Walking into Mohawk Bend in Echo Park at 9 p.m. on a weekend is like stepping off the L train in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, so thick is the abstract haze of pointy black boots, yarn-net tops and high-waisted stonewashed skinny jeans.
The 10,000-square-foot bar and restaurant is a sprawling palace of chic austerity, with four seating areas hemmed in by walls of pebbled glass, plywood and red brick. An open kitchen cranks out seasonal vegan and meat dishes from separate stations, while across the room attractive young bartenders shake artisanal cocktails and serve up frothy glasses of draft beer from 72 taps.
The place — with seating for 250 — has been open for just under three weeks, but has rarely seen a day when fewer than 700 people walked through its doors. Whether that kind of traffic is sustainable remains to be seen, but owner Tony Yanow, who also owns Tony's Darts Away in Burbank, has high hopes for the future. So much so that he took a third mortgage out on his house and this fall is opening a craft brewery in Atwater Village called Golden Road Brewing.
Making money off a craft brewery is a notoriously hard proposition, so doing it in the midst of a recession with two other businesses on the line is a bold move. In fact, Yanow, who appeared on the craft beer scene less than two years ago (the main draw of both his bars is their large selection of California craft beers) is causing quite a stir in L.A.'s close-knit beer community. Some say he is building a craft beer empire, while others say the emperor has no clothes.
Yanow, who made his money by starting an investment group that bought a number of high-level Internet domains — including music.com — after the dot-com crash, professes to neither. Instead, the lanky 40-year-old Harvard Business School grad seems wholly consumed with his love of beer and his sense that the Southern California market for craft beer is ready to be cracked wide open by the right person with the right idea. That's partially why he saw fit to use his credit card to fund a good portion of his first two bars.
"We want to create a world-class L.A. craft beer, and we're building a beer infrastructure with an eye toward getting it sold in mainstream channels," says Yanow, sitting in front of his laptop on the patio of Mohawk Bend on a recent Friday afternoon. "Yes, it's ambitious, but I know from my businesses that there is a demand for it."
"Even if you have your own outlet [like a brew pub], selling enough beer to make a living is not easy," says Charles Bamforth, a professor of brewing science at UC Davis. "I am fond of telling my students that you need a good chef and a friendly bank manager."
Still, he adds that craft beer has shown huge signs of growth over the last few years, with his classes booked to capacity well into the future. When Bamforth first arrived at the school in 1999, its program was in danger of fading out.
"It is often said that one of the things that survives in a recession is beer," Bamforth says.
Further testaments to Yanow's ambition include last year's co-founding of L.A.'s first vegan beer festival (Yanow is vegan and all his restaurants have vegan options), and this year's launch of a roving pop-up craft beer garden called ColLAboration with fellow craft-beer bar owners Ryan Sweeney (Verdugo Bar, the Surly Goat), Brian Lenzo (Blue Palms Brewhouse) and Clay Harding (38° Ale House & Grill).
Recent numbers released by the U.S. Brewers Assn. support Bamforth's assessment. Dollar sales for small and independent craft brewers were up 15% during the first half of 2011, while volume of craft beer sold grew 14%, compared with 9% during the same time last year. In 2010, there were 389 breweries in planning stages nationwide; this summer that number has risen to 725. The U.S. currently has 1,790 breweries — 165 more than it had last year.
Despite these numbers, Los Angeles is "a little wasteland" when it comes to craft breweries, says Meg Gill, Yanow's partner in Golden Road. At 26 years old, Gill, a Yale grad who turned heads by getting California distribution for Oskar Blues beer, a small craft brewery based in Colorado, will be one of the youngest female brewery owners in the world.
There are more than 200 craft breweries in California, with more than 30 in San Diego County, while L.A. County has only around 10, says Gill on a recent tour of the three-warehouse complex that will house Golden Road. With her is Golden Road brewmaster, Jon Carpenter, 29, a UC Davis grad formerly of the acclaimed Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware.
"There are no breweries in Los Angeles that package in cans," she adds, pointing out a large portion of a warehouse reserved exclusively for that purpose. "Jon and I won't sleep until the beer is perfect and everybody who wants the beer in L.A. can get it."
Golden Road's flagship beer will be its Point the Way IPA, which Carpenter is intent on turning into the quintessential California IPA by cultivating a proprietary yeast strain that delivers big flavor without packing the mega-alcohol punch of traditional IPAs.
"We're in a city where most people drive everywhere," Carpenter says. "We want to go to Tony's or Verdugo or Blue Palms and have a beer or two and get back in our cars to go somewhere else."
Yanow and his team's enthusiasm has certainly gained traction among L.A.'s craft beer fans says Evan George, a beer blogger and co-founder of the popular Hot Knives blog. George says people are both excited and wary, especially because "it's hard to think of what L.A.'s definitive brewery is going to be and what beer is going to fit L.A.'s identity, when nobody knows what L.A's identity really is."
Plus Yanow is "just air-dropping in," George adds. He notes that Yanow has done in a few years what others needed more than a decade to do. "But in many ways that's beer culture 2.0, because he's thinking larger than many craft brewers have before. It'll be good for L.A. to have, but I wouldn't want to be him doing it."
Where: 2141 W. Sunset Blvd., L.A.
When: 5 to 11:30 p.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays, and Sundays; 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Mondays.
Price: Appetizers, pizzas, burgers and salads, $4 to $15; California beer, wine and spirits, $4.50 to $14.
Info: (213) 483-2337; http://www.mohawk.la