While California helped lead the charge for craft beer, the state's largest city stayed largely on the sidelines. But not anymore.
Los Angeles may have been a latecomer to the craft beer game, but over the past few years, the City of Angels has started to carve out its own identity. Four years ago, there were less than 15 local breweries in the city, a miniscule number given its footprint and population. Today, the number tops 50.
"The craft beer scene really missed LA," says Nigel Heath, CEO and "chief tasting officer" for Absolution Brewing Company. "The [craft beer] heartland was in San Diego ... then it jumped over L.A. and landed in San Francisco or maybe Seattle."
The hurdle in L.A. was distribution, says Meg Gill, president and co-founder at Golden Road Brewing, the city's largest craft beer maker. Not too long ago the city's larger distributors, run by InBev Anheuser Busch, wouldn't work with craft brewers, keeping them out of the market. When that policy changed (prompted, in part, by the fact that craft-friendly Stone Brewing opened a distribution arm in the city), the tides began to turn.
Golden Road and nearby Angel City Brewing seem to have the biggest footprints so far—and they certainly have the most visibility. But so far, L.A. is largely a collection of smaller brewers who are looking to stand out, not only from one another other, but also from better-known craft beers from other parts of California.
That creates a camaraderie that could be essential to the survival of some brewers.
"We're all growing so fast, we're going to need to help each other," says Jon Carpenter, brewmaster at Angel City Brewing. "If we don't band together ... and help each other out, we're not going to grow this market as much as we'd like to."
Working in their favor is the city's love of food and drink.
"People want flavor in their food and their cocktails in L.A., and that movement helps the craft beer movement," says Gill. "You're not going to put a $16 cocktail on the menu and also have a Bud Light."
The citizens of Los Angeles are still in the process of embracing local brewers. Some stores offer dedicated shelf space to the breweries that bottle or can their beer in the city, but given the competition from other quality craft brewers in the larger California area, it can be hard to stand out.
"I would say bars are more California-focused on beer than city-focused on beer," says Gill. "But it absolutely helps when you have 'L.A.' stamped on the bottle."
Meanwhile, some areas of the city are looking to become craft beer hubs. Torrance, for example, is home to several popular brewers, including Smog City, Dudes Brewing Co., Strand Brewing Co. and Absolution, which is in the midst of an expansion that will quadruple the size of its brewhouse.
"I wouldn't say we've caught up with the rest of the state, but we're definitely starting to keep pace," says Carpenter.
Headed to L.A. sometime soon? Here are a number of good local choices. And, Angelinos: We'd love to hear your recommendations in the comment section below as well!
Angel City IPA - This is one of the easiest locally-made beers to find in L.A., so it's a relief to discover that it's a very tasty take on the style. You'll get tangerine, orange and pine on the nose, which are both present as you take a sip, as are floral hints. It's mildly bitter and offers a very dry finish. (ABV: 6.1%)
Angel City Berliner Weisse - Offering lots of carbonation and a good bit of funk, this is a notable take on a Weiss. It blends sourness with a wheat base, adding a mild acidity that's intriguing. It may not be for everyone, but if you're a fan of funky beers, it's worth a shot. (ABV: 3.3%)
Golden Road 329 Lager - A good choice for your day at the beach, this lager has a nice, light bready taste to it. It's well balanced, has a hint of fruitiness and has a light finish, with just a touch of hoppiness. It's a good choice for people who either don't normally drink craft beer or are just beginning to expand their palate. (ABV: 4.8%)
Golden Road Point The Way IPA - Golden Road's flagship beer might surprise people who have had a lot of West Coast IPAs, in that it's not a hop explosion (though they're certainly there). You'll pick up citrus and mango notes, but the defining characteristic is a sweetness from the malt that mellows the hops, making it very much a mainstream-friendly offering. (ABV:5.9%)
Absolution Brewing Co.'s AD/JD - Take Absolution's Angel's Demise IPA, barrel-age it in Jack Daniels barrels for three months, and you've got one hell of a combination. It's only available occasionally, though Heath says more is on the way. The whiskey softens the hops at the beginning, though they shine through at the finish, making this a nice twist on the many bourbon barrel beers around these days. (ABV: 7.2%)
Absolution Brewing Co.'s Holy Cow - You won't get a lot of coffee or chocolate in this stout, but that's not a bad thing. Very smooth (especially on a nitro tap). Very malty and sweet. And with a very full mouthfeel, it's the closest I've had to a Guinness from a craft brewery to date, but manages to stand completely on its own. (ABV: 5.1%)
Smog City Brewing Cuddle Bug - This wild ale brings resembles a good Gose, with a wonderful blend of tartness and fruitiness, though without the salty quality of that style. The sour punches you on your first sip, but gives way to the citrus and apricot. A relatively high carbonation makes this a crisp, refreshing choice. (ABV: 4.5%)