For the last year, Angel City Brewery has been one of modern craft beer's grandest experiments. In addition to purchasing, moving around and breathing new life into one of the Southland's oldest beer brands, Angel City's current owner Alan Newman also used Los Angeles burgeoning craft beer market to test one of his long-held hypotheses: If you focus on building a local brewery, the community will embrace it.
Newman co-founded Vermont's Magic Hat Brewing Company in 1994, and though his Burlington baby quickly grew into a national powerhouse (eventually becoming the 9th largest brewery in the country), the East Coast entrepreneur always understood beer's potential to create and reflect its community.
Since starting the Boston Beer Company-backed "brewing initiative" Alchemy & Science and re-launching its first project, Angel City, as Downtown L.A.'s only brewery last May, its Art Deco-themed public house has become a neighborhood hub where bands rock out, cornhole is played and monthly cleanups meet to take on the Arts District's wayward litter.
As the new Angel City's first anniversary approaches - it will be celebrated Saturday with the second annual Heritage Arts & Music Festival - we caught up with Newman at his hometown of Burlington to reflect on the last year of beer, ups and downs at the local brewery that L.A. built.
SI: Now that Angel City has been open a year, how much are you involved in the day-to-day?
Alan Newman: I try to stay out of the day to day as much as I can. We have a really good group of people there who are passionate and enthusiastic. I try to keep them aimed, though. I have a philosophy of what a local brewery should be like and so I make sure they stay on target, but by and large, I try to stay out of the day-to-day. I'm still involved in the big-decision issues, but I try to leave the daily management to the people who are there - the ones on the ground and whose job it is to make it a great local brewery.
When we bought the Angel City business, I moved out there and I lived in L.A. for nine months, pretty much full time, while I was hiring staff and getting us moving in the direction that you now see us doing. But as time has gone on, we've brought in good people to manage it. So as we've built the management staff, I continue to take a step back.
SI: What was something that happened in Angel City's first year that you weren't expecting when you first opened?
AN: I may not have known we were going to be doing Sunday morning yoga classes. I may not known that we were going to do these monthly neighborhood clean-ups. But I knew we were going to be involved in the community and we were going to find ways to use our facility and use our resources to help be an integral part of the community. That was my message: let's find the things that this community wants from its local brewery and supply them.
When they first told me people wanted to do yoga, I thought they were crazy, but clearly I was wrong, which is the reason why I like to leave those decisions to the local staff. They live there and they're part of the community, so they're much more in tune with the specifics. So I drive the philisosophy, but how that philosophy gets translated, more and more has to do with the people there.
SI: What is that philosophy?
AN: It's shockingly simple. I've had this philosophy for thirty, forty years now and every business I've done has the same philosophy: find your community of customers, find ways of supporting those communities and then the community will give back that support to what they love. In L.A. it's really about local Arts District community. We try to represent what's going on - the Renaissance in the new downtown and in the Arts District - through the activities we do, through the beers we make and through almost every action we think of.
SI: In what other ways do you think Angel City reflects the community?
AN: One thing I find interesting is that we are attracting. There is a belief in the craft beer world that craft beer serves white middle class Americans and what I've always believe is that's garbage. And you come down to the brewery on any given night, one-third of it is Mexican-Americans, one-third of it is Asian-Americans and one-third are white, which if you take a look at our surrounding community, is the exact same makeup.
What's exciting to me is that we have the opportunity to turn on parts of society that previously we've been told wouldn't drink craft beer. My contention is that they didn't drink craft beer is because they didn't have a local brewery. So, that to me is one of the most striking thing we've seen, that we've really drawn that mix and we are turning on people who previously weren't necessarily craft beer fans. But give them the option to come to the brewery and be educated and drink world class fresh beer, they get excited by it. To me, that's probably been the most fun of it.
SI: Were you aware of the growth that was going to happen in the Arts District when you decided to open Angel City there?
AN: The first time I saw the place I totally fell in love. I'm a bit of a culture junkie, so the Renaissance downtown blew me away. Seeing these buildings come back to life again and seeing them being repopulated again and seeing the Arts District come alive with art on the walls and people walking around at night and new businesses opening up and new housing being built. To me, the excitement was palpable and to me, that was the excitement of the Angel City brand to me, being a part of that Renaissance.
SI: What is your approach to Angel City's beer? You started with an IPA and a wit, but there have been some bizarre ones lately.
AN: I have a rule. I've been in the beer business 20 years now. My rule has been that is anytime a brewer comes to me with an idea for a beer, I don't care how crazy it is or how stupid it sounds - we'll try it. We have an ability to put it on tap at the Public House. My experience is that people love coming to the Public House for oddities and quirky beers and so it fits my rule perfectly. When people come to the Public House we should be educating them on what great world-class craft beer is and we should be stretching what they think of as beer.
Why avocado beer? Well, because Dieter's [Foerstner, Head Brewer] grandmother had an avocado tree and she had too many avocados and Dieter wanted to do it. And it's turned into kind of a tradition. Who knew it was going to become the Avocado Festival and we were going to draw 5000 people down to celebrate the avocado? You don't think of these things - or at least I don't. You listen to these people and if it works, then cool, let's keep doing that.
SI: Do you ever see Angel City as being a regional brewery?
AN: This is probably one of the questions I get asked the most and my answer is always the same: We're focused on being a great local brewery. If we can do that and if customers outside of the L.A. area really start screaming for the beer and we think there's a market for it, would we expand? Yeah, we probably would, but that's not our goal right now.
When I started Magic Hat, we started it in a state with 600,000 people. The city of Burlington had 40,000 people and it was the largest city in the state. So when we started it didn't make a lot of sense to me to start local. That's the reason why Magic Hat was always a non-geographic name and we were always looking to how we could grow outside of the local area. But L.A. has 17 million people there. If I can't create a successful business with 17 million people in my backyard, I shouldn't be doing business. So that's really 100% of my focus: how can we be the best local brewery we can?
SI: Some of your bottled beer is contract brewed out of state, though. Do you think that should scare anyone about your intentions to stay local?
AN: The bottling issue is a function of logistics and money because Boston Beer is my financial partner, I have access to their resources. I don't have to build a bottling plant, which could be up to $3 million. More importantly, if I build a bottling plant, I'm taking away from space for our customers to experience us.
So, for me, one of the benefits of having the relationship with Boston Beer is access to their great breweries. Most craft breweries, if you offered them the ability to contract brew a beer at Sam Adams breweries to any brewery in L.A., they would probably be thrilled to have that option. I happen to have the option because of our relationship. We get to do that so we don't have to use up space or put in our bottling line. We keep a small bottling line for our specialties, but there is no plan today to build a bottling line on site or to distribute outside of our current distributor network.
SI: Angel City was the first Alchemy & Science brewery, but what other ones do you have in planning?
AN: We have a brewery we're building out in Miami. Coincidentally it's also in the Arts District and my guess is that we'll be brewing there in next 30 days. We also bought another brand called Coney Island Brewing Company and we're in the process of signing a lease in Coney Island to build a brewery there. The goal with those two is exactly the same as Angel City. The difference is that their communities are very different so they will all look and all act different.
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The philosophy is the same: We'll hire people from the local community and make sure we're staying focused on the needs of the community in Miami, which is a fascinating multicultural and multinational city. So how do we become part of this multicultural and multinational community? One of the things we're doing in Miami - because 65% of population is Latino - is we're not hiring anybody who isn't bilingual. If you want to talk to the customers, you have to speak the language. At each one, we try to see what we need to do to become part of that community and we try to do it as authentically as we know how. We allow each one to develop organically as part of the community and I think we've been effective so far in Los Angeles.
Heritage Arts and Music Festival, Saturday, May 3, 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., free, Angel City Brewery & Public House, 216 S. Alameda St., Los Angeles, (213) 622-1261.