Craft beer comes to City of Angels

If cities were alcoholic beverages, Los Angeles would be a mix of vodka and Red Bull — a potent dose of liquor hidden beneath the sugary-sweet sheen of a counterintuitive energy boost.

San Diego, just a few hours south, would be defined by its main boozy creation, one rooted in a working-class ethic that has been around millenniums longer than Red Bull’s wing-giving jolt: hand-crafted beer.

As far back as Ancient Egypt, humans have been fermenting grains to make alcoholic beer-like beverages and yet recipes are still constantly in flux.

After centuries of Belgian and German brewing traditions dominating world consumption, beer-lovers have recently been looking to the United States for guidance on how to push the boundaries of the craft.

This concept might seem weird for anyone who thinks of the ultra-yellow macro brews Budweiser and Miller Light as “traditional” American beers. But those willing to look beyond the 7-Eleven beer cooler will easily find that new availability of ingredients and the exploration of non-traditional brewing methods have made the last few decades some of the most innovative in beer history, with small-batch craft breweries slowly creeping into the mainstream breweries’ market share.

This feat is most surprising in the United States, where Prohibition eliminated our flourishing dark-beer culture and replaced it with watered-down, rice-infused drinks that maximized bootleggers’ profits but ruined our craving for craftsmanship.

Cities such as Portland, Ore., Denver and the aforementioned San Diego have been cultivating this return to experimentalism, primarily because of their blue-collar history and emerging DIY identity.

A shift is in progress in Los Angeles — a metropolis once better known for its Hollywood-fueled liquor scene than its young-but-earnest community of beer geeks. The last two years have seen the city’s appreciation for craft beer grow exponentially as a surge of gastropubs, alehouses, breweries and taverns have opened up from the Valley to the Westside to Downtown, joining the few stalwart beer institutions such as Father’s Office in Santa Monica and Lucky Baldwin’s in Pasadena.

This first round of new businesses — most of which opened during 2008 — led distant, car-fueled residents to neighborhood meeting points and slowly introduced our bland, mostly mainstream beer tastes to the multi-faceted world of hand-crafted beer.

In the last few months, however, another set of beer-centric establishments have opened across the city, taking advantage of L.A.’s newfound sense of exploration and widening the city’s beer horizons even more.

Pushing the gastropub concept another step toward the specialty bar, new hangouts such as West Hollywood’s Surly Goat, Burbank’s Tony’s Darts Away, Venice Beach’s Venice Ale House and Long Beach’s Congregation Ale House (full disclosure: I work there) are scaling down the food menu and offering a wider berth of more unique beers than ever.

The idea — Eagle Rock Brewery co-founder Jeremy Raub told the Los Angeles Times when he opened the brewery’s tasting room two years ago — is to “inspire Angelenos to dig themselves out of the domestic beer rut and dive into the wide world of craft brewing.”

To do this, the city’s alcohol consumers don’t necessarily have to swear off tall boys of Pabst Blue Ribbon, but instead alter their ideas of drinking in general. Long used in Los Angeles — especially by the city’s college students — as a way to encourage a party atmosphere, beer has the ability to be so much more.

If we stop drinking weak, urine-colored beer as a means to an end and start dabbling in more uncommon styles such as Saisons, Dopple Weizens and imperial red ales, beer becomes less about getting drunk as quickly as possible and more about appreciating taste and quality the way you would a fine wine.

Like many things in Los Angeles, however, this emerging beer scene has not been created autonomously. Because three of beer’s main four ingredients — malted barley, yeast and hops — cannot be grown in Southern California, local brewers are mostly reliant on out-of-state ingredients, many of which are available to brave home brewers through supply stores throughout town.

More importantly, because the city’s beer identity is still forming, Los Angeles does not yet have a hometown style.

Belgian, British and German beer styles are all international staples — think Hefenweizen, porters and golden ales — and even certain beer-producing cities in the states have gained recognition for their local brews (such as San Diego’s complex, ultra-bitter imperial IPAs and the Pacific Northwest’s emerging beer style, Cascade Dark Ale). But both brewers and outlets in Los Angeles have thus far been confined to recognizable tastes, no doubt in an effort to appeal to the majority of the city that has yet to acquire a palette for craft beer.

The new flock of bars sprouting up across the Greater Los Angeles area, however, is providing the crucial next step for those who envision this city as a diverse craft beer town.

With the focus of many of these restaurants and bars not on the gluttonous aspect of consuming beer, young brewmasters and bartenders are able to offer a range of local and international microbrews, many meant for sipping in specially branded glasses, not for chugging through a funnel attached to a hose.

There will always be a place in Los Angeles nightlife for vodka-Red Bulls and tall-can specials, but with the promising roots of good beer craftsmanship already making themselves manifest in this sprawling metropolis, it just doesn’t seem fair to subject your liver to the liquor-fueled decadence of yore.

Sarah Bennett is a senior majoring in communication. Her column, “Fake Bad Taste,” runs Wednesdays.

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