A lot has changed since Will Shelton entered the craft beer game along with his brothers in the mid-1990s, importing bottles from a little-known Belgian brewery called Cantillon to the East Coast.
Cantillon specializes in traditional sour ales, made with aged hops and wild yeast through a unique process that has remained unchanged for more than a century. The resulting beer is tart and complex with nuance beyond anything achievable in wine. And, even though Will is no longer involved, the Shelton Brothers remains one of the most important importers of quixotic European beers to this day.
“We started importing Cantillon when no one would buy it. They said it was too sour and too acidic back then,” Shelton says from inside the barrelhouse at downtown L.A.’s Concrete Jungle Brewing Project, his latest adventure in craft beer. “And now we’re brewing in the same ballpark here and people are saying it’s not sour enough. But it doesn’t have to be acidic to be sour. People confuse complexity with flavor.”
Since officially leaving the family import business in 2013, Shelton has turned his attention toward brewing, co-founding now-defunct projects in Massachusetts and, more recently, the Bay Area.
The goal with all of them has been to push back against the extreme beer trends by making the kinds of lighter, more drinkable beer styles he first discovered in Germany and Belgium. (“I love everything about drinking except the hangovers,” he says. “I’m old, so my hangovers last for days.”)
At Concrete Jungle, Shelton is taking a slightly different approach, using his decades of industry knowledge and love of balanced flavors not to force traditional small beers onto L.A. drinkers but to strike a balance between that and the anything-goes creativity of the region’s young, enthusiastic homebrew scene.
To do this, he’s teamed up with Erik Santos, a homebrewer and San Fernando Valley–based beer buyer (formerly of Buzz Wine Beer Shop) who acts as Concrete Jungle’s idea man, cellarman and hype man. The two represent a ying and yang of today’s craft beer scene, a fact reflected in their innovation process.
As they both tell it, Santos will come to Shelton with a suggestion for a new beer, usually something in line with the latest gratuitously flavored beer trends, like a hazy New England IPA or a rum barrel–aged coconut stout. Shelton will then dig through the giant reference bank of beers in his head and either veto it or help dial it in, exercising what he sees as the key word missing from today’s extreme beers: restraint.
“Our beers have balance and restraint, but restraint is the big thing,” he says. “Harmony is lost in a lot of beers these days. Lots of beers are either one-dimensional or are multidimensional but the flavors clash and compete.”
The result is an opening lineup that ranges from a clean and crisp unfiltered German lager to fruited sour beers to bourbon barrel–aged stouts to custom-blended wild ales. A first round of kegs and bottles (try the Pretty Vacant, Hello Cruel World and L.A. Calling) is available in select specialty stores and bars as of last week.
At a tasting event at the brewery earlier this month (it isn’t usually open to the public but hopes to pull more permits for one-off events), Shelton and Santos showed off other fruits of their collaborative relationship, such as an ever-changing, white wine barrel–aged sour called Project DTLA and Joe Friday Code 710, an unfiltered IPA spiked with high-potency CBD oil (the “lifted” addition was Shelton’s idea). Concrete Jungle hints at what’s possible when the old-guard beer industry meshes with new-school ideas about what beer can taste like.
“The best thing about this brewery is that we have a historian driving it,” says brewery partner Joseph Tchan, who met Shelton in the Bay Area a few years ago and convinced him to open a brewery in L.A. “Every time we discuss a beer or taste a new one, he’s diving into a mental archive that can’t be compared. L.A. needs something like this to help drive innovation and expand people’s perception of beer.”