Friday afternoon a press release floated to craft beer media in-boxes all over the Southland confirming the rumor that Firestone Walker Brewing Co. recently purchased a building in Los Angeles. The location, to be exact, is two separate buildings formerly occupied by medical offices and a restaurant. At West Washington and Lincoln Blvds., it's situated a few blocks from the south end of Abbot Kinney, geographically within Marina del Rey but culturally a part of Venice.
Heads are still spinning about the many implications this may have for the beer scene in greater L.A. To have such a well-respected, established regional brewer make a huge investment in our city brings credibility to this underserved corner of the craft beer world -- and its roughly 15 million inhabitants. Both outside brewers and those within the city now see that stakes may be high, but betting on L.A. is worth the gamble. We called David Walker, co-proprietor of Firestone Walker since its inception in 1996, for more details. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: When did you begin to think about adding a location in L.A.?
David Walker: The L.A. beer scene is healthy and growing and Firestone Walker Brewing Co. expanding here is very much a reflection of that. We've chatted about moving into L.A. for ten years. Only in the last two years have we been chewing over the reality of that possibility. It's a huge market and palates are young, thirsty and curious. We would have made this move sooner if we thought we were able to do it, but we've always taken things one step at a time and now is the time to make that step.
SI: Why did you decide on the West Side, particularly Venice-Marina del Rey?
DW: Adam [Firestone] and I are familiar with the area and believe it's on fire; it has real personality. Visiting Venice can feel like a breath of fresh air (literally). Our objective was to get into the L.A. market and it became more obvious with every visit that this was the best place to do it.
The cool thing about the area is that you can be who you are. If you're an eccentric you can be eccentric and be accepted. We are a Central Coast craft brewery surrounded by farms and vineyards and it's going to be hard for us to be anything other than who we are; we feel that Venice will let us do that.
SI: What is your personal history with L.A.?
DW: 22 years ago I lived in L.A. Since I moved away from it so much has changed (including me) and neighborhoods appear to have become more distinctive. You've got these pockets -- Venice, Silverlake, Hollywood, Downtown -- each has its own personality and is contributing to L.A. as a whole, but I truly think there is a vibe in Venice that works better for us and I think it's especially good for craft beer.
I lived in Santa Monica in the early '90s, then moved to Altadena. My wife and I wanted to be in Venice back then, but at the time it wasn't ideal for starting a family. We moved east because it was the best place we could afford. But we've spent a lot of time in L.A.
SI: Tell us about the new location. Will it be a restaurant? A brewpub?
DW: Our Paso Robles taproom is the closest comparison to what the Venice-Marina del Rey place will be like. It will have a Central Coast foundation with a local Venice spin. Our beers will be on tap paired with food we love. There will be a bias to test and sample special beers and we are toying with the idea of installing a perfectly formed miniature brewhouse to help us create some of these; but it's too soon to tell or say what that will look like.
SI: What's an example of a possible "local spin"?
DW: We want this to be a local fill station for growlers, a meeting place locals can add to their list of rendezvous. We want to really encourage the concept of getting to the location on foot or by bike; picture the place being strewn with bicycles as people cruise from a 2-3 mile radius. Go to Venice on a weekend or at night and it's more Amsterdam than L.A. with so many bicycles. We've even looked at ideas for transporting growlers by bike.
SI: What will you be pouring?
DW: The full line-up of Firestone Walker beers will be available. We hope that some of our cask beers, wild ales [brewed at Barrelworks in Buellton] and barrel-aged releases will be available. Plus any special brews that we are experimenting with that only get tapped at our brewery.
SI: Will you be hiring locally or bringing existing Firestone Walker employees in?
DW: We want to fill the place with local employees. This is our home in Venice-Marina del Rey and our team will reflect that. We will do everything we can to make this an organic addition to the neighborhood, not a stranger moving in.
SI: What do you think Firestone Walker expanding to L.A. means for our craft beer scene?
DW: We're gaining much more by being in L.A. than L.A. is gaining from another craft brewer being there. It's a learning experience.
SI: There are rumors that this is only an initial expansion into L.A. Will Firestone Walker break ground in the South Bay or the Valley?
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DW: This is it. We've emptied our piggy banks and hearts on this location. You guys live in an expensive town -- soon I will too. This is going to take a lot of energy to do right. We're not running a franchise, so a great deal of personal proprietal care will be focused on making this part of our journey right.
SI: Any thoughts on why the most populous county in the U.S. has been so far behind other major metropolitan areas for beer?
DW: There's so much going on in L.A. -- it's so eclectic and there are so many things happening. It takes a bit of time to get something rolling but once it does it explodes. In the next ten years craft beer in L.A. will be a competitive force in the beer landscape. San Diego may always be the epicenter for beer on the West Coast, but it's natural for it to spill over.
I'd say L.A. and New York are similarly problematic. L.A. will never be known just for brewing, as so many other things fight for its attention; there are too many things happening. But like New York, there's a great craft brew palate and these cities reflect contemporary trends and shifts.
SI: Are you anticipating that new breweries in L.A. will be home grown or will other established breweries move in and invest the way Firestone Walker is doing?
DW: Yeah, wherever you've got a healthy community you'll have craft brewers following. Whether they're small start-ups or regional it makes sense to be in those areas where there's a growing demand.
SI: Do you think L.A.'s beer community is fractured?
DW: What I've learned is you can't see L.A. as only "L.A." You have to see it as small communities that comprise a larger area -- each community has a unique personality and you have to respect that. The whole county encompasses a range of neighborhoods and lifestyles. Once you acknowledge these pieces are different you can start to understand it as a whole.
SI: Is this a move to redefine Firestone Walker as an even broader California regional brewery and not just Central Coast?
DW: Sort of. It's part of an organic growth process. The Venice place is 3 1/2 hours away from our brewery in Paso Robles. On a good day that's closer than San Francisco. California is a natural place for our beers to be consumed, but we're ready to take our story deeper to Los Angeles and to Venice.
We've always believed that craft brewing is a regional phenomenon. As much as we can sell our beer anywhere in the country, they will be more fresh, more affordable and familiar on a regional basis. It makes the most sense to focus your brewery on your region. 30-40 years from now regional breweries could be the main providers of beer. If you want to be part of this you have to throw some strong, long-term roots down. This is a big investment for us. Both in Venice-Marina del Rey and in our region.
SI: So the new location is much more than just another taproom?
DW: This isn't just a taproom, but a new leg of the brewery. Up in Paso we refer to this project as "The Propagator" (yeasty!). It's a place for us to propagate ideas, share brewing theory, create new beers, develop ways to reach non-craft beer drinkers that are living in blissful ignorance.
It's hugely exhilarating to come down and own a little piece of L.A. and be a part of it. We're vested. It sends a nice pulse of electricity back to the brewery.
SI: We've seen you rolling kegs into local bars for tap takeovers. You didn't leave that chore to a sales rep. but drove the beer south yourself and delivered it. Are you always so personally involved?
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DW: A brewery is a blue collar, hands-on experience. Frankly I don't care if you're a small startup or established regional brewer, you've gotta be engaged at all levels, otherwise things disappear and slip away. Breweries are good work but they're hard work. It's not something you can dial in from your desk, nor would we want it to be.
Erika writes at erikabolden.com and @erikabolden. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.