Brian Lenzo of Blue Palms Brewhouse on Winning the Craft Beer Battle
Owner Brian Lenzo outside Blue Palms' golden front door
In the six years since Blue Palms Brewhouse opened on Hollywood Blvd., just east of the tourist-trap chaos at Highland Ave., much of the neighborhood has changed. The Music Box next door is now called The Fonda Theatre. Bars and clubs along the stretch have come and gone with the seasons. And the empty lots across the street became land for a towering loft complex that will soon sell units at some of the highest costs in the area.
But while Hollywood is a part of town that's always evolving, Blue Palms has remained a boozy constant — one of L.A.'s original craft beer bars that, half a dozen years into its reign, continues to be a destination for locals, tourists and beer geeks alike.
Sure, Blue Palms' draft list and food offerings are constantly shifting, but some things remain the same: friendly bartenders, an inviting atmosphere, and chalkboards high up on the bar's south wall that define some basic beer terms for newcomers. Because though it is at once a place for hanging before a concert or while canvassing the Walk of Fame right outside, Blue Palms is also a kind of ad hoc beer school, a role it was all but required to take on when it started pouring palate-wrecking and unconventional craft beers in L.A. six years ago.
As the legendary bar and restaurant readies for its annual epic anniversary party on August 10 (rare beers from around the country!), we caught up with owner and L.A. craft beer forefather Brian Lenzo to talk about the growth of L.A. beer, and the good old days when kegs were brought back from San Diego in his Chrysler 300.
Blue Palms' interior including its famous projected draft list
Squid Ink: How did you first get involved with craft beer and come to open Blue Palms?
Brian Lenzo: I pretty much started out in restaurants when I was 14, but then I went into the Marine Corps, and after I got out I started working for a corporate restaurant called J Alexander's in Nashville. I learned a lot from them and had a few mentors there; I guess they saw something in me, and so they spent a lot of time teaching me a lot of stuff. I was doing a lot of acting and commercials out in Nashville, so then I moved to L.A. to live the big dream.
I did pretty well at first and got some parts, but then reality TV took off and there was the writers strike — so my dad told me I had to get a Plan B. I started working at restaurants again and got a job at Blue Palms, which was in West Hollywood at the time, and then it transferred to here and I took it over. That's where I met Gabe Gordon, who now owns Beachwood BBQ and Beachwood Brewing. I ran the Music Box for three or four years, then left the theatre to learn some more about how to build a restaurant. That's when Gabe and I opened Royal Clayton's, in downtown, which is where Little Bear is now.
SI: When did craft beer come into the picture?
BL: When we were building Royal Clayton's, there were a lot of things going on at the time — like tapas was popular — and we noticed that everything in L.A. becomes a fad. But we were trying to think of what we could do with this place downtown to make it unique and to make people want to take the trip to go have a meal on 7th Street — which some people called tent city, back in the day.
Then these guys came in from a distributor called Wine Warehouse; they bought all these crazy beers that we started tasting along with our wine. We just said, “Holy cow.” It hit us instantly how awesome it was, the idea of pairing beer with the food we were doing. We saw that we could sell it like wine and present the bottle and pour it at the table and use proper glassware, so we dove into it headfirst. Our partner didn't see the vision, though, so we left and Gabe started Beachwood and I started Blue Palms and she folded and here we are both kicking ass.
SI: What was L.A.'s craft beer scene like when you opened Blue Palms?
BL: Six years ago, there wasn't really any craft beer here and the craft beer that was here was only at Father's Office out in Santa Monica. But they never rotated handles, so we came in to really spice it up and bring in good beers. Back then, Stone didn't really deliver — they'd only come to L.A. once a month, so I would drive to San Diego and San Francisco once a month. I had a Chrysler 300 that I could fill 11 kegs in, so I would fill it up with beer and drive it back. That started opening up the market and made distributors realize that people in L.A. are picking up beer.
It also made other people want to open spots like ours, so you would see people coming in, stealing our menus and getting ideas. Pretty soon, you started seeing other places opening up, which is great. That's the biggest reward in your career is to see other people picking up on what you're doing. We just wanted to work with them and make sure they're pouring craft beer correctly, and representing craft beer the right way, so the bubble doesn't burst again. Our job was really to step up and be the forefathers and promote craft beer the way it should be.
SI: Did you realize the responsibility you'd have to educate?
BL: A lot of it came organically. Any time you have a passion for something, you care about the greater good of it. I came from the Midwest, so I'm a competitive person, but I also understood the sensitivity of what craft beer was at the time, and the only way we were going to get as good as San Francisco and San Diego was to really bind together. We knew we wanted to keep our vision alive and have more people pouring craft beer. Now you see high-end places like Lucques and A.O.C. taking Miller off tap and putting local Craftsman beer or Firestone on tap instead. That told me that we were winning the battle.
SI: You've been in Hollywood for six years now, which is a long time for a business in that area. Why do you think you've lasted for so long?
BL: You never get comfortable. The one thing about Blue Palms is that our mission and our goal is still the same [as it was six years ago] and the values that we have are the same, but we've changed our menu, changed our program and developed new things to keep the customer attracted to us. A lot of it starts with the owner and the managers; it takes them to keep the passion alive and motivate others to learn more and get better. The other thing is that I'm from the Midwest, and we have that value of being nice to people. I think in L.A. it goes a long way when you treat someone with respect and just say “Hi” to someone when they walk in.
SI: Do you find that you're a place of beer discovery for some people?
BL: Yeah, of course. I find that some people are still overwhelmed that we rotate our taps, even though it's been going on for a while. It gives them something to do each week. They're not just going to go drink; they're going to learn something, and that excites them.
SI: Every year you've done a massive anniversary party. Why did you start celebrating your birthdays this way? How has it grown from year to year?
BL: The first one was just indoors in the lobby of the Music Box and we were just trying to do something to give back to the people who supported us for that first year. We got some killer beers — Alpine gave us a few kegs — which was incredible to get even back then. The support was just overwhelming. So the second year, we decided to take this outside and see if we can make it a real beer garden.
We extended it and did a pig roast that year and it just took off. Every year it grew as people grew to respect us more and realize we're trying to do the best for craft beer. It was kind of a thank-you back to our customers. This year, we have people coming in from Georgia, Las Vegas and Pennsylvania. They told me that they wait every year for this; as soon as we announce it, they buy their plane tickets. To me that's unbelievable.
SI: Is having visitors like that for your party a testament to the growth of the beer scene in L.A.?
BL: Absolutely. It means that all of us working together all those years instead of fighting has worked. From me and Tony [Yanow, of Mohawk Bend, Tony's Darts Away, Golden Road Brewing] and Ryan [Sweeney] from Verdugo Bar and Clay [Harding] from 38 Degrees. We're four competing bar owners and you'd think we'd fight about who gets the best beer. But instead of competing, we work together. And I think, typical of L.A., people seem to follow stuff. So when you see four of the main guys in craft beer in Los Angeles working together, it makes other people want to follow that same thing, and they start working together. Then, you become a nucleus and L.A. becomes a real hub for great craft beer. And now people are choosing to come to L.A. — and we love it.
SI: What are you doing differently this year from other anniversary parties?
BL: We always source out the craziest specialty beers from Russian River, Lost Abbey, Alpine and everybody. Some of the beers we've saved for two or three years, others are custom kegs — Russian River is making us a one-off funky beer. I always travel around to source specialty and rare beers for our customers, but this year is different because we're having a core beer tent. Everyone wants those crazy beers, but they seem to forget that what makes breweries able to produce these specialty beers is the core beers.
Sometimes we forget about it and take for granted how great Firestone DBA is or Big Eye, from Ballast Point. So we want to give unlimited pours for those and help people remember. The only way we can get better in L.A., and someday up to the level of San Diego and San Francisco, is to keep training and developing peoples' palates and getting people excited about the market of craft beer. There are 33 million people in L.A. and how many of them even know what craft beer is?
SI: There are rumors about your new brewery project in Downtown L.A. What are you allowed to say about it right now?
BL: We're still finalizing all the details, but I can say that we are in construction to build a brewery in downtown. It's the Blue Palms team and the 213 Group coming together, and building a really cool new addition to the breweries in L.A. We already got the location, and we've started the process on it, so it's definitely coming. I'd say toward the end of this year, we should be running and operating. And in the next month or two, we'll start giving more information out to the public.
SI: How is the brewery an extension of what you've been doing with Blue Palms for the last six years?
BL: It's a natural progression. The craft beer industry is the one I've chosen for my career, and it's always a personal goal to learn more. I know the beer side from a bar perspective, but understanding from the side of a brewery will be new for me. And also I feel like I've been one of the forefathers of bringing craft beer to L.A. bar-wise, but now I want to be a part of producing that product. I want to make something that people know, this is a Los Angeles beer and it's made in L.A. I'm excited about having that opportunity to make a beer that's all Los Angeles.
Blue Palms' 6th Anniversary Party, 6124 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-464-2337. August 10, 12 -5 p.m., $65.
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