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L.A.'s Craft Beer Revolution Has Golden State's Jason Bernstein Raising His Pint Glass 

Thursday, Mar 29 2012
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On Feb. 21, a polite yet serpentine line spilled out the doors of the Surly Goat onto Santa Monica Boulevard, as people queued up for the opportunity to sip Russian River's Pliny the Younger Triple IPA.

If successful, they would all tell the tale that they were there, and they partook. Pliny the Younger is currently the No. 1 beer in the world on BeerAdvocate, and its release every February ignites a fever among the craft beer community. In the weeks following, you often overhear: "Did you get it?" "Did you try it?" "I didn't have it this year, but had it last year." Or, more commonly from those at the end of lines, "Was it worth it?"

The "it" in question is a rich, resinous triple IPA with a gilded aroma of mango and melon and a long, clean, spicy finish, its beguiling aroma almost completely occluding the 10.5 percent alcohol content. A mere handful of kegs were delivered to Los Angeles, and every single one sold out within hours of being tapped.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - The craft beer movement has taken L.A. by storm, and it hasn't peaked yet, says Jason Bernstein.
  • PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
  • The craft beer movement has taken L.A. by storm, and it hasn't peaked yet, says Jason Bernstein.

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The craft beer community needs Pliny the Younger. It needs Black Tuesday or Dark Lord or any number of limited releases, in the same way the wine community needs the 85 DRC Romanee Conti and the Beanie Baby community needs Peanut the Royal Blue Elephant. They represent a kind of brass ring, as well as underscore tangible galvanization of a community with shared aesthetic ideals.

To the uninitiated, waiting in line two hours for a glass of strong bitter beer seems as absurd as paying $171,000 for a case of red wine, or a $4,500 stuffed blue elephant. But for those in the know, it's part and parcel of the membership itself.

Some have pointed to "extreme beer mania" as a bellwether for the craft beer revolution. Ultimately, though, these oddball rare beers are aimed at the already die-hard section of the craft-beer community. The password isn't "swordfish"; it's a bottle of Kate the Great, and its members are already demarcated — they're the folks standing in line next to you at the Surly Goat.

The heart of the revolution is somewhere else.

Los Angeles is in the middle of an evolution that isn't marked by an extension of the extreme, but rather a shift in the mean. Simply stated, we Angelenos have access to, and are drinking, better beer.

It wasn't always like that.

When I moved back home to Los Angeles from the Bay Area in 2000, I immediately realized that one of the aspects I had taken for granted up north was the entrenched beer culture. San Francisco had no special pipeline to good beer; its residents simply prioritized the stuff — in much the way that shoppers at farmers market prioritize good vegetables.

San Francisco had this kind of relationship to its beer in 2000; L.A. did not. Back then, there were a few craft beer destinations in L.A. — Father's Office, Lucky Baldwins and Stuffed Sandwich come to mind — but they constituted a kind of destination, a schlep. And if you were talking about good beer in L.A. in 2000, you were more than likely referring to something foreign, likely German or Belgian, not necessarily for elitist reasons but because these countries had tradition on their side.

Twelve years later, there has been a precipitous shift in our food environment. We Angelenos want to know the pedigree of our food, and we realize many of the world's finest ingredients are from California. Localism is now a compelling motivation.

As such, America's brewers have stepped up their game. We can't compete using terms like "tradition" and "refinement" — we don't have 500 years of brewing tradition on our side. But we do make the most dynamic and exciting beers in the world by melding classic brewing techniques with local and innovative ingredients. And the fact that your beer hasn't traveled 8,000 miles means it's fresher.

But the movement would still be fundamentally meaningless, or at least stifled, if these excellent beers went unappreciated.

American craft brewers start out financially disadvantaged (because they're usually startups built from passion) and communicatively disadvantaged (because they lack the massive marketing budgets of brewing juggernauts). What's required is a bottom-up groundswell of interest, as opposed to the top-down imposition that mass media affords. Think of a KCRW indie band versus anything on KIIS FM.

Since localism has become such an important factor in our decision making, Southern California microbreweries have become hometown heroes. Local breweries such as Craftsman, the Bruery, TAPS and Eagle Rock Brewery aren't just making some of the best beer out there; they're doing it in our own backyard.

After a steady rise for the last two decades, craft beers have seen an exponential increase in the last five years. It is tempting to invoke terms like "critical mass" and "tipping point," but I believe those terms ignore the most important influence on the recent surge in craft beer: the economy.

Since 2008, even as our economy has struggled, craft beer has become far more pervasive in Los Angeles. During these tough economic times, people aren't drinking quality beer because it's beer. They are drinking it because it's quality. Craft beer represents a kind of egalitarian connoisseurship that is rare.

If I were at a restaurant drinking a glass of wine, and I learned the best bottle on the list cost $1,000, it wouldn't really surprise me. Without grumbling about diminishing returns, I would enjoy my present glass.

But what if you were sitting next to me nursing a $3 pint of Coors Light and I said, "OK. Do you want to try one of the best beers in the world instead for $6?" and handed you a pint of Firestone Union Jack?

You'd probably agree that, if this locally brewed Firestone IPA was indeed substantially better than the Coors, the extra $3 is an economically responsible indulgence. After all, if a decent bottle of wine costs $20, that 1985 DRC Romanee Conti is 750 times more expensive. If "excellence" doesn't represent an onerous expenditure, it resonates — an argument I've used to explain both my love for Langer's pastrami and my skepticism toward IKEA furniture.

So now that great beer is being made in our town, and the average guy knows the difference between an IPA and a porter, has the craft beer movement peaked in L.A.? Not at all. The most important change taking place now is the movement of beer from the barroom to the dining room. Diners are learning how beer seamlessly pairs with food, complementing flavors and aroma.

I hate getting into the "which is better" argument when it comes to beer and wine with food, but I will say that beer has a lot more play in the interaction of body and astringency than wine, simply because wine is made from the fermentation of one component (grapes) whereas beer has a bittering component (hops) added to its fermented component (grain). As such, for dynamically flavored cuisines like Thai, Mexican and Korean, the mutable astringency of beer has an easier time locking step.

As the beer revolution continues, look for more restaurants to feature beer lists alongside their wine lists. The American craft beer movement has been associated with big, brash, bold beers, but just as unruly teenagers invariably grow into responsible adults, our craft brewers will offer subtler and more urbane beers (alongside their wild, experimental ones). We are in a golden era of development and refinement, and to that, I raise my pint glass.

Bernstein is co-owner of the Golden State, described in these pages as "an ale-intensive Fairfax gastropub" and named one of L.A. Weekly's 99 Essential Restaurants.

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