Compared with other West Coast cities, Los Angeles hasn’t developed much of a taste for craft beer.
But Alan Newman thinks the region’s palate is ready to change, presenting brewers with an opportunity to tap into a huge market that, for now, isn’t controlled by any big players.
“If you go to San Diego, craft beer has a huge share of the market; same thing in San Francisco,” Newman said. “There’s no reason for me to believe it’s not going to happen here.”
Earlier this year, Newman’s company, Alchemy & Science Brewing Collaborative LLC, bought Angel City Brewing in downtown L.A.’s Arts District and is now renovating the brewery, with plans to build a bar and gift shop, and open up for tours.
It’s part of a strategy by Alchemy & Science – a Burlington, Vt., subsidiary of craft beer giant Boston Beer Co., the maker of Samuel Adams – to make Angel City a powerful regional brand.
“There’s a lack of existing breweries that own the territory,” said Newman, a portly brewing veteran with a shaved head, silver beard and banana-yellow spectacles. “Los Angeles is an immature market.”
Newman and Boston Beer aren’t the only big names who see opportunity here. Cedd Moses, whose 213 Inc. owns downtown hotspots such as Broadway Bar and Seven Grand, is seeking permits to build a brewery and skeeball parlor just a few blocks down Traction Avenue from Angel City. In addition, executives from Escondido’s Stone Brewing Co. have said they want to build a small brewery somewhere downtown.
Angel City already sells kegged beer to local bars, but it plans to add a bottling line and work with distributors to sell to grocery stores and more bars. Moses’ brewery would produce beer sold on tap and in bottles at the brewery as well as for sale to other bars. A Stone location downtown would likely make small batches of beer to sell on tap and in jugs to take home.
Those big-name projects and the rapid growth of Atwater Village’s Golden Road Brewing, as well as more than two dozen planned breweries in Los Angeles County, could signal that the L.A. craft beer scene is hitting its stride after years of lagging behind much of the rest of the West Coast.
Newman estimates that craft brews make up nearly one-third of the total beer market in San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; Seattle and San Diego. In Los Angeles, he said craft beer makes up more like 3 percent or 4 percent of all suds”
Behind the curve
The Brewers Association, a craft beer trade group in Boulder, Colo., doesn’t keep track of those figures, but Paul Gatza, the association’s director, said Los Angeles is definitely behind the curve.
“For years and years, it was like, ‘Why isn’t the scene more happening for breweries in Los Angeles?’” Gatza said. “It’s remarkable that San Diego County has in the neighborhood of 70 breweries. I don’t know why Los Angeles wouldn’t have at least 20.”
The L.A. craft beer scene has shown signs of life in the past and even drew in some big names. Greg Koch, chief executive of Stone Brewing, lived in downtown Los Angeles from 1987 until 1995 and said that the city’s beer scene looked healthy then.
Gorky’s, a café and bar with locations in downtown and Hollywood, brewed beer then. Brew pubs popped up in the beach cities and local brands such as Rhino Chasers were widely available.
With all that going on, Koch opted to move to San Diego County, where he saw more opportunity, to start Stone Brewing.
But many of the breweries and brands that Koch remembers closed up. Perhaps the most notable flameout was Wolfgang Puck’s short-lived Westside restaurant and brewery, Eureka. It opened in 1990 but quickly racked up more than $1 million in debt and closed after just 18 months.
“Los Angeles became home to a lot of notable failures,” Koch said. “People threw a lot of stuff against the wall and very little of it stuck.”
The various closures left Los Angeles with a reputation as a craft beer wasteland. A few small breweries and brew pubs have carried on, but, until recently, none has had the capacity or desire to become a regional brand.
Golden Road, founded last year, is an early contender for that role, with its beer now available at dozens of bars as well as local Trader Joe’s stores, and at several Los Angeles International Airport restaurants.
Now Newman hopes to build the Angel City brand into a regional force. The brewery has been around for 15 years but is only available in a handful of bars. Originally based in Culver City, the brewery moved to Torrance in 2004 and to downtown Los Angeles last year. In January, founder Michael Bowe sold to Alchemy & Science, saying in a press release that he was interested in brewing, “not the challenges of growing a business.”
Newman said Alchemy & Science’s goal is to expand the overall craft beer market by building breweries, taking over existing ones and pursuing other strategies that would distract from parent Boston Beer’s focus on its Samuel Adams brand.
After taking over Angel City, Newman first fixed and updated the brewing equipment and is now working to renovate the brewery, housed in a former warehouse at Alameda Street and Traction Avenue. He plans to open the site for tours as well as build a tavern and gift shop.
Tours and T-shirts likely won’t be big moneymakers, but they will help market the brewery and its beers. The brewery’s tavern area will feature limited-edition beers or experimental batches that Angel City will serve to test-market. Newman said he’s hoping to open for tours by next month and be done with renovations by February or March.
By next summer, downtown could have yet another working brewery. Moses’ 213 plans to build one with a bar, skeeball games, pizza parlor and basement speakeasy. Eddie Navarrette, of downtown land-use consultancy F.E. Design & Consulting, said 213 plans to sell beer on site and distribute locally.
Moses and 213 did not return calls for comment, but Navarrette said the bar and brewery at 828 Traction Ave. would include seating for nearly 300 and up to 27 skeeball lanes, as well as table tennis and vintage arcade games. Navarrette filed permit applications in June and expects the permitting process to take about a year.
Koch’s Stone project isn’t as far along; it’s just an idea for now. He believes a brewery and restaurant downtown would help expand Angelenos’ palates and the craft beer market in Los Angeles.
“It’s been our goal to forward the craft beer movement,” he said. “We like to work to build awareness that there’s an alternative to the industrialized notion of beer.”
The L.A. craft beer scene is young enough that Newman doesn’t see other brewers as a threat.
Several other breweries has opened this year, including Ohana Brewing Co. south of downtown and Monkish Brewing Co. in Torrance; the Brewers Association reports there are 29 breweries and brew pubs planning to open in the county, though many of those likely won’t get far.
Still, Newman said all that activity helps craft brewers. For Los Angeles to become a market where craft beer makes up 20 percent or 30 percent of the market, he said the region needs more breweries where consumers can get acquainted with craft beer.
“What drives market share is local breweries,” he said. “It’s local, it’s down the street.
“Once I tried craft beer, Coors Light wasn’t going to do it for me anymore.”
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