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The beer sleuth

One man searches for great draft brews around the city (they do exist).

March 12, 2003|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

THE best glass of beer I've ever had was a golden ale that the barman poured by slowly pumping a long wooden handle, drawing the beer up by vacuum from a keg beneath the bar. Fresh in the glass, the ale boiled with a creamy turbulence that after a few moments resolved itself into a snowy head. It was barely cool. Its carbonation was hardly noticeable, but its flavors danced on my tongue and lingered after I'd swallowed. With each mouthful I took, the head left another lacy ring on the inside of the glass.

This sort of experience will turn a person into a lifelong seeker of great draft beers and the establishments that treat them as an art and passion. Despite Los Angeles' reputation as a bit of a backwater when it comes to fine beer, things have been on the upswing recently, and plenty of such places exist here. Identifying them, however, requires a certain amount of sleuthing.

L.A. establishments serious about good draft range from suburban chain brew pubs to blue-collar bars, from mannered Westside taverns to kitschy ethnic-themed joints. They feature on tap frolicsome hefeweizens, rich ales, chewy porters, satiny stouts and compelling beers from Belgium, Germany and England. A few places even offer the aficionado's Holy Grail -- cask-conditioned ale, the ultra-smooth, naturally carbonated beer that's served with a simple hand pump (like the golden ale of my fond memory, which I drank some years ago in a Kalamazoo, Mich., brew pub).

If one local establishment best exemplifies the ethos and Eros of draft beer, it is probably Lucky Baldwin's pub in Pasadena. Nothing so quickens the pulse of a beer lover as happening on a place that has a rich, aromatic Belgian ale on draft, and Lucky Baldwin's had 38 of them the last time I was there.

Cramped and low-ceilinged, Lucky Baldwin's has a chummy, thrown-together feel, having been fashioned seven years ago from a space that formerly housed a bakery and a hairdresser. It has 58 taps, and in addition to its Belgians, it offers a score of draft beers from England and American microbreweries.

"We don't mind changing our lineup three times in the course of a single week," says co-owner David Farnworth. "If I find an interesting keg, I put it on."

Ask for a sip

Such an array of unfamiliar beers can be bewildering. Fortunately, Lucky Baldwin's bartenders, like those at other serious beer establishments, eagerly provide guidance, based on a customer's general preferences -- and even offer free small samples.

Beer cognoscenti from as far away as Boston fly in for Lucky Baldwin's special events, such as its Barley Wine Festival, April 5 through 13. The pub will have on tap 35 of the exceptionally rich, complex and strong brews, whose alcohol content can run to 10% and higher. Included will be six vintages of benignly monstrous Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale.

Lucky Baldwin's patrons run the gamut from beer-savvy Brit ex-pats to youthful Old Town revelers, some of whom, no doubt weaned on Bud Light, look positively stunned after they've swallowed their first mouthful of Leffe Brune, a potent Belgian.

No one kind of establishment, however, has a monopoly on good draft beer. An altogether different crowd and atmosphere thrives at the Santa Monica pub Father's Office ("Give me something brown and earthy," one well-tailored young woman with a cartoon voice commanded the bartender on a recent night). By 7 in the evening, late-harvest yuppies are raising such a din that conversation, much less beer contemplation, can be a challenge.

In Santa Monica, only the sunny Library Alehouse with its extraordinary lineup of 29 fine drafts, rivals Father's Office, which is one of the older local citadels of fine beer appreciation. Its 36 draft beers are expertly selected, and include cult favorite Arrogant Bastard Ale from Stone Brewing Co. of San Marcos.

As is true of every good brew establishment, the bartenders at Father's Office know how to draw a beer. They let it form a foamy head that releases some of the carbonation. Too much gets in the way of a beer's flavor (which is why drinking from a bottle is a bad idea). Pouring with a head also allows flavors and aromas to blossom in the glass. A good bartender pours off excess foam to present a customer with a full measure, topped by an inch of the white stuff.

Another crucial factor is temperature. Excessive cold robs good beers of their rich malty sweetness and offsetting hops bitterness. A glass that feels like a giant icicle in your hand is a sure tip-off the beer's way too cold.

Unfortunately, over-chilling beer and serving it in frozen glasses is as American as the electoral college. Ideally, different styles of beers should be kept at different temperatures. Sprightly wheat beers, for example, are better cooler than chewy porters. Ensuring proper differences in temperature, however, means maintaining multiple refrigeration units, an impracticality few establishments are willing to embrace.

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