aromas to blossom in the glass. A good bartender pours off excess foam to present a customer with a full measure, topped by an inch of the white stuff.
Another crucial factor is temperature. Excessive cold robs good beers of their rich malty sweetness and offsetting hops bitterness. A glass that feels like a giant icicle in your hand is a sure tip-off the beer's way too cold.
Unfortunately, over-chilling beer and serving it in frozen glasses is as American as the electoral college. Ideally, different styles of beers should be kept at different temperatures. Sprightly wheat beers, for example, are better cooler than chewy porters. Ensuring proper differences in temperature, however, means maintaining multiple refrigeration units, an impracticality few establishments are willing to embrace.
Most of the better beer bars cheat upward a little on the ingrained American expectation of "ice-cold beer." None, however, dares keep its draft beers warmer than in the low 40s. Phil Elwell, proprietor of the estimable Ye Olde King's Head Pub in Santa Monica, acknowledges that Guinness stout and Boddington's Pale Ale "should be served at around 54 degrees, but I keep them at 41 because, you start serving it at 54, in the summer especially, and people here throw it back at you," he says.
Venerable Joe Jost's Tavern in Long Beach caters completely to the American predilection for cold. Its draft beers are frigid and, for good measure, served in hefty, round frosted glasses (customers may request an unchilled glass).
Nonetheless Joe's jovial, blue-collar beer culture (not to mention the idiosyncratic "special" sausage sandwiches and warm, in-the-shell peanuts) warms even the most finicky beer lover. Besides, a discerning customer is free to let his fishbowl of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale warm a bit -- five minutes ought to make a difference -- before drinking it to uncover its complex flavors.
Similarly, at the German-themed Red Lion Tavern in Silver Lake, the eight German beers on draft are kept at a uniform 32 degrees, but the ambience and the quality of the beers make up for the cold. There's a pleasant upstairs outdoor patio and bar, and waitresses in costumey dirndls (one such young server, when a customer complained about the poor wine selection, cheerily replied, "You're in a beer garden, bub"). Warming a glass of excellent Weltenburger Klosterbrau dark with one's hands seems a small price to pay.
It's L.A.'s round
The American craft brewing movement of the last two decades failed to thrive in Los Angeles to the extent it did in, say the Pacific Northwest, where it largely began. Various theories exist as to why. One is that colder climates are more conducive to the enjoyment of rich, full-flavored beers. Another is that many of the local microbreweries and brew pubs that sprang up briefly in the late 1980s and 1990s were more about image than substance (how could this have happened in L.A.?). Although Los Angeles is regaining its feet in this regard, it still lags behind Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area and even San Diego. A case in point is the fact only two local establishments I know of offer cask-conditioned ale, also known as "real ale," on a regular basis.
With the vast majority of beers, carbonation is achieved by injecting carbon dioxide gas. With cask-conditioned ale, carbonation is achieved by a natural secondary fermentation in kegs called firkins. The process is identical to the methode champenoise employed by makers of Champagne. It results in beer that has the most delicate and finely integrated carbonation possible.
At BJ's Restaurant & Brewery in Woodland Hills, a cavernous chain brew pub, head brewer David Mathis offers a new firkin of cask-conditioned ale every other week. On Tuesday, a finished firkin is readied by having most of its carbonation gradually released. Then, on that Thursday, at 5 p.m. sharp, the keg is tapped. The beer is served at a flavor-enhancing 55 degrees, on a simple vacuum hand pump called a beer engine, instead of CO2-propelled draft system -- exactly as in traditional pubs in England. The result is a glass of beer of exceptional smoothness, just a hint of carbonation and maximum flavor.
Generally, cask-conditioned beer should be consumed over a couple of days, because air oxidizes beer remaining in the firkin. This risk of spoilage, along with the intricacies of cellaring and preparation, and American drinkers' unfamiliarity with cask-conditioned beers, are disincentives for bars to carry them. A number of area establishments have tried, but given up.
"For most bar owners, just keeping their conventional draft beers proper is almost asking too much, much less asking them to baby-sit an individual cask," says Mark Jilg, proprietor of Pasadena's Craftsman Brewery, an occasional maker of real ale.
Besides BJ's, the only other L.A.-area establishment that regularly features cask-conditioned beer is the Rock Bottom Brewery in Long Beach. A few others -- Lucky Baldwin's and the Stuffed Sandwich in San Gabriel, for example -- carry it on special occasions.
I tried cask-conditioned pale ales at BJ's and Rock Bottom recently and preferred BJ's, which was somewhat richer. Here's hoping other local establishments will get in the game too.
Where they draw the best drafts
Some Southland establishments where draft beer is a passion:
* BJ's Restaurant & Brewery, 6424 Canoga Ave., Woodland Hills
* Crown City Brewery, 300 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena
* Matt Denny's Alehouse, 145 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia
* Father's Office, 1018 Montana Ave., Santa Monica
* Joe Jost's Tavern, 2803 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach
* Library Alehouse, 2911 Main St., Santa Monica
* Lucky Baldwin's English Pub & Cafe, 17 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena
* Naja's Place, 154 International Boardwalk, Redondo Beach
* Red Lion Tavern, 2366 Glendale Blvd., Silver Lake
* Rock Bottom Brewery, 1 Pine Ave., Long Beach
* The Stuffed Sandwich, 1145 E. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel
* Ye Olde King's Head Pub, 116 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica