South El Monte's Federal Brewing Is L.A.'s First DIY Brewery
Sipping on a cold pint of local beer, it's hard to imagine all the money, time and effort that went into opening up the facility that created the tasty beverage. In addition to finding the right space and dealing with civic hurdles, there are cold cases to build, fermenters to buy and keg washers to procure. If you're planning to open a taproom, the financial investment becomes infinitely larger.
Many new breweries have blogged about the experience of doing certain things themselves, some have even launched Kickstarter campaigns to raise funds, but there is little getting around the fact that without at least half a million dollars, it's a struggle to start making beer.
So how did Federal Brewing in industrial South El Monte, which had its soft opening a few weeks ago, manage to get up and running for one-tenth what it costs others? Oh, just a few owners with graduate chemistry degrees, a home-designed brewhouse, a city council with the right attitude and a cadre of San Gabriel Valley's best TIG welders. No big deal.
The outside of Federal Brewing
"If we didn't build our own equipment, we wouldn't have made it," says Diego Benitez, one half of the Federal team, a sommelier and certified beer judge who has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Caltech and did post-doc work in quantum mechanics and nanotechnology (as we said, no big deal).
Self-funded and full of DIY gusto, Benitez and his fellow chemist pal, Kevin Ogilby, started the journey to make their homebrew operation a production gig four years ago by planning an attack for a hand-built brewery in an inexpensive location.
Though they both live in the Hollywood area, the duo approached every city in L.A. County that they could think of in the hopes of finding affordable space to set up. South El Monte was the most receptive -- and the cheapest. Then they went to San Diego to get some advice from other small, startup breweries.
"They all said, 'Buy the biggest chill case and buy as many fermenters as you can afford,'" Benitez says. So they did.
With designs in hand, the guys spent the last four months buying sheet metal and -- with the help of some of South El Monte's nearby welders -- turning their sophisticated 10-barrel brewhouse into beer-making reality.
Because they built everything themselves, costs were cut massively, allowing the laboratory-trained chemists to construct their ideal triple-tank fermentation system, which allows the beer to ferment, mature and condition in three separate vessels. Even with all the extras (including a homemade glycol chilling system), the entire production facility cost them only $30,000 to make, a bargain when you consider that a new 10-barrel brewery (without fermenters) can easily cost $150,000.
Federal Brewing's handmade triple-process fermentation tanks
And by purchasing panels for a chill case as well as a massive freezer door from a closed-down Vons, Federal was able to build a 400-square-foot cold room on the cheap. If purchased brand-new, the panels alone would have been $300 each. Federal paid $24, including shipping.
The resourceful brewers even repurposed their old 15-gallon home-brewing equipment to be their chemical vessels for use when cleaning the tanks.
"It's very intimidating brewing on equipment you built yourself," Benitez says. "The first time was nerve-wracking -- is it going to come out right?"
Federal's first batch, an amber ale called Wolverine, came out as planned and is currently available for pints and growlers at their tasting room, along with three other easy-drinking beers like the Guera blonde, Rio Bravo American wheat and Pioneer red ale.
Now that the major construction work is done and Federal is pouring for the masses seven days a week, Benitez and Ogilby hope their spot becomes an after-work stop, not just for those who live in the former brewery dead zone of East Los Angeles County but also for South El Monte's working-class citizens, who will get $1 off all drafts just for drinking local.
Federal Brewing: 1822 Chico Ave., South El Monte, federalbrewing.com.
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