Getting Crafty

A few years ago, a wine-bar boom had Angelenos buzzing. Then we had a mixology moment with the rise of the artisan cocktail. But now, something else is brewing. Although the demand for craft beer has been building for some time, it’s bubbling over now as a slew of hip pubs and award-winning microbreweries set up shop, packing in discerning, suds-loving patrons ready to leave Miller time in the past. Herewith, a bar crawl to some of the county’s most promising spots for craft beer.

Upon seeing the exterior, you might not know what to make of Echo Park’s Mohawk Bend, located on an unpolished strip of Sunset Boulevard in the shell of an old movie theater. But after you enter under the art-deco marquee, you’ll see that you’re in a massive bar and restaurant packed to the brim with the Eastside’s trendiest. The huge, fashionably outfitted space offers a variety of settings in which to sip and savor: a covered patio, an interior “quad” with plush leather banquettes, and the atrium-like Ramona Room, filled with live trees and with a roaring fireplace at its center. But the majority of the patrons is congregated near the bar in the middle, where “Chief Beer Officer” Paige Reilly keeps the 72 beer taps loaded with small-batch selections.

A zeal for craft beer—defined as beer produced in limited production by a small brewing company, and also known as microbrews—brought Reilly and owner Tony Yanow together when they worked together at Yanow’s successful Tony’s Darts Away in Burbank. “I’ve been a craft-beer fanatic for more than two decades,” says Yanow, and adds slyly, “Paige has been passionately dedicated since she was almost old enough to drink.” Concocting the beer list for Tony’s proved to be a valuable education that they carried over to Mohawk Bend, which opened in August. “[Paige] and I have visited almost every brewery in the state and have spent considerable time learning about the beers, the breweries and the people involved,“ says Yanow.

Reilly and Yanow chose to focus on California-brewed beers, of which there are usually 65 on tap, at Mohawk Bend. “We are incredibly fortunate to have some of the best breweries within the state. The idea is that we can do it,” Yanow proclaims. The daily changing list has included selections such as the fruity Heavenly Hef Hefeweizen from Pasadena’s Craftsman Brewing Company, the Sculpin IPA (India Pale Ale) by San Diego stalwart Ballast Point Brewing Company and the decadent Chocolate Porter from Hangar 24 Craft Brewery in Redlands. The fresh brews are made even more satisfying with dishes from a thoughtfully created food menu that includes numerous vegetarian and vegan options; try the addicting squash ’n’ chips or build-your-own s’mores.

Yanow reports that Mohawk Bend’s customers range from the “uninitiated” to “die-hard, serious craft-beer aficionados who can come into our bars and talk about hop varietals.” But he most enjoys meeting patrons who are “repulsed by beer”; he delights in finding the beer that will change their minds. Yanow says proudly, “I even got my mom to drink beer, and she hated that stuff.” The bar also serves wines, boutique distilled spirits and handcrafted cocktails, but if you chat with Yanow, Reilly or one of their beer-obsessed servers, don’t be surprised if they coax you toward an unfamiliar brew. Says Yanow, “For us, beer is a lot more than a beverage and a craft. It’s a community, a passion and our livelihood.“ 2141 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park, 213.483.2337

Jeremy Raub doesn’t mince words about the results of his early home-brewing experiments with his father, Steve, when they picked up the hobby nearly 20 years ago. “Some of those first beers were pretty terrible!” he remembers. For years Jeremy and Steve tinkered with their brewing methods, poring over books, taking copious notes and occasionally surprising friends, family and themselves with a truly winning batch of beer. They even talked of opening their own microbrewery. “Then on my birthday in 2005, [my wife] Ting [Su] surprised me by registering the business name. She said, ‘If you’re really serious about this, it’s time to stop talking and start doing,’” says Jeremy.

Thanks to that gentle push,
Eagle Rock Brewery was born at the end of 2009, and co-owners Steve, Jeremy and Su have made the brewery a major player in the local craft-beer scene. Not only can the brewery’s beers be found in dozens of L.A.’s restaurants and bars, but they’ve also helped turn the sleepy bedroom community of Eagle Rock into a destination. Roll up to the brewery on a Saturday night and you’ll find a bustling taproom with few frills—a glossy granite bar illuminated by pendant lamps and a half-dozen wooden tables that are claimed early in the evening. Patrons toast one another with frosty glasses of Eagle Rock Brewery’s finest, including the fruity Populist IPA, the hoppy Revolution extra pale ale, and Manifesto, a feather-light, Belgian-style white ale. Jeremy is particularly proud of the English mild ale Solidarity—”it’s dark in color, but very light in flavor”—as well as the labor-intensive Yearling, a seasonal Flanders red ale aged for a year in wine barrels. If one glass isn’t enough to satiate you, take home a “growler,” an attractive-looking jug that holds 64 ounces of fresh-brewed beer.

As the beer movement has gotten bigger, Jeremy finds himself increasingly impressed by the knowledge of his customers. “When we first opened, it seemed like there were only a couple handfuls of people that already knew what was going on in the world of craft beer,” he says. But now, he reports, “So many of our customers are not only accustomed to drinking a wide range of beer styles, they are also really adventurous as to trying new styles of beer that they’ve never experienced.”

Jeremy notes, “The craft-beer scene in L.A. is at a very exciting time right now.” While he points out that there is “fear of the ‘bubble’ bursting” because of the rapid growth of the local industry, he acknowledges that there’s a definite upside to the boom in craft beer-bars and microbreweries. “It’s a great time to be a beer lover in L.A.! Within the next few years we all have the chance to actually establish Los Angeles as a legitimate beer city.” 3056 Roswell St., L.A., 323.257.7866

Michael Bowe, president, founder and self-proclaimed “brewmaster” of downtown’s Angel City Brewing, has more in common with Jeremy Raub than just owning a microbrewery: He, too, was inspired to get serious about brewing beer by his wife. “I read an ad in a contractor magazine for a mail-order home-brew kit in 1989, and bought the kit,” he remembers. “I made it for my pregnant wife, and after our first son was born, she started drinking it and loved it!” Bowe might have started brewing for love, but he kept at it for the love of brewing, joining the Maltose Falcons home-brewing club and scooping up awards for his creations. “My first blue ribbon was for an IPA in 1990,” he recalls. “I was a fanatic and brought 10 to 15 gallons to every meeting. I was very popular!” he jokes. Later, he says, “I got to go to Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and watch and learn what they did. I started Angel City Brewing on St. [Patrick’s] Day 1997 and never looked back.”

The brewery was founded in Culver City before moving to Torrance’s Alpine Village. In May it moved again to a sprawling, bare-bones space in the historic John A. Roebling Building in downtown’s emerging Arts District. “It feels great to be in downtown L.A.—such an up-and-coming, vibrant scene!” Bowe exclaims. He calls his business a “brewery/art gallery,” and the rough, industrial look of the space is enlivened by changing art shows. Angel City is still evolving—Bowe has ambitious plans to include stages for live music, a gift shop, even a full-service restaurant—but right now, the taproom offers a cool, relaxed setting for tasting in view of impressive stainless-steel brewing tanks. Like Wurstküche a few blocks away, it also serves Italian sausages topped with grilled onions and peppers, the perfect savory complement to an ice-cold beer. The scene at Angel City is even more festive when it hosts frequent special events with beer tastings, bands, food trucks and barbecue cooked by Bowe’s brother, Michael.

And then there are those wonderful, creatively named beers, the main attractions of Angel City, which continue to win awards, such as the nine medals Bowe took home from the L.A. County Fair’s last two beer competitions. Consider the “revolutionary” Che pale lager, the “bright and edgy” Charlie Parker Pale Ale and the “mellow” Lester Young Porkpie Hat Dark Lager. (Bowe is a jazz musician.) “We will soon have the full complement of 10-15 beers on tap including new beers like Angel City Whitey, Scorpion Sour and several barrel-aged beers,” Bowe reports.

The local media have been abuzz over the presence of a microbrewery not confined to the L.A. County’s outskirts, but no one is a bigger believer in Angel City Brewing than Michael Bowe. He says confidently, “Our new location is phenomenal and Angel City Brewing will emerge as the dominant craft brewery in Los Angeles within a year.” 216 S. Alameda St., downtown, 213.622.1261

A locus of activity in Culver City has long been Rush Street, a restaurant and bar in the middle of the city’s downtown where patrons spill out onto the sidewalk. Walk west on Culver Boulevard, and you’re likely to see people buzzing around another patio—that of new City Tavern. Rush Street partners Ken Kaufman and Brian McKeaney came together with its executive chef, Dave Northrup, to mastermind a modern tavern that would copy Rush Street’s successful formula of a solid food menu and casually stylish looks—see the distressed brick walls, exposed wood beams and reclaimed-wood floors. And they added to the equation a selection of great microbrews.

“One of the big focuses we had in creating City Tavern was that great craft beer can be paired with upscale food,” says Northrup, who leaves the kitchen duties to chef Jessica Christensen while he works with Kaufman and McKeaney on the business end. Northrup confesses that though he’s “not a big beer drinker,” he’s drawn to “the idea that a couple of guys who start out just home brewing can follow their passion and create a business out of it. Beer can be a truly local product.” There are 22 handles of California-made microbrews at City Tavern’s main bar, many of them from the L.A. area; featured breweries have included Port Brewing Co., Bear Republic Brewery and Iron Fist Brewing Co. Northrup emphasizes that, since City Tavern’s April opening, the team has constantly searched for new brewers and beers to include in the rotating tap selection. “We have put up over 250 different types of beer since we opened,” he says.

Artisan cocktails and wines are also available, but another unique gadget keeps the focus on beer: the Table Tap, a computerized draft-beer system built into three of City Tavern’s booths that allows customers to pour their own drinks. Come happy hour, they’re snapped up by a cool after-work crowd who hang out to sample new brews and share plates of sweet-and-spicy meatballs, curry-roasted cauliflower and “cheesy poofs” with buttermilk dressing. Says Northrup of the fun-to-use Table Taps, “It really adds to the communal feel of the place.”

Northrup sees a mix of “craft-beer-educated people” and those who are new to microbrews, but notes that no matter the level of experience, most are eager to learn more. “It’s exciting to see folks appreciating a new experience in the beer universe.” 9739 Culver Blvd., Culver City, 310.838.9739