There’s hardly a craft beer more commonly found on tap in Los Angeles than Allagash White — the brew is available at hundreds of bars and restaurants throughout the Southland. But how did a Belgian white ale brewed in Portland, Me., become one of the most recognizable craft beers in Los Angeles?
The easy answer is that Allagash White is just that good. It’s a textbook example of a very unique style: the Belgian witbier (literally “white beer”). Hazy from the use of unmalted wheat, in addition to malted barley, these ales are delicately spiced with coriander and bitter orange peel, and known for a piquant yeast character.
It’s a style that’s found mainstream success with brands such as Blue Moon and Shock Top because it’s both easily approachable and rather dissimilar to mass market American light lagers.
Allagash Brewery was founded to brew a white beer, and founder Rob Tod has been obsessed with the style for two decades.
When Tod first started making Allagash White in 1995, there wasn’t much familiarity with the style.
“Back then,” Tod says, “pretty much no one anywhere was drinking Belgian-style beers.” Certainly there weren’t enough customers in Maine alone to satisfy Tod, so to sell enough beer to keep the young brewery afloat, he opened new markets across the country. By 2008, the beer was being distributed to 30 states, and Allagash couldn’t keep up with demand.
“We ended up pulling out of 12 states, but we stayed in the markets where we really felt the brand was relevant,” Tod says. “L.A. was absolutely one of those markets — I just love selling beer out here.” The Vermont native says he drinks White almost exclusively, and he’d be perfectly happy if that were the only beer he could drink for the rest of his life.
To distribute the beer in Southern California, Allagash partnered with White Warehouse, a wholesaler established in the L.A. restaurant industry with a beer portfolio full of high-end European brands and early California craft breweries such as North Coast, Anderson Valley and Lost Coast.
“Allagash got in early with their White beer,” says Kevin Day, director of marketing and operations at Wine Warehouse. “Now, it’s a monster for us.” Day says that while the focus is increasingly on local producers in the craft beer industry, “exceptions are made for Allagash, because the beer is so good.”
“When we first started selling beer out here,” Tod says, maybe a dozen years ago, “we probably only had five or 10 draft accounts. I could literally land at LAX, rent a car, and hit all the accounts in a day.”
Now the Allagash website lists more than 400 bars and restaurants serving White within 20 miles of the airport. “It’s been great to see [Los Angeles] develop. This market has been huge for us.”
The style is approachable enough for diners just dipping their toe into the craft beer offerings, but there’s enough depth and complexity of flavor to satisfy lifelong beer lovers. Witbiers are also versatile with food, and light enough to make them a good match for L.A.’s climate.
“When somebody asks us for a light beer,” Father’s Office owner San Yoon told The Times in 2007, “we steer them to a wit, because it’s real beer — wits are low in alcohol, but they’re distinctive. They have a citrus flavor, sort of like lemon verbena, and a lot of interesting little characters, all subtle.”
Father’s Office was an early outpost for craft beer, and one of the early supporters of Allagash White in Los Angeles. The brand was further boosted when MillerCoors began to push its Blue Moon brand of Belgian wits. As more drinkers discovered the style, more bars and restaurants turned toward Allagash as a craft up-sell for Blue Moon fans.
Tod built a brewery with the mission of sharing the witbier style, and the success of Allagash White has driven the brewery to become one of the 50 largest craft breweries in the country. Allagash now brews dozens of different beers, but more than 50% of its volume is dedicated to the original White.
It’s a beer that’s so prevalent on tap lists in Los Angeles, it becomes easy to pass it over for something newer or unusual. But next time you’re out and see that signature tap handle, maybe order up a pint to remember how it got to where it is now.