Craft Breweries Flock to DTLA

Craft Breweries Flock to DTLA
Crafty: Ben Turkel is the operations manager of Boomtown Brewery. (Photo by David Sprague)

As craft beer has rooted itself into Los Angeles culture, downtown has played a role in fostering the sub-industry.

And as the Covid-19 pandemic upended the food and beverage industry as a whole, it also sparked an evolution of downtown’s identity in terms of who works and lives there. Fewer people are working in the area as companies relocate their offices elsewhere or employees at those that remain enjoy remote work options.

And while solutions remain elusive for the homelessness crisis, an increase in residents in apartments and condos downtown will likely dictate how business adjusts in the city center.

The breweries there want to be a part of that reimagining.

“I’ve lived in the city now for almost 15 years. My wife and I live downtown. My wife is in the homeless services sector. We are really sensitive to the construct of, ‘If you want the city to be something, you need to help create it,’” said Ben Turkel, operations manager at Boomtown Brewery. “I want our city to be full of artisans and craftspeople and to have spaces that are safe for a community to engage in and to grow in. And if I want that, I need to be part of creating that.”

Once a rare niche outpost in the Los Angeles County landscape, there are now nearly 100 locally based breweries throughout the county. Much of this growth occurred in the 10 years prior to the pandemic in 2020.

Since then, the industry has had its usual challenges only magnified. Nationally, a handful of prominent longtime craft operations have shuttered or entered bankruptcy. Locally, many continue to feel the squeeze of economics, with some beginning to close.

“Most craft breweries have the deck stacked against them. Malted barley is our No. 1 ingredient and we saw that increase in price by 40 or 50%. That’s a pretty tough nut to crack,” said Bob Kunz, owner of Highland Park Brewery, which mainly operates in Chinatown. “Besides minimum wage, we want to pay people well, so that is huge. We’re in the middle of Los Angeles, so we spend a lot of money on rent. Food and beverage is not a huge margin industry, so it’s tough. If the cost of your raw materials is increasing and cost of labor is going up, it’s hard to push that off on the consumer.”

Hitting stride

Brewing: Ben Tansey, brewer at Boomtown Brewery, works at the outpost. (Photo by David Sprague)

The brewery scene in L.A. County – especially downtown’s – was coming into its own at the start of 2020.

Angel City Brewery had relocated from Alpine Village in Torrance to its signature spot in the heart of the Arts District in 2010. Within the year, it was bought by Boston Beer Co., known best for its Samuel Adams beer brand. By 2016, Boomtown, Mumford Brewing and Arts District Brewing Co. had set up shop, while large San Diego brand Karl Strauss Brewing Co. had opened a brewpub downtown. Atwater Village-based Golden Road Brewing also opened a bar at Grand Central Market in 2016, although its ownership by global beer giant Anheuser Busch negates its craft status in some professional circles. Meanwhile, Highland Park Brewery opened doors in Chinatown in 2018, shifting from a production-only operation to full-service, and San Diego’s Modern Times had opened its “Dankness Dojo” taproom downtown. Boomtown’s search for a home began in 2012.

“This was a good break for us, because we all knew about the Arts District. We knew that it was up and coming. But in 2013, it was still pretty dodgy down here. A lot of what we think of as the Arts District wasn’t created there,” Turkel recalled. “Arts District Brewing wasn’t there. Angel City was literally just getting started. Most of the restaurants hadn’t developed yet. Most of the apartments didn’t exist yet.”

At that time, zoning proved to be an impediment for aspiring brewers, as the operations fall under the categories of bars or restaurants, heavy manufacturing and retail.

When production-only Highland Park Brewery was looking for a taproom, Kunz said a special zoning designation in Chinatown that called for residential, commercial and manufacturing – all around a transit hub – made that spot alluring.

“Most parts of L.A., it’s tricky to get proper zoning for manufacturing and commercial and have residential zoning around you,” he said. “As we dug deeper, we were learning about (Los Angeles State Historic Park) that was about to go in and that the city wants to develop around Metro stations and have these urban hubs.

Pandemic woes

Owner: Highland Park Brewery’s Bob Kunz. (Photo by David Sprague)

Small business was largely derailed for much of 2020 and continuing into 2021. For many, it hasn’t gotten much easier.

Modern Times pulled the plug on the Dankness Dojo in 2022. Mumford closed up shop in early 2023. The county has seen a number of other closures, including most recently the venerable Eagle Rock Brewery – which, having opened in 2009, was one of the original mainstays in L.A.

Broadly, rising costs in raw materials have needled at brewing operations. Inopportune expansions left businesses with expensive leases and severely diminished income. Last year, a carbon dioxide shortage further rattled the industry.

Success in many cases was determined by an established wholesale distribution model – or the ability to successfully pivot to one. Turkel said Boomtown was initially envisioned as primarily a taproom, but they encountered zoning-related delays.

“Because we were almost two years behind a building on a taproom, we had to survive a different way and that was through distribution,” he added, “so this company is now about 80% distribution and 20% taproom, whereas the original concept was inverse on that. And then lo and behold, down the road with the pandemic, that saved us because we were almost all distribution.”

Conversely, Highland Park Brewery was almost entirely direct-to-consumer – that is, pouring pints of beer at the taproom. The operation only just got its canning machine up and running at the end of 2019.

“Prior to Covid, we were maybe canning 10% of our beer,” Kunz said. “We went from 10% of our beer being canned maybe once a month to canning 100% twice a week. That’s a pretty big business model shift.”

Highland Park Brewery nowadays is about 65% direct-to-consumer and 35% wholesale.

Similarly, Angel City had to make a shift in 2020 after developing a strong brand as a bar-hopping destination in the vibrant Arts District. That itself was an identity the operation had shifted to after initially intending to be a wholesaler.

“Once they started to notice our taproom was getting busier and busier, they shifted to getting away from distribution and increasing foot traffic and staying open later. We were starting to make some good money selling pints to customers instead of kegs to distributors,” said Layton Cutler, the head brewer for Angel City. “We were doing really, really well on the weekends. Selling beer by the pint is quite profitable. That was the focus for quite a few years.”

In 2019, Angel City was 75% direct-to-consumer. Now, it’s probably 35-40%, Cutler said.

Finding footing

It’s not all gloom. Downtown saw a number of new taprooms and operations launch in the wake of the pandemic, indicating that the movement had begun well beforehand.

Audio Graph Beer Co. opened its doors in late 2020. Pomona-based Homage Brewing opened a taproom near Highland Park Brewery in 2021. In 2022, Covina-based Arrow Lodge Brewing opened a taproom in the Arts District, and Santa Ana brewery Native Son took over the Dankness Dojo space. Last year, Georgia brewer Creature Comforts Brewing Co. expanded into L.A. with a downtown operation.

For the famously collegial craft industry, that’s exciting news.

“The more the merrier,” Turkel said. “At the end of the day, craft beer is only 13% of the beer market. The other 80% are your Budweisers, Blue Moons, Modelo and everything else. Until we can flip that script, there is no competition for us. There’s around 100 of us in L.A., most are quite small and the county is 10 million people – what competition?”

One pivot many operations have made since largely reopening in-person drinking and dining is becoming host to community-building events. Taprooms were already famous for, say, trivia, but now you’ll find, for example, the queer-themed Manic Pixie Dream Market that Boomtown hosted. Or Burger Month at Highland Park Brewery, where the kitchen staff collaborated with a variety of local burger joints and paired their creations with beer.

“We see that people need to have a reason to go out. For our first five years, new beer releases were really it,” Kunz said. “I think that mentality of chasing beer releases has died in the industry as a whole. I think what’s been effective is just having fun. We see what people get excited about and lean into that.”

It’s apparently paying off. Kunz said this past May and June were its two busiest taproom months ever and the brewery was on pace to grow 10% from its 2,600 barrels produced last year.

Meanwhile, at Angel City, Cutler said its production was on track to reach its pre-pandemic levels of about 5,000 barrels this year.

Turkel said Boomtown’s taproom customers had not quite recovered, but remained confident in Boomtown’s future.

“I think some of the excitement off the craft beer industry, the novelty, has worn off, and I think that’s fine,” he said. “I think it’s one of our responsibilities as beer manufacturers and artists to keep creating for our audience and keep evolving.”

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