Two years ago, Ohana Brewing Company was supposed to be the next great Los Angeles beer maker. The tiki-themed tap handles were made, the beer list decided and the old brewhouse from Craftsman Brewing in Pasadena had moved into Ohana's new space just south of downtown. Adding to the hype was its list of founders -- a group of old-guard homebrewers based out of legendary Long Beach brewing supply store Steinfillers.
But then ... nothing.
Hard-to-please building inspectors coupled with unanticipated costs to meet certain bizarre, restaurant-specific Health Department codes set the project back from its December 2010 opening. For last year's L.A. Beer Week Festival at Union Station, Ohana had to homebrew its Black Dahlia black IPA and bring in sour beers to pour from bottles. Meanwhile, nearly a dozen new breweries opened in the region and L.A.'s craft beer scene exploded.
"My dad was ready to give up. He was going to pull the plug," says Ohana's current owner, Andrew Luthi, the 24-year-old son of founder Karsen Luthi (who possesses an epic Sam Elliott moustache). "I was the one who pushed him and said, 'This is a huge opportunity for us. We can't stop now.'"
Frustrated with the whole process, Karsen gave control of the brewery to Andrew earlier this year, making him what many believe is the youngest brewery owner in the country.
Shortly thereafter, Ohana received an unexpected phone call from the Department of Health saying that breweries weren't under its jurisdiction anymore, meaning that all of the costly things the department told them they needed to do in order to receive permitting suddenly became obsolete. In June, Ohana received its Certificate of Occupancy.
"That saved us a ton of money," Andrew says. "That saved the brewery."
In July, award-winning Long Beach homebrewer Chris Walowski was named Ohana's head brewer (after he sent an inquiry email offering to sweep floors and help out). And in August, the two made Ohana's first official beer, a 7.2% ABV rye saison.
"Our first brew day was 16 hours," says Walowski, who at 25 is one of the youngest commercial brewers in the country. "We brewed during that first heat wave and it was 100-something inside the brewery. I spent most of the time getting sweaty scooping out 700 pounds of 170-degree grain."
The resulting beer, Saison Dubach -- along with a 9.4% ABV Belgian golden strong called Accomplice brewed later that same week -- made its public debut at this year's L.A. Beer Week Festival, where the two were ecstatic to share the news that, yes, Ohana was finally open. The first kegs of Ohana beer were tapped at Boneyard Bistro, Far Bar, the Factory, City Tavern and Beachwood BBQ earlier this month.
Though both Luthi and Walowski have full-time jobs (Walowski also is currently getting his master's in biochemistry at CSULB), they say they will be brewing as often as possible and plan to not do the same exact beer twice for the first year.
"We made Belgian styles first because we didn't have our glycol entirely set up yet," says Walowski of the cooling system that keeps beers at a controlled fermentation temperature. "When those beers were fermenting at 80 degrees [ales typically ferment at around 70], I couldn't sleep at night. We'll never be able to re-create that rye saison because we'll never be able to re-create that weather."
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A low-ABV session IPA is in the fermenter now, and plans to feed Walowski's passion for making sour beers also are in the works.
Despite a burgeoning beer scene that sprouted up in the time it took for Ohana to open, the brewery still is able to bring something different to L.A.'s semi-established craft culture. The pair want to quench people's thirst for interesting flavors and hope that eventually their tap handle will become synonymous with high-quality, unique beer, regardless of style.
"The good thing is we're young, we're not going to do the same beer twice for the first year at least, and we're going to do sour beers," Andrew says. "I think it all fits our slogan: 'A fresh face in beer.'"
Ohana Brewing Company, 1756 E. 23rd St., Los Angeles. (213) 748-2237. Note: There is currently no tasting room at the brewery. Follow Ohana on Facebook to find out where their beers are being poured.