A conversation with Archie Carey and Saul Alpert-Abrams about their year-old Solarc Brewing might veer into such contrasting topics as classical antiquity, Chinese medicinal herbs, small business strategies, avant-garde chamber music and experimental meads.
As active members of L.A.'s growing experimental-art community (Carey is an accomplished new-music bassoonist and Alpert-Abrams is a musician and Greek scholar specializing in rare books), the two East Coast transplants are well-versed in many obscure things, but nowhere does their love for history and artistic innovation manifest as naturally as it does in their unconventional beers.
Take for example, Solarc's latest, Koala Füd, a Belgian triple gruit that uses mugwort and eucalyptus instead of hops. The beer was made in collaboration with Mumford Brewing (which is hosting a release party at its downtown taproom this Saturday), and its gruit style is a throwback to ancient tastes, before hops became brewers' bittering agent of choice.
Another new beer, Earl, which is being released in bottles this week, starts as a double IPA but is brewed with Earl Grey tea, rosemary from Carey's backyard and lemon verbena, resulting in a beer full of soothing herbal and citrus flavors.
“Beer-world palates are becoming more educated and open-minded to new flavors,” Carey says. “The L.A. beer community has totally embraced us. We're the guys who brew the weird stuff. It's what we're known for now.”
“We're like the crazy uncle,” Alpert-Abrams adds.
Carey and Alpert-Abrams met through mutual friends a few years ago and bonded over a batch of mead, which they brewed while listening to Gregorian chant in Solarc's current headquarters, a barnlike garage behind Alpert-Abrams' house in Highland Park. But mead takes a year to ferment properly, so the two started brewing beer instead, attracted to the similarly ancient process that yields alcohol much more quickly.
First they made some familiar styles – IPAs, stouts, golden ales — throwing additional ingredients foraged from a fruit orchard in Alpert-Abrams' backyard to make things like a kumquat blonde, a fig weizenbock, a pomegranate ale for Rosh Hashanah and a holiday persimmon beer with cinnamon.
“We were just using giant teabags to infuse the beers, and one day we realized that we could put anything we wanted in them, not just fruits,” Carey says. The possibilities seemed infinite.
Looking beyond their orchard, the newly inspired brewers researched anything they could find that was herbal, aromatic or spiced. Admitting it sounds “a little new age–y,” they spent countless hours roaming Chinese medicine shops, chewing on semi-legal plant-based stimulants, making custom tea blends and mixing the resulting flavors in with their beers.
In the meantime, they hosted parties for their friends, during which they solicited donations to pay for more ingredients and homebrew equipment. For Carey and Alpert-Abrams, beer became a new experiential, participatory — and olfactory — art form.
“Beer has always been an end-goal experience, I think, but for us it's about something bigger,” Alpert-Abrams says. “It's part of my creative process. It's part of how I want to live my creative life.”
At the end of 2014, they decided to officially launch Solarc. To reduce startup costs, they became gypsy brewers, meaning that they do not have their own brewing facility and instead rent space at places such as Inland Empire Brewing and King Harbor to make their beers. Their first release and current flagship, Dunes, is a Belgian-style gruit with sage, lemongrass, wormwood, mugwort and tumeric.
Today, the Solarc garage where it all began is a test-batch facility and makeshift office that looks like a modern-day alchemy lab. Shelves are full of jars of herbs and teas, containers of yeast propagations and jugs of various fermentation experiments (including one filled with Champagne yeast and Trader Joe's lemonade). Bags of tea and an electric water boiler sit next to the computers where Carey and Alpert-Abrams run the day-to-day operations. A simple bottler and pneumatic capper, designed and built by the two, sits among kitchen-appropriate homebrewing equipment in the rafters.
“The beer community is the opposite of what we're used to in our insular, experimental art world,” Alpert-Abrams says. “It's so great that our beer can reach all sorts of people, most of whom we'll never meet.”
One day, Carey and Alpert-Abrams hope to open their own brewery and tasting room so that they can create a thoughtful space in which people can experience Solarc beers. They envision a taproom unlike any other, with a “listening chamber” where they can host new-music concerts, like the monthly ones they'll be presenting (alongside pilot batch beers) in March at MorYork Gallery.
“Experimental music and experimental beer in an experimental space. What could be better than that?” Carey says.