5 Factors That Made L.A.'s Craft Beer Scene What It Is
Photo by Bence Δ Boros on Unsplash

5 Factors That Made L.A.'s Craft Beer Scene What It Is

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The Los Angeles beer scene is young.

Compared with other West Coast cities, it's practically a baby. As recently as 2010, there were only four production breweries operating in L.A. County, and while the scene has exploded since, in 2015 the well-read food blog First We Feast proclaimed the city "Craft Beer's Sleeping Giant."

Well, consider it officially, uh, woke.

Here's a brief history of L.A. craft beer, starting with the forgotten flop that could have changed everything and running through today's Monkish moment.

The ancient failure

Craft lager, a constantly rotating menu of sausages and heavy metal? It sounds like a dozen business plans currently being floated by homebrewers hoping to go pro. But, believe it or not, Los Angeles did it 30 years ago.

Back in 1990, L.A.'s original celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck, opened a massive 25,000-square-foot brewery and beer hall called Eureka. It was, the L.A. Times reported then, full of celebrities and infamous for its odd reservation system. Eureka blared metal and served an eponymous craft lager made according to Reinheitsgebot, the 500-year-old German beer purity law; it was available either filtered or unfiltered. There was occasionally a dark lager available, too. The sausage menu went from traditional bratwurst to an oh-so-Puckian Cajun shrimp sausage.

Unfortunately, the operation closed during the 1992 L.A. riots and couldn't regain its footing. The massive space didn't pencil. Eureka fell $1 million in debt and filed for Chapter 11.

Puck's childhood friend, Mickey Kanolzer, managed the spot and was heartbroken when plans to reopen finally fell apart in 1993.

"It just hurts so bad," Kanolzer told the Times. "I've been going downhill ever since: I was making beer, now I'm making pizzas. Next thing will be hamburgers and hot dogs, and then what?"

Puck was unmoved. "I'm not going to sell my house just to make beer," he said.

The lonely sage

Los Angeles County's oldest extant brewery is Craftsman in Pasadena. Craftsman opened in 1995 and remained the only full-on production operation for 15 lonely years.

For most of that time, Craftsman operated without its own public-facing space — online searches will tell you that the production brewery is open for one minute per day but I can attest that they won't actually serve you if you show up during that minute — instead treating Highland Park Italian spot Maximiliano as its de facto taproom.

The L.A. beer scene still bears the stamp of brewer-owner Mark Jilg, a former engineer who opened his 10-barrel brewhouse the year before Stone in San Diego and Russian River in Sonoma County wine country.

Jilg is not a hophead, like most trailblazing brewers of his generation. Instead, he prefers wild ales, barrel-aged concoctions and grape-heavy beer-wine hybrids.

Jilg was putting sage in beer since long before putting sage in beer was cool.

He also gave the best explanation I've ever heard for why L.A.'s beer scene exploded when it did, after a long dormancy.

"Los Angeles is a status city, so unless it improves your status, it's not worth people's time," Jilg told Sarah Bennett, writing for online magazine First We Feast. "The influence of Hollywood here cannot be overstated."

Maybe it's coincidence, but just as rare and hard-to-get beers became a status symbol for Untappd tickers and Insta influencers, L.A. breweries have stepped to the front of the line.

Luckily, thanks to Jilg's oeuvre, the city had a long history of "weird beers" to draw on.

5 Factors That Made L.A.'s Craft Beer Scene What It Is
Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Southern accents

When El Segundo Brewery co-owner Thomas Kelley moved to town from Philadelphia and got involved in the SoCal beer scene, most of the action was in San Diego. Back when he worked at Library Alehouse in Santa Monica, Kelley and his buddies would take road trips to destinations like Pizza Port.

"At the time there were no breweries in L.A. — maybe Eagle Rock had opened?" he says.

Kelley served as beer buyer at Library Alehouse, where he modernized the list to represent where craft beer had gone in the decade since Library's 1995 opening. In 2011, he teamed up with veteran homebrewer Rob Croxall to open El Segundo.

"We'd take trips down to San Diego because at the time, there was nothing in LA, beer-wise," Kelley says. "There weren't even many beer bars. ... Taking trips down to San Diego, going to Pizza Port, going to Stone, it was so epic."

Kelley is not shy about saying that El Segundo modeled its IPA on the classic West Coast versions pioneered in San Diego.

"That's really the inspiration for El Segundo IPA — what was going on in San Diego and not having access to it in L.A.," Kelley says.

Today, the majority of craft beer sold is some variant of IPA, to the point that the vast majority of brewers will tell you it's hard to make an operation pencil without a successful IPA. The runaway popularity of El Segundo's IPA helped pave the way for L.A. breweries that pour plentiful snifters of hazy hoppies — and it started because of road trips.

Wetting the beak

When Eagle Rock Brewing opened in 2009, it billed itself as the first microbrewery to open within the city limits in 60 years. Whether that's true depends on if you count the aforementioned Eureka, but either way this humble brewpub was a big moment.

Monks renounce vow of hop chastity

It's all but forgotten now but there was a brief moment when some craft breweries reacted to the mushrooming popularity of IPAs by refusing to make them. As far as I know, every single brewery that proclaimed itself too cool for hops has since caved or closed.

Torrence's Monkish may have made the greatest pivot of all. This Belgian-influenced brewery opened with a sign proclaiming that its taproom had "No MSG, No IPA."

Now, of course, Monkish is most famous for its IPAs — a recent search of its Instagram revealed that everything posted is about the wide variety of hazies from its "IPA program."

What changed? IPA did. After years of increasingly strong and bitter West Coast IPAs, a new strain of the style developed that's hazy in color and fruity in flavor. In April 2016, Monkish followed in the footsteps of the West Coast's leaders in the style, Portland, Oregon's Great Notion, and has been rapidly selling out of crowlers since.

Monkish turned out to be the first of many local breweries to make the style central to its identity, as hazy IPAs have become the style that define this moment.

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