There aren’t a lot of picnic tables in Los Angeles, and that’s always been a problem for Mark Jilg.

“That’s how you start a beer culture, with something as humble as a picnic table,” says the owner and brewmaster of Pasadena’s Craftsman Brewing, the oldest production microbrewery in Los Angeles County. “The quality of a beer scene depends on how many places you can sit at a picnic table and drink a beer. Beer is a community thing and it has to have roots, and roots grow best under picnic tables.”

Jilg opened Craftsman with a 10-barrel brewhouse in 1995, one year before Stone Brewing Company got its start 120 miles south in San Diego, and two years before Pliny the Elder’s creators founded Russian River Brewing Company on a farm in Sonoma County up north.

Many of the breweries that started in the Bay Area and San Diego around the same time grew exponentially, leveraging investment capital—along with with product consistency and custom distribution—to eventually become the powerhouse brands that today make California the country’s top state for craft beer. True to its name, though, Craftsman stayed small.

Jilg has never had much interest in scaling his passion project into a big operation, preferring instead to focus on producing manageable batches of quality beer, like his biscuity 1903 Lager, a true-to-style German hefeweizen, and Poppyfields, a balanced British-style pale ale. He also never could have predicted today’s massive craft-beer boom.

So while other cities grew in craft-brew clout over the past two decades, L.A.’s fledgling scene consisted of little more than Craftsman’s hard-to-find kegs; a handful of scattered brewpubs; a few mediocre, now-gone production breweries; and one massively expensive failed experiment by Wolfgang Puck.

But change is in the air. After years of stagnant activity, we’re starting to see major players emerge around the city, eager to experiment as they tinker outside of the gaze of California’s more established beer towns. The question is, will it be enough to forge L.A.’s craft-brew identity?

Homebrewing Zealots vs. Apathetic Consumers

Jilg has his own forest-for-the-trees explanation of why craft beer never caught on in L.A.: “Los Angeles is a status city, so unless it improves your status, it’s not worth people’s time,” he says. “The influence of Hollywood here cannot be overstated.”

It’s true that for a long time, craft beer was a hard sell in La La Land. There are too many other fads to follow, little respect for the DIY spirit, and no neighborhood identities to sustain pride in locally brewed beer. It might not help that L.A. is also a key production center for macro brew, with a Budweiser brewery in Van Nuys that was built in 1953, and a Miller plant in Irwindale that opened in 1980. Although the presence of multinational conglomerates hasn’t always stifled the craft scene in other cities—in Denver, MillerCoors proved a fertile training ground for a generation of DIY brewers—Angelenos have traditionally been more hesitant to explore life outside of adjunct lagers.

howtobrewPublic perception is that L.A. is the land of Bud and Miller, despite its strong history of homebrewing. 

“Los Angeles always been a big import market for Heineken and Corona, but all through ‘80s and ‘90s, trying to sell craft beer in retail outlets was difficult,” says Tom McCormick, who has been the executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association for ten years. “That’s always been a mystery to me.”

“Public perception is that this is Bud and Miller land, that interesting beer happens elsewhere. That’s what L.A. is fighting against,” says renowned homebrewer John Palmer, an aerospace engineer who self-published the seminal DIY homebrewing book How to Brew in the mid-1990s. He’s proof that even though the city was devoid of craft breweries for much of the last 20 years, there has always been a strong homebrewing undercurrent that didn’t necessarily translate to a mainstream craft-beer market. (At 41-years-old, the Maltose Falcons is the oldest homebrew club in the country.)

“People don’t expect craft beer out of Los Angeles. They expect big corporate America,” Palmer says. “When I travel, people ask if I homebrew because I can’t get good beer here.”

Living on the Fringes

More recently, dozens of new brewpubs and production breweries have opened in L.A. County, suggesting a significant (albeit late) surge in interest in locally made beer. Several of these breweries are winning major national awards, like Beachwood BBQ and Brewing in Long Beach, which has twice been named a Brewpub of the Year by the Brewers Association since opening in 2012. And Golden Road Brewery is now the largest-by-volume brewery in the county.

“It’s been really exciting because Los Angeles was clearly a slow adapter to craft beer,” says McCormick. “The whole Los Angeles basin area has the potential to be a really vibrant and exciting craft-beer market.”

Publications have called out L.A. as a “barren beer wasteland,” or more harshly, “the Death Valley to San Diego and Northern California’s fertile fields.” But the smug stereotyping fails to acknowledge increase in quality beer production that has taken root in the past five years.

Monkish Brewing Co. is thriving, despite its geographical remoteness from traditional city centers like Downtown and Santa Monica. Photo: Facebook/Monkish

That’s the amount of time it’s been since the new wave of craft breweries began to emerge—the first ones since Craftman landed in the ’90s. Starting in January 2010—when the trifecta of Eagle Rock Brewery, Ladyface Ale Companie, and Strand Brewing all opened within weeks of each other on opposite sides of the county—beer in L.A. has only grown. According to the Brewer’s Association, of California’s 431 breweries and brewpubs, 36 are now in L.A. County, including Golden Road Brewing and the decorated Beachwood BBQ and Brewing.

“For years, our beer scene was truly made up of beer bars serving other people’s beer and making other regions more famous,” says Gabriel Gordon, owner of Beachwood BBQ and Brewing and its eight-year-old sister beer bar, Beachwood BBQ, in Orange County. “It was a self-perpetuating myth that other places have better beer.”

Every town you can think of as a ‘beer town’ has a brewery that’s made a huge impression on the place. That’s something L.A. didn’t have.

Today, Golden Road’s beers are available in Dodger Stadium; they can also be found on tap in San Diego and San Francisco, at bars owned by Stone Brewing Co. and former Pizza Port brewer Jeff Bagby. Beachwood’s name value reaches across all the way to the East Coast, with visiting beer geeks stopping into the Long Beach brewpub for a pint and bottle traders begging in online forums for a shipment of their recent releases.

Beyond the few names that have earned national recognition, L.A.’s brewing scene also now includes dozens of small operations that rarely distribute outside the region, like Monkish Brewing Company in Torrance (which makes only Belgian-style beers, flecked with tea-like adjuncts such as chamomile and rose hips), El Segundo Brewing (L.A.’s resident hop-forward brewery), MacLeod Ale Brewing Company (an Anglophile cask-only project in the San Fernando Valley), and Highland Park Brewing (which opened last year in a converted Mexican escort club in one of L.A.’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods).

You’ll notice that most of L.A.’s beer isn’t being made in the traditional cultural centers like Hollywood, Santa Monica, or Downtown—mostly because buying real estate there isn’t cost-effective. Instead, craft beer is happening on the fringes, in places like Northeast L.A., and in more working-class cities like Covina, Agoura, Torrance, and Long Beach, where communities tend to rally around local businesses.

No Boundaries in the Wild West

L.A.’s beer scene is growing incrementally, mostly with small operations in concentrated, affordable pockets, and not as a whole. Wide swaths of the region still don’t have their own breweries, making it even more difficult to change perceptions of the city as a beer desert—in some parts, it still is.

“Every town you can think of as a ‘beer town’ has a brewery that’s made a huge impression on the place. That’s something L.A. didn’t have,” says Tony Yanow, co-founder of Golden Road Brewing. “We just don’t have a big brewery to rally around, and so whether it’s my brewery or Jeremy’s brewery [Jeremy Raub, Eagle Rock Brewing], we’re all making beers and we all have our communities.”

All this fragmentation is leading toward an increase in recipe innovation, making L.A. less like a beer void and more like the Wild West.

Highland Park brewmaster Bob Kunz, who moved from Seattle to Los Angeles, finds freedom in the lack of tradition. Photo: Randy Clemens/West Coaster Socal

New breweries are opening up all the time in neighborhoods that once seemed least likely to play host to craft beer (Inglewood, anyone?). And the brewers, untethered from expectations of West Coast IPAs or traditional beer styles, are taking a no-holds-barred approach.

“It’s interesting—a lot of people are drawn to beer cities because there’s already a culture there, but for me it was rad to be here because I can actually have a voice and I can help shape this culture,” says Highland Park Brewery owner and brewmaster Bob Kunz. Kunz first discovered craft beer in Seattle and then moved to L.A., where he worked under Jilg at Craftsman before becoming the manager at Father’s Office, a seminal beer bar in Santa Monica.

For years, our beer scene was truly made up of beer bars serving other people’s beer and making other regions more famous.

In addition to crisp IPAs and drinkable session beers, his brewery makes beers like Wake Up, a black lager with coffee; the seasonal Ham Porter (which, yes, is brewed with a ham in the tank); and Yard Beer, a sour wheat beer using herbs, weeds, and citrus from Kunz’s own backyard. His use of non-traditional beer ingredients and style-bending techniques is par for course in L.A., where Eagle Rock Brewery’s Ginger Saison, Golden Road Brewing’s vegan Almond Milk Stout, and Smog City Brewing’s appropriately titled Weird Beer represent the young market’s penchant for experimentation.

“It feels more like 2006 in L.A.,” says Scot Blair, the outspoken owner of Hamilton’s, Small Bar and Monkey Paw Brewing in San Diego. “Things were a lot different down here in 2006. It was way better. You were doing something you thought at the time was different. You’re out there as the little-man’s hero. It was a nice place to play. In L.A., it’s just taken a lot longer for the pioneers to find their way.”

Searching for Sustainable Business Models

But does the brewers’ interest in pushing the envelope align with L.A.’s palette? Weird beer doesn’t necessarily sell, and a brewery is still a business. As more drinkers enter the market looking for the IPAs and pale ales that dominate the scene at large, the pressure is on L.A. brewers to provide utilitarian, easy-drinking beers.

Some, like Jilg at Craftsman and Henry Nguyen of Monkish Brewing, never stray from their artistic visions and refuse to let the market dictate what beers they make. Others, like Highland Park and Beachwood, find a balance between their everyday beers and special barrel-aging or sour projects.

“People come in and say you have a great business model because you only do Belgians,” says Nguyen, who plans to begin shipping beer to Portland and Philadelphia—two markets known for their love of Belgian-style beer. “I stuck with it, really believing I could build it up. But it doesn’t sell as fast because it’s still a specialty product.”

Across the country, entrepreneurs are seeing dollar signs in craft beer, moving at hyper-speed to open breweries and get new beer to market, sometimes with the product’s quality suffering as a result. Nowhere is this struggle between beer business and artistry more clearly outlined than in L.A., where investors are eager to cash in on the craft trend, often at the expense of quality and sustainable growth.

Angel City Brewing Company’s massive facility in the burgeoning Arts District of DTLA. Photo: The Originators

In 2012, Angel City Brewing opened a massive facility and tasting room in downtown’s up-and-coming Arts District. Though it originally began life a few years after Craftsman, it was purchased from its original owners by a subsidiary of Boston Beer Company and re-branded as an entirely new brewery. With massive marketing dollars behind it and a sales plan that includes producing retail bottles alongside Sam Adams at Midwest plants, Angel City is often cited as an example of business getting out in front of the beer itself. (After being schlepped across the county to liquor stores in L.A., cans and bottles of “local” Angel City beers don’t taste nearly as good as the pints available in the taproom.)

Within a half-mile of Angel City, five more breweries are in the works, most of them opening in large warehouses with bigger brewing systems. The largest, with 40,000 square feet of brewery space, hasn’t even made a beer yet, but says it has plans to produce approachable IPAs, barrel-aged stouts, and sours. Another is being launched by the same hospitality group behind some of L.A.’s most famous craft-cocktail bars. It recently hired a brewer from Pizza Port in San Diego to run the ship.

Whereas over-saturation is now a concern in places like Portland, San Diego, and Denver (where brewery-per-capita rates are high), L.A. has only 30 breweries in a county of 10 million people, leaving plenty of room for more.

“I see nothing but bright lights in L.A.,” says Blair. “It’s an exciting time for beer, but it’s also a wake-up call. Where’s it going to go? If we don’t pay attention to the quality of the brands, we’re going to lose all the people we’ve worked so hard to get to our side.”

Yanow agrees: “Just because the market wasn’t there to support it in the early days doesn’t mean that we’re not there now,” he says. “We still have a younger culture but I venture to say that the craft-beer scene is as tight and focused as anywhere else because we go through that struggle together. It might seem like, ‘Wow, we are so young.’ But ask any old person—they’d rather be young.”

The Highland Park Brewing facility. Photo: Sarah Bennett