Is L.A. finally turning into a beer-making town? The Los Angeles area already hosts some of America’s best beer bars, with carefully curated lists of ever-changing taps and bottles, but almost all of those brews have been made somewhere else. We may be big on beer drinking, but when it comes to beer making, the city’s production has long been outpaced -- and outshined -- by smaller cities like San Diego.
Only recently did L.A.'s long-dormant brewery scene start to explode. In 2009, Eagle Rock Brewery became the first to open within city limits in more than 60 years, with Strand Brewing, Nibble Bit Tabby Brewery and Ladyface Alehouse opening in the two years since then.
This year, a wave of former home brewers is helping to quench the thirst for local craft beer, with several breweries and brew pubs in the works. According to the Brewers Assn., 11 of the top 50 U.S. craft breweries are in California -- in places such as Paso Robles and Petaluma as well as San Diego. But Los Angeles may finally move the meter, with home brewers inspired by the early successes of their now-pro peers.
And more and more L.A. home brewers are aiming for the big leagues. Eagle Rock Brewery co-founder Jeremy Raub regularly dispenses advice to aspiring beer pros “for the cause of good beer, and the cause of L.A. becoming a beer town.” During October’s L.A. Beer Week, 60 people crowded into the brewery’s tasting room for a panel discussion titled “So You Want to Open a Brewery in L.A.”
Raub practices what he preaches. He hired home brewer and graphic artist Thomas Lee Bakofsky to oversee the tasting room. Bakofsky’s brother Andrew recently joined Eagle Rock Brewery, where both help brew.
Now the Bakofskys are working with Ben Ling, owner of the soon-to-be-bygone east Hollywood pub Pure Luck, and Bicycle Kitchen co-founder Ben Guzman to open a brew pub. The quartet is replacing a still-undisclosed existing establishment with a beer-and-wine license and could be open within three months, serving guest beers and food during the construction process. It’s likely to be called Pilot Brewhouse, where “every beer is an experimental beer,” says Thomas Lee Bakofsky.
“There are already so many great IPAs and pale ales. If I’m going to take a full day [to make a beer], I want to make something that doesn’t exist yet, or at least a variation.”
El Segundo Brewing Co. is a coalition of six locals led by brew master Rob Croxall, who left an aerospace finance job in November to pursue a dream that dates to college. “Everyone thinks I’m crazy for leaving a good, stable job for this,” Croxall says. “I think I’d be crazy to park it there for another 20 years.”
El Segundo Brewing will soon share a Main Street warehouse with a pizza dough manufacturer, with the brewery featuring a sunken five-tap tasting room and a glass-partitioned brew house with high ceilings and room to expand.
Croxall recently completed UC Davis’ prestigious Professional Brewers Certificate Program, learning from highly regarded professors Charles Bamforth and Michael Lewis. He recently delivered kegs of pale ale to local bars and plans to segue to an “aggressively hopped” Blue House IPA, named for the color of his house.
Like many brewers, the gift of a home-brew kit motivated Julian Shrago, an aerospace engineer. His parents’ 1996 Christmas present prompted a wheat beer, which he thought came out great. Encouraged, Shrago built momentum, earned home-brewing awards and gathered valuable industry contacts.
“I really thought this was something I could possibly do for a living,” he says. Gabe and Lena Gordon, who own Beachwood BBQ in Seal Beach, agreed, asking Shrago to become their partner in Beachwood BBQ & Brewing, which will open, they hope, by late summer, in downtown Long Beach.
Shrago has brewed professionally, including an imperial stout brewed with espresso called Tovarish (Russian for “comrade”) at Pizza Port Solana Beach. At Beachwood, Shrago will arm 12 of the 36 taps with anything-goes house-made beers, including West Coast-style American beers, “unique Belgian styles” and lagers.
Part of a community
Big motivators for local craft beer growth have been camaraderie and idea exchange. “The beer community is really tight,” says Shrago, who considers San Diego’s award-winning Port Brewing brew masters Jeff Bagby and Tomme Arthur to be mentors, along with Sonoma County’s Russian River Brewing beer icon Vinnie Cilurzo, who “has always been very open with his techniques and willing to share.”
Another newcomer, Ohana Brewing Co., grew out of home brewer Karsen Luthi’s support of his 22-year-old son, Andrew. He and fellow 22-year-old Chip Baker, an employee at Stein Fillers Brewing Supplies in Long Beach, will brew on a system that previously produced seven-barrel batches for Pasadena’s vanguard Craftsman Brewing Co. Ohana’s South L.A. building once housed a mortuary, crematorium and casket warehouse, but despite the morbid past, Ohana’s slogan promises “a fresh face in beer.”
The Antelope Valley is best known for its aerospace industry and Edwards Air Force Base, but by late summer it may also be home to Kinetic Brewing, thanks to Steven “Sven” Kinsey, president of the Crown of the Valley Brewing Society and a nationally ranked beer judge. Kinetic refers to his last name, and also the area’s burgeoning solar and wind farms.
The Antelope Valley “has a combined population of over 400,000 people, and only a recently opened BJ’s exists to quench the locals’ thirst of non-BMC [Bud Miller Coors] beer,” says Kinsey. “In short, this place needs it.” The downtown Lancaster brew pub will offer four full-time beers, including a tangy German kolsch and “jet-black” American stout. He’ll also rotate in barrel-aged beers.
Taking a risk
Meanwhile, Shawn Henson, who works in construction, is the “beer designer” for a group of home brewers and is hoping to launch Henson Brewing in Glendale by September with compatriot George Olivos. “It’s kind of a tough time to be starting a new business,” says Henson, “but in my mind, the L.A. market is lacking in the number or quality of brewers.” They currently have four beers in the hopper, including a saison and Scotch ale.
For Culver City resident Kingsley Toby, making beer is no pipe dream, though that’s the name of the brewery he’s starting with fellow postproduction pros Brian Holter and Al Rundle. They’re currently shopping for a contract brewer (“they brew our recipe and take a cut”) while raising funds to open a Pipe Dream facility. “We would love to be the premiere brewery on the Westside,” says Toby, “but ultimately it comes down to the cost of operating a business there, which can be substantial.”
They got off to a bit of a rocky start in 2005, when their pale ale turned out to be a porter, “but it still tasted pretty darned good,” says Toby. They persisted and now have 10 styles in their repertoire, including TAHOBA -- Tangerine Honey Basil Ale. “We aren’t in this to get rich,” says Toby. “We are in this to make a living doing something we are passionate about and giving back to our community.”
“I’d love to see more small breweries and good beer come to L.A.,” says Eagle Rock Brewery’s Raub. “If we’re the only brewery in L.A., it wouldn’t do us any good. For us, it’s better if there’s more diversity. Mainly because people like variety, especially craft beer drinkers.”
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Track brewery progress
Beachwood BBQ & Brewing 210 E. 3rd St., Long Beach, www.beachwoodbbq.com
El Segundo Brewing Co. 140 Main St., El Segundo, on Facebook.
Henson Brewing on Facebook.
Kinetic Brewing Co. 735 W. Lancaster Blvd., Lancaster, www.kineticbrewing.com
Ohana Brewing Co. 1756 E. 23rd St., Los Angeles, https://ohanabrew.wordpress.com
Pilot Brewhouse Stay tuned.
Pipe Dream Brewing www.lonelightstudios.com/brewerypromo.html