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Brew Pubs With Untapped Potential

Microbreweries, a hit elsewhere, still try to catch on in L.A.

April 04, 2002|HESEON PARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask any microbrew aficionado, and he'll tell you: L.A. just isn't a beer town. Restaurants here boast multi-page wine lists. Trendy bars brand themselves with cocktails du jour.

L.A.'s microbreweries have their work cut out for them. They have a city to convince that beer has a rightful place outside Dodger games and fraternity parties.

"L.A. is definitely a cocktail place, and we're about educating people about what good beer looks and tastes like," says Jake Tringali, manager of Bonaventure Brewing Co. in downtown Los Angeles. Microbreweries, which took off in other parts of the country in the 1990s, are still trying to make inroads in Southern California. Los Angeles doesn't have the built-in beer-appreciating culture that comes with large German and Irish immigrant communities. Angelenos are still familiarizing themselves with brew pubs, places that make and sell beer on the premises, such as popular brewery chain restaurants Gordon Biersch in Pasadena and Rock Bottom Brewery in Long Beach.

The hotel location of the Bonaventure Brewing Co. provides an advantage: Conventioneers and out-of-towners are familiar with brew pubs' unhurried atmosphere as a respite. As for the locals, Tringali's still trying to educate them about life beyond Budweiser. "The way I describe drinking a microbrewed beer is like going into a bakery and eating bread there. It's so fresh and so good," he says.

Beer tasters are a common starting point. The Bonaventure's Five Tower Sampler comes with taster-size glasses (5 ounces) with descriptions for a signature Stout, Pale Ale, Blonde, Strawberry Blonde and a seasonally brewed beer of the month.

Brewmaster David Blackwell shuttles back and forth between Bonaventure Brewing Co. and its sister brewery, Belmont Brewing Co. in Long Beach, concocting and formulating each batch of tailor-made brew. He thinks it's just a matter of time before microbrews are as popular here as elsewhere.

"People's palates have become more sophisticated; there are premium vodkas, cigars, wines and beers," he says. "People's skills transfer from wine to beer. Their palates are used to strong flavors in wine, like a robust cabernet. It's pretty flavorful stuff, as is a stout."

One glance at a popular brew pub like Belmont Brewing shows that there are already a number of converts. Belmont's seven-barrel system produces some mean, award-winning brews: the Marathon Ale, a light golden ale; Top Sail, an amber ale; Long Beach Crude, a stout; and a fruity Strawberry Blonde have all garnered prizes and acclaim.

In Koreatown, Rosen Brewery has a colorful scene, with a line of black-leather-jacketed individuals snaking along the sidewalk, mostly young professionals and residents from Koreatown's hipster contingent and nearby Hollywood.

"We're educating Korean Americans about beer," says Mike Rim, owner of Rosen Brewery. Inspired in part by Gordon Biersch restaurants and visiting microbreweries out of state, Rim opened shop two years ago. "From here to Santa Monica, to Hollywood, no one had a microbrewery in Koreatown."

Rosen Brewery raises the bar on how microbreweries look and feel. Slightly dimmed lights dramatize the scope and scale of this glorified brew pub. A two-story wall of glass reveals the state-of-the-art brew tanks sitting in one corner. Wrap-around banquette seating creates a 1940s supper club vibe.

Rosen's brewmaster, Brandon Blankenship, crafts a cleaner, lighter-tasting roster of microbrews. Order a sampler and get five tiny (4-ounce) tasters: Rosen Lite, a light ale; Sunset Red, an amber ale; the Koreatown Ale, an English-style ale; California Wheat; and the chocolaty Hollywood Dark Stout.

But even here, in Rosen's theatrical setting, beer can't escape the baseball game. Over the bar is probably the largest TV ever to grace a Southern California bar, making Rosen a popular place to catch the game after work.

Likewise, Crown City Brewery in Pasadena cultivates a friendly sports bar atmosphere, with multiple TVs tuned to different games. Probably the oldest brew pub in the Southern California area, the Crown City barkeeps also try to know everyone's name. "We've been called the 'Cheers of the West Coast' by the Zagat Guide," says Crown City's Manager, Ed Garcia.

In addition to its own handcrafted brews, the Arroyo Amber Ale and Mt. Wilson Wheat, Crown City has a wide-ranging specialty and import beer menu. Customers who sign up for Crown City's "Passport" get to track the international beers they've tried. Once they taste 100, 500 or 1,000 beers, Passport holders get a T-shirt and their name inscribed on a brass plaque on the bar's "hall of fame."

Drew Beechum, an engineer from Pasadena, has 15 more beers until he gets his 500th beer plaque.

"I've been all over L.A., and Crown City is the only place where they actually care about the customer, and who you are," he says. "It reminds me of pubs in England, where everyone's relaxed, having a pint or two."

*

Belmont Brewing, 25 39th Place, Long Beach, (562) 433-3891.

Rosen Brewery, 400 S. Western Ave., L.A., (213) 388-0061.

Bonaventure Brewing Co., 404 S. Figueroa St., downtown L.A., (213) 236-0802.

Crown City, 300 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (626) 577-5548.

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