Meet the Latinos Driving L.A.'s Craft Beer Revolution
Kevin Ogilby and Diego Benitez high-fiving in the cold room
The beer is ready for dry hopping. Diego Benitez unscrews the bar clamps that keep a massive metal lid fastened to the top of one of his brewery's handmade fermenting vessels.
As he pries up the lid's rubber lip, breaking a pressure seal that for the last week has kept the fermenting brew isolated from the air outside, Benitez talks about his years growing up in Mexico City, the son of an Italian and a Spaniard who met there and started a window installation business; how he traveled to Europe to visit his relatives every summer and loved discovering new countries and cultures; how his parents made wine in their closet and how, after he came to the United States in 1999 to attend Caltech, he couldn't help but do the same.
Winemaking soon turned into homebrewing, and last year Benitez turned his hobby into a full-time job, opening Federal Brewing (now called Progress Brewing) with fellow scientist Kevin Ogilby.
The brewery is in the sleepy, industrial enclave of South El Monte, where 85 percent of the 20,000 residents are Latino.
"Ayúdame con estos lúpulos," the Spanish-fluent Benitez says to his brewery's only employee, a limited-English speaker named Laura. Help me with these hops. Laura has returned to the brewery's production area after clearing glasses off tables and chatting in Spanish with customers in the on-site tasting room.
Together, they pour the premeasured green pellets from plastic storage containers into mesh bags, which they bind with plastic zip ties and throw into the foamy vat of almost-beer.
As he re-screws the bar clamps onto the stainless steel tank - made from sheet metal to Progress' specifications by South El Monte's cadre of stellar welders - Benitez points to another fermenting vessel nearby. It holds their newest beer, a yet-unnamed cream ale.
"Cream ales traditionally have some percentage of corn in it, usually flaked corn or corn grits," he says. "But we used locally sourced tortilla masa for this one. It tastes just like tamal."
Benitez is one of a handful of Latino brewers in Los Angeles County, a group breaking down the stereotype that American craft beer is something made by, and for, bearded white guys. And Progress is just one of the many places where Southern California's massive Hispanic population is having an impact on craft beer.
These days, the SoCal craft beer scene includes other first-generation Latino immigrants, such as Ohana Brewing Company s Erick "Riggs" Villar, who was born in Lima, Peru, and started homebrewing after switching from macro to craft beer in the early 2000s. There are also second-generation Mexican-Americans, such as Robert Cortes, a former gangbanger who learned to brew from a Lancaster cop; he'll be opening Pac City Brewing in Pacoima this month.
Then there are self-proclaimed pochos - a term for Americanized Mexicans - such as Eagle Rock head brewer Erick Garcia, a Santa Clarita-raised, half-Panamanian half-Colombian, and Robert Sanchez, Kinetic Brewing s new head brewer, who grew up as one of 11 kids in a half-white, half-Mexican home in Huntington Park.
"I think that with brewing and beer, people don't look at it so much in terms of ethnicity or color lines. They look at you as a brewer," Garcia says. "That's the thing - it's beer. Who doesn't like beer? It's something that transcends what country you came from."
While beer has the potential to be a great cultural democratizer, America's craft beer industry on the whole remains a mostly white endeavor, a fact NPR noted last year, asking, "Why aren't there more people of color in craft brewing?"
One of NPR's theories is that, while ethnic communities participate in homebrewing, their members are less likely to be able to afford taking it to a commercial scale. Another is that since the United States is where craft brewing began, and the country was founded by white people with Western traditions, people of color will inevitably have a harder time entering the ranks.
But those theories don't apply in Los Angeles, where Latinos have been an integral part of the craft beer community - as both producers and consumers - since it began gaining momentum here around five years ago. In L.A. County, where nearly half of the population is of Hispanic origin, with some families here since the state was a Spanish colony, Latinos' strong presence in the craft beer community feels absolutely natural.
"I take great pride in being one of the few Latino brewers on the national scene," Ohana's Villar says. "I would love to see more Latinos in the craft beer industry, and I think Los Angeles is a great melting pot to show how diverse the craft beer culture can be."
The Latino craft beer pioneers who have emerged so far are not only representing their heritage in a white-dominated industry. They also are helping tap into the potentially colossal buying power of L.A.'s Latino population.
According to a December 2013 beer-trends survey from Mintel, which breaks down consumer behaviors by ethnicity, Hispanics consume more alcohol than any other respondents. However, the study found, craft beer remains a small, albeit growing, segment of that intake.
Though craft beer's heightened cost is a barrier to entry, market research has shown that Hispanics would be more likely to choose craft beer if they simply knew more about the details of brewing and the different styles, making engagement and education key to wooing this relatively untapped customer base.
"Latinos are motivated and want to learn more once they taste something different, but cost is a big factor," says Roy Chavoya Jr., a Guanajuato, Mexico - born Whittier resident who started the craft beer blog Beers in Paradise in 2010. "I just give them the analogy that Corona is like carne asada, but Firestone Walker's beers are like filet mignon. What would you rather spend your money on?"
Holding a glass of the Saison Miel
Chavoya is spreading the news both through his website - which features coverage of local events, breweries and beer trends - and via street-level interactions at stores (from Ramirez in East L.A. to Liquor Mart in Whittier) that stock craft beer in the communities east of L.A.
The one tip he always gives is to not renounce craft beer just because you don't like the first one you try.
"The first American craft beer I ever had was Green Flash's West Coast IPA, and all I thought was that it tasted like a Christmas tree in a blender," Chavoya says. "My palate wasn't ready for it, and that's what a lot of Hispanics don't understand. They just reject it and that's it, they give up on craft beer. But you have to adjust your palate and be open to try new things."
If Chavoya is the missionary out in the field, Progress Brewing is the brick-and-mortar church. By embracing those who speak Spanish and encouraging all who come in to try something new, Benitez has turned his tiny, DIY operation into ground zero for conversion efforts.
Since opening among the Asian shoe stores and Mexican welder shops of South El Monte, Progress has been hand-holding the area's first-generation Latinos through the contemporary brewery concept: showing them how beers are made on-site and explaining how they can stop by the tasting room to drink some there - or get a growler to go.
Progress openly displays its bilingual love: A painted sign on its outside wall reads "Cerveza: Artesanal, Bien, Fria, Para Llevar!" But opening a business in a location where you have to create your own market is still a huge gamble. Benitez sometimes will catch guys standing in the doorway in their work clothes, afraid to come in because they are dirty from the day's labors or they have a bicycle with them. He literally pulls them inside, telling them none of that matters. "Que tipo quieres?" he'll ask.
"When I tell them we make our own beer here, they ask, 'Which one? Heineken? Corona?' And I have to explain how and why we make our own," Benitez says. "Hispanic drinkers are some of the most loyal drinkers ever. However, the fact that they're the most loyal people to a brand makes it extremely difficult to pull them off that brand.
"There was the hypothesis of, if we can turn Hispanic customers to craft beer, they will then be loyal to us. So we knew that the barrier to conversion would be high, but then once you get them, it would be a very good market to be in."
So far, the hypothesis has proved true. Some of the neighborhood's welders have become regulars and are now daily devotees of Progress' sweet 5.5 percent ABV Bronco Belgian-style pale ale. Some have even worked their way up the brewery's flavorful lineup, developing palates for the hoppier, more bitter beers, like the 8.1 percent Double IPA Cavalry.
With the city government's support (South El Monte council members stop by after meetings), Progress has become an essential part of the community. Plans for expansion include a 3,000-square-foot tasting room and a retail homebrew supply store in the city's commercial corridor.
Other breweries, such as Monrovia's Pacific Plate, which was started by a group of friends that includes several Latin Americans, are putting work into encouraging more of L.A.'s Hispanics to "toma local y toma artesenal." But breweries alone do not a beer culture make. They're working in tandem with Latino-owned bottle shops, homebrew clubs and websites to create a robust, Latin-tinged, craft beer community.
"One day my dad put me on his knee and got very serious with me, in a way I had never seen him do before," Kinetic's Sanchez recalls. "He told me, 'Son, my family came over here from Zacatecas in 1888. You might be an American, but don't ever forget where you come from.' I didn't understand what he meant at the time, but it's something that means so much to me now - I keep it with me in everything I do." And these days, that means craft beer.
Get the Squid Ink'd Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly food newsletter, which features top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips and a link to our print review.