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COVER STORY

At the tippling point

L.A. beer lovers find a taste for designed brews, and restaurants and pubs are ready to roll out the barrel. Hefeweizen OK for the first round?

August 16, 2007|Todd Martens | Times Staff Writer

Most urban areas are already associated with a brewery. San Francisco is home to Anchor Steam, San Diego boasts the presence of Stone Brewing, Chicago is linked with Goose Island and New Yorkers raise a pint from Brooklyn Brewery.

But L.A.?

"Los Angeles has the Father's Office," says Greg Koch, chief executive of Escondido-based Stone Brewing.

Gabriel Gordon, who recently opened Beachwood BBQ, used to live down the street from Father's Office. "You mention a bar because L.A. totally lacks in breweries," he says. "San Diego has dozens of good breweries, and six to eight that are phenomenal, world-class breweries, like Stone, Pizza Port, AleSmith and Green Flash."

Not counting stand-alone brew pubs, L.A. has three -- Craftsman, Angel City and fledgling Skyscraper Brewing.

Developing a taste

There are many theories behind L.A.'s dearth of breweries. "I always thought it had something to do with the weather," Angel City founder Michael Bowe says. "Los Angeles is a very warm, temper place, and if you go to Portland and Denver, those places are cold, and big beers work better."

Others, like Stone's Koch, cite business reasons. Before Stone became the largest microbrewery in Southern California, Koch was an Angeleno, even crediting defunct downtown rock club Al's Bar with inspiring Stone, since it was one of the few spots that had Anchor Steam on tap.

When craft breweries began popping up around the country in the late '80s, L.A. was no different. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck even got into the microbrewery game, investing in brewery/restaurant concept Eureka in 1990. It closed two years later, more than $1 million in debt, The Times reported.

Brewers like Jilg believe it forever branded L.A. as a non-beer city. After all, if Puck couldn't sell craft beer in L.A., who could?

"One failure discourages five or six start-ups," Jilg says.

It may sound as if it's oversimplifying L.A. beer culture to lay the blame on one notable bust, but Koch assures it isn't. Despite opening his brewery outside of San Diego, Stone brought some L.A. baggage down south.

"We were turned down early by three sports bars," Koch says. "They had Eureka, and it failed. They said, 'I don't want to deal with you guys again.' We were all lumped together, as if Stone Brewing as going to follow the path of Eureka. It really is amazing what an unrelated company can do to you with their failure."

Yet even Stone, a brewery known for aggressive, bitter beers that can be a bit of an acquired taste, can't deny that L.A. is in the midst of a craft beer renaissance. In the past 14 months, Stone has seen its account tally in L.A. rocket from 17 to more than 70.

Non-California microbrewers are also jumping in. New Belgium has been distributing its popular Fat Tire in San Francisco for nearly four years, two years before it entered L.A. Says company spokesman Bryan Simpson: "L.A. was a few years behind the Bay Area, as far as having indigenous brewers raising awareness. It's interesting, so many trends come out of L.A., so you'd it would have gone the other direction."

The importance of Father's Office cannot can't be overstated. When Yoon purchased the bar from Lou Moench in 2000, he kept Moench's dedication to craft beer, and created a world-renowned burger, turning a dive beer-bar into a fashionable destination.

That influence can be seen in the likes of the 3rd Stop, the Village Idiot, Lucky Devils and the York, among others, and Yoon will soon open a second, bigger edition in Culver City.

"It took a place like Father's Office to do beer right, to inspire the closet beer fanatics to go to a bar and be indignant that they don't have craft beer," Jilg says.

Looking back on when he purchased Father's Office in the late '80s, Moench, now a bartender at Truxton's American Bistro, says embracing craft beer came with a cost. "When I stopped selling Bud and put Widmer Hefeweizen on that tap handle, I got a reaction," Moench says. "Every neighborhood Joe who wanted a cheap pitcher of beer was just about crapping their pants. I had to educate people."

In his new space, Yoon will offer more wine. But the goal is to put beer on an equal level with a drink Angelenos have long embraced.

"Wine paved the way here," Yoon says. "The success of wine has opened the door for craft beer, as people now have a basic understanding of wine they didn't have 20 years ago. People are realizing that beer can taste like peaches, or beer can taste like a coffee, or beer can taste like a chocolate milkshake. It's a far broader palate than wine. It's like suddenly being handed a big box of crayons."

todd.martens@latimes.com

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Get your brew on

The stalwarts

Father's Office

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