The decision of which beer to drink used to be an easy one for Angelenos. Ten years ago, the shelves at local grocery stores and bottle shops were mostly filled with fizzy yellow lagers made by one of the world's few macro breweries and their conglomerate partners. There may have been the occasional craft bottle from San Diego or beyond, but local beer was just a twinkle in the shopper's eye.
Today, with so many beers being brewed in L.A., the problem of what to drink is the opposite: There is simply too much good stuff. From Whole Foods to neighborhood liquor stores, an endless stream of multicolored bottles and cans confronts us. How are you supposed to know what to drink, especially when it comes to washing down all of the burgers in the Summer Dining Issue?
That's where our beer bracket comes in. As with our burger bracket, we've whittled down some of the top L.A. beers into a small competition, gathered a team of expert judges and let them drink their way to a winner.
Our judges were: Ryan Sweeney, co-owner of the Surly Goat; Cyrena Nouzille, Ladyface Ale Companie owner; John Verive, freelance beer writer; Daniel Drennon, Beer Paper L.A. publisher; and Sarah Bennett, L.A. Weekly food editor.
We started with eight of our favorite beers, split them into four general categories — light, dark, hoppy and Belgian-style — and pitted two contenders against one another at a communal judging session.
How did we choose the eight to begin with? We only considered beers brewed in Greater Los Angeles that you can buy anytime. That means we excluded all occasional releases and draft-only brews. As a result, beers from many of the county's top breweries, including Ladyface Ale Companie, Beachwood and Highland Park Brewing, were ineligible.
Still, the judges had a tough task: choosing not just the ultimate L.A. summer beer but the one that would be best to drink with a burger, preferably while attending a summertime pool party.
The bracket includes everything from old-school favorites to recently bottled arrivals, coffee porters made with beans from L.A.'s Groundworks Coffee Roasters to Belgian dubbels brewed with rose hips, and light-bodied dark beers to high-alcohol light ones. All in all, it's a range that reflects the exciting diversity of the county's relatively young brewing community. But only one can be the best!
MacLeod Session Gap vs. Strand 24th Street Pale Ale
Nouzille: "Right away with the Session Gap, I'm thinking of peaches on the grill — like a grilled peach burger."
Sweeney: "The Session Gap is way less aggressive. It's also only 3.5 percent ABV. And I know it's traditional for the style and all, but I'd still like to see more carbonation."
Bennett: "Yeah, if I was sweating by the pool, the last thing I'd want is a cellar-temperature beer with this little carbonation."
Drennon: "24th Street is one of my go-to beers from way back. If I was having a daytime pool party, that's probably what I'd buy anyway."
Winner: 24TH STREET
Smog City Coffee Porter vs. Eagle Rock Solidarity
Verive: "This is a tough round. These are two of my top favorite beers in the world, not just because they're made in L.A."
Drennon: "I think you can get a caffeine high just from smelling the coffee porter. There's so much coffee in it."
Nouzille: "If I'm eating a bacon burger with a fried egg on it, I would go with the coffee porter. If I have a hickory-smoked burger, I'll have the Solidarity."
Bennett: "For summer with a burger, though, Solidarity is so much more drinkable. It's also a fascinating beer in general — who would've thought you could sell a 3.8 percent ABV black mild in L.A.?"
Monkish Rosa's Hips vs. Bruery Mischief
Bennett: "Mischief is like Greater L.A.'s Duvel: golden, sweet and drinkable. If Ladyface's saison was in this competition, though, it might take down both of these."
Drennon: "For future beer-bracket editions, we should just have Cyrena arm-wrestle Henry [Nguyen of Monkish Brewing] for L.A. Belgian supremacy."
Verive: "The Mischief is a little closer what you expect going into a Belgian beer. But Rosa's Hips might be a little more approachable for a non–beer person."
Sweeney: "For me, from the nose down — the sweetness, the candy sugar — Rosa's Hips is a little too much. It's gotta be dried out a bit."
El Segundo Mayberry IPA vs. Golden Road Wolf Among Weeds
Sweeney: "To be fair, the nose on Wolf already smells like aged hops. I get really sensitive to that."
Bennett: "Yeah, it's hard to find super-fresh Golden Road beer unless you go to the brewery. Wolf Among Weeds is always my two-and-done session beer, though. It's easy to drink for a double IPA, but at 8 percent ABV you still get a serious buzz."
Verive: "Mayberry has less alcohol but it manages to hit that same level of bitterness as Wolf Among Weeds. You know Mayberry is a dank beer when it makes Wolf Among Weeds taste bright and fresh."
Category: Belgian vs. Hoppy
Mischief vs. Mayberry IPA
Drennon: "I could drink Mayberry until the cows come home — and this is L.A., where we don't have any cows."
Sweeney: "If I'm at Little Bear having dinner, I would totally order Mischief. But if we're outside by the pool drinking out of a Solo cup, no way."
Nouzille: "Mischief gets a little cloying as it warms up, too. If we're doing burgers as a pairing, I gotta go with the IPA."
Category: Light vs. Dark
Strand 24th Street vs. Solidarity
Verive: "This is an original L.A. beer matchup, two of the oldest breweries in L.A. and their earliest releases."
Sweeney: "If I'm eating a burger, the 24th Street is too powerful for me. I'd want something lighter that I can drink more than a few of. I also find that there are very few foods that work well with very hoppy beers. It's more like charcuterie plates."
Bennett: "I think the 24th Street is a little too malty for this summer day we're all envisioning. Compared to Solidarity, it's almost like a burger itself."
Final Round: Mayberry IPA vs. Solidarity
In the end, two amazing Los Angeles beers face off in a battle for burger-pairing dominance. But the two finalists couldn't have less in common: One has been on the market for five years, the other only recently has become available year-round. One is made on the Eastside, the other on the Westside. One is hoppy, the other roasty. If there ever was a beer showdown that demonstrated the range of what's good in Los Angeles beer, this is it.
El Segundo's Mayberry IPA is a bright and citrusy IPA from L.A.'s resident hop-loving brewery. Using a relatively new hop called Mosaic, Mayberry flips the script on bitter, piney IPAs, instead smelling like a citrus grove on a tropical island, with a light body and dry finish that make it a go-to for any occasion.
"It's Southern California, there's never a bad time for an IPA, especially an IPA as good as Mayberry," Drennon says, declaring his choice for the winner early on.
Eagle Rock Brewery's Solidarity is a black mild, a darker spin on a traditional British-style mild, itself an obscure style in the United States. True to the name, milds are, well, mild — low in alcohol and more mellow than a pale ale, they are malt-focused beers that rely on an interesting grain bill for flavor. Even in this realm of British ales, though, Solidarity is an L.A. invention.
One of Eagle Rock's first releases, the 3.8 percent ABV Solidarity is the color of a stout but with the light body of a pilsner; it's typically served on nitro taps. A dozen grains go into the beer (as opposed to the one or two used for most), giving it a roasty-earthy-chocolatey complexity without any added weight.
"[Mayberry] is too hoppy and it's too big for a burger. I go with Solidarity," Sweeney says, casting his vote. "Even if it warms up, I can still drink it. It's not over the top."
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I also voted for Solidarity. In addition to just being a delicious beer, Solidarity is educational: It defies stereotypes people have about dark beers and reminds us not to judge a brew by its color. Shout-out to Eagle Rock Brewery for making such a weird beer when it first opened five years ago, a time when L.A. palates had not yet even warmed up to IPAs, much less a black mild.
"Outside by the pool, I'd probably go for more of a pilsner," Nouzille admits. "I like being a nonconformist, though, so in this matchup, I'd go for Solidarity. It's not a filling, cloying beer. It floats well off the palate and it'll wash down all the fat from that burger."
And with three votes, Solidarity is the winner. Verive professed his undying love for Solidarity so early in the competition, his vote in the finals was all but sealed in the first round.
Still, he had these fitting final words on the winner: "It's refreshing and it's dark and it blows people's minds when you go, 'This is refreshing. I know it's black and scary-looking, but don't be afraid.'"