For craft beer fans in Los Angeles, 2010 was the year it all changed. It's when the county went from having one production brewery to four, when local beer drinkers began to swap their watery lagers for the unapologetic glory of more flavorful brews, and when tap handles citywide started consistently flowing with beer made by homebrewers gone pro.
January is the unofficial birthday month of the explosive craft beer scene that's followed, and 2015 marks five years since the first three torch-bearing breweries opened their doors. Ladyface Ale Companie in Agoura, Strand Brewing in Torrance and Eagle Rock Brewery in Glassell Park are all having their fifth anniversaries this month, and at least two are hosting their own celebrations of the occasion (Eagle Rock’s Five-Year Anniversary Celebration is on Sunday and Ladyface’s Fifth-Anniversary week starts Sunday).
But what has changed in those five years and what does it mean to drink L.A. beer today? When this whole thing started, San Diego laughed at L.A. – how cute that the notoriously trend-obsessed city is trying to compete with a so-close stalwart beer scene and its West Coast IPAs. And as a nascent beer scene with no identity to speak of, that perspective could have been right.
Yet our early breweries did not try to compete. They released balanced IPAs, Belgian-style saisons and English milds, and they educated their customers that beer is more than palate-wrecking hops. Even today, L.A. breweries are opening with lineups that buck the expectations many around the country have when they hear the term “SoCal beer.”
After a half-decade, the beer scene in L.A. is finally beginning to form its own recognizable personality and identity, solidifying around characteristics that are unmistakably Los Angeles. In honor of this and L.A. beer's fifth birthday, we thought it would be fitting to host our own celebration of the accomplishments made over the last half-decade, with a list of five things that are currently defining L.A. beer.
Weird (but Delicious!) Beers
Throughout the '90s, L.A. was home to a number of small-time brewpubs, but only one production brewery – Pasadena's small-batch, non-bottling Craftsman, which opened in 1995. Owner and brewmaster Mark Jilg never did like IPAs much, so his seasonal beers run the gamut from a sage-infused Belgian-style triple to a fruit beer made with Cabernet grapes. This precedent of boundary-pushing beer weirdness has been continually kept up in the last five years, which makes sense in a city with a reputation of experimentalism and cultural blending throughout all creative mediums (Korean taco, anyone?). Monkish Brewing makes a beer with pistachios, Golden Road Brewing aged its hefeweizen in a tequila barrel, and for L.A. Beer Week 2012, participating breweries were asked to make a beer that included cactus flower. Smog City Brewing summed it up best with its occasionally released (and appropriately named) “Weird Beer,” which had a mix of grains and hops so unconventional, it serves as a metaphor for the whole scene.
Great Neighborhood Breweries
When there were only a few breweries dotting the expansive landscape of Los Angeles, each was a destination worthy of a day trip to drink straight from the source. But as the number of new beer makers have increased from one to 12 to now more than 30 in L.A. County alone, the distance gaps between have been filled in, with cities like South El Monte, Redondo Beach and Claremont now home to their own home-grown spots, where locals congregate at taprooms like they once did at the nearby pub. Small breweries like Alosta in Covina, Claremont Craft Ales in Claremont, King Harbor in Redondo Beach and even highly regarded Highland Park Brewery and Beachwood are the future of L.A.'s craft beer scene – hyper-local institutions with manageably sized brewhouses and solid taplists that pour for whoever stops in, but stay alive by serving their surrounding community.
Sour and Wild Ales
Maybe putting this one on the list is a little premature since most of the major sour and wild-ale projects that call L.A. home are either not open yet or have yet to see the full potential of their program. However, sour beer is definitely happening in L.A. right now and it's happening in a far more intense way than has ever been seen in a single city before. The major names in sour beer today hail from a wide range of places: Rare Barrel in Oakland, Cascade in Portland, Crooked Stave in Denver, Firestone Walker's Barrelworks in Buellton. But in Los Angeles County (and even more if you count Orange County), there are no less than three major barrel-aging, bacteria-infecting, tart-beer-producing projects that will soon be releasing funky, pucker-inducing beers to the public. (Phantom Carriage in Carson is now open and pouring.) Beachwood's new Blendery is perhaps the most anticipated, but Monkish and Eagle Rock have their own plans too.
Maybe it was a direct rejection of San Diego's high-ABV hoppy IPAs or maybe it was just the beer industry's collective conscious seeping into nostalgia, but the last five years of L.A. beer has been marked by its love of session beers, or light-alcohol (under 5% ABV) brews that you can drink more than a few of in one sitting (or session) before feeling a buzz. Session beers reject the common misconception that craft beer just means boozy beer that'll get you drunk quicker, and it may have all started with Eagle Rock Brewery's flagship, Solidarity, a massively complex English Mild that clocks in at a measly 3.8% ABV. Brewers in L.A. seem determined to make session beers that are as flavorful and nuanced as their heavy-handed counterparts, and from session IPAs to pilsners to Berliner weisses, many have succeeded. (MacLeod in Van Nuys' entire lineup is sessionable.) Eagle Rock Brewery's Session Fest is the annual day-long celebration of all things session-y. Go for a taste of L.A.'s true gift to craft beer.
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In a spread-out city like L.A., it's easier to form community around interests than location, and such is the growth of the region's craft beer community, which has solidly banded together across multiple niche interests over the last five years. Facebook groups exist for everything from hop-chasers to brewery-bound fixed-gear bike riders, showing off the diversity of not just craft beer fans but L.A. as a whole. Even members of the local craft beer industry have formed their own community organizations. The year-old L.A. Brewer’s Guild joins together L.A. County breweries; the Pink Boots Society's L.A. Chapter aims to support females in local craft beer; and there's even a collective for L.A. Beer Bloggers (the author of this piece is a member), which hosts summits that focus on topics like beer photography and social media. Every festival and event is a chance for more people to come together around craft beer and the intense connectedness between fans and industry professionals promises to build an even stronger community for L.A.'s beer future.