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Rails to Grails: A Review of the 2016 L.A. Beer Week Kickoff Festival

For a beer enthusiast like me, there's nothing better than a rip-roaring beer festival featuring lots of different beers to taste. The 2016 L.A. Beer Week Kickoff Festival, organized by the Los Angeles Brewers Guild and held at the L.A. Center Studios on June 18, certainly qualifies as that kind of “holy grail” for me – and after all, the grail in some references is a drinking vessel. Since I rode the rails in the form of the MTA's light-rail Expo line to get there, you can see how my title for this article came about. I counted 67 breweries and 3 cideries participating, with most serving between 2 and 4 offerings, so that's a lot to choose from. Non-local breweries lending their support to the cause included Alpine, Anchor, Avery, Deschutes, Drake's, Firestone Walker, Green Flash, Great Divide, Karl Strauss, and Lost Abbey, a prestigious list all by itself!

As part of my efforts to help document the beer revolution of our times, I managed to log notes on 31 different beers I tasted during the course of the 3-hour festival. My aim was to sample the offerings of breweries I had not heard of or whose products I had not yet tasted, and I was interested in encountering a wide array of styles. Despite those limitations, this was not an easy task! But here goes:

Firestone Walker “Luponic Distortion.” This great Paso Robles brewery was founded in 1996 by brothers-in-law Adam Firestone (“the Bear”) and David Walker (“The Lion”), and opened its “Propagator” retail outlet in Venice, California on April 7, 2016 (National Beer Day!) including a restaurant, lounge, and barrel cellar; retail sales of merchandise, brewing gear, cold-stored packaged beer, and a growler-filling station; and a space for future beer education seminars. Luponic Distortion is described by the brewery as “an ever-evolving mix of experimental hops, designed to deliver mind-blowing flavors that break the rules with each new release.” This might well be expected from their widely admired brewmaster Matt Brynildson, who has a background as a hop chemist. Here there is a rich, layered, complex and earthy hop aroma that is fruity and herbaceous. The greenish-gold color also suggests a substantial hop content. The nice pungent hop-driven flavor is both intense and refreshing. At 5.9%ABV it falls right in between regular IPA and the session-strength ones now being brewed.

Smog City Brewing Co. “Kumquat Saison.” This Torrance brewery, owned by Jonathan and Laurie Porter and run with their team of Chris Walowski, Ryan Trousdale and Ryan Evans, began in 2011 before it had opened its own facility, using excess capacity at Tustin Brewing Co. to produce its beers. The Torrance facility opened in 2013. The aroma of this brew features citrus rind, marmalade, and a touch of malt and saison-yeast character (fruity with a dry phenol-resin edge). Hazy deep yellow color. The crisp, fruity-bitter flavor is drier than many saisons, and made for an interesting beer.

The Dudes Brewing Co. “Torrance Gose.” Smog City's neighbor in Torrance also opened in 2013, with former Strand Brewing head brewer Jeff Parker, majority owner Toby Humes and investor Mike Holwick getting the enterprise off the ground, though they insist it's not about them, it's about the beer. This version of a Witbier relative has a slightly Witbier-like aroma of wheat, fruity esters, and a touch of spicy phenols. Very hazy pink-gold color. The flavor has a creamy texture with fruity and spicy margins, and is a good session beer.

Angel City Brewing Co. “Bloke” oak-aged old ale served on nitrogen. Founded by former homebrewer Michael Bowe in Torrance and then relocated to downtown Los Angeles, this brewery is now owned by Alchemy & Science, a division of Boston Beer Company led by Alan Newman and Stacey Steinmetz, and helps to anchor a growing cluster of downtown breweries in what has become known as the Arts District. This beer logs 10.6% ABV and presents with lots of caramel malt in the nose, with a bit of wood as well. The deep red-amber color is nice. The rich caramel malt flavor is nicely balanced by unobtrusive bitterness. One of my favorites at this fest!

State Brewing Co. “Rye Lager.” Gardena now has its own craft brewery, founded by former homebrewers Matt Pfeiffer and Blake Shapiro in 2014 and includes their staff George Tatulescu and Tatiana Feuer. I am a fan of rye, whether it's bread or whiskey, and it can add intriguing qualities to beer. Here there is a complex grainy-toasty aroma and a nice honey-amber color. The crisply dry grainy flavor follows a flash of sweet malt on the palate. Some rye character comes through with subtlety (complex grain, earth, and spice). A very interesting take on what could be considered a variant of Vienna lager.

Transplants Brewing Co. “El Mas Guapo” Guava IPA. The high desert continues to experience growth in small local breweries, in a climate that sorely needs it. This Palmdale brewery is very new, doing a “soft opening” in December 2015 and officially opened in January 2016, the enterprise of former homebrewers Sarah and Matthew Luker (their team members are transplants from Chicago and New York). Here there is a good fruity hop aroma with creamy malt, and a green-tinted gold color. The nicely balanced IPA flavor is driven by hops, and a good bitterness level that does not drown the malt. But guava? It seems to be rather hidden. Well-made beer nonetheless.

Ladyface Ale Companie “Trebuchet” golden farmhouse ale. This Agoura Hills craft brewery and restaurant, the first in the Conejo Valley, continues to gain a reputation for a wide variety of high-quality brews and excellent food in a French-Belgian style. It opened in 2009 at the foot of Ladyface Mountain by Cyrena and Jean-Luc Nouzille, and head brewer David Griffiths, and now includes their staff Donna Wennerstrom, Chloe Burciaga-Terry and Justin Clarke. In this brew there is a well-developed Brettanomyces aroma with fruity and phenolic components, and a light greenish-gold color. The creamy body has plenty of acidic-sour and Brett-bitter elements to drive it. Fascinating stuff!

Mother Earth Brew Co. “Cali' Creamin'” vanilla cream ale. This Vista brewery began life in 2008 and has a slight name-sharing challenge with another brewery in Eastern North Carolina. But that hasn't stopped them from building a production facility in Nampa, Idaho! Founded in 2008 by Dan Love, his son Kamron and his brother Jon, the staff now includes head brewer Chris Baker, brewer Jeff Hueneman, and chief branding officer Kevin Hopkins. In this brew there is definitely vanilla in the aroma, along with grainy pale malt and a faint touch of hops. Clear medium gold color. The vanilla-led flavor is pleasant and creamy, but has an indistinct finish.

Wicks Brewing “Pecan Brown Ale.“ This eponymous Riverside brewpub, restaurant, and brew-on-premises location opened in 2013, the enterprise of father and son Brad and Ryan Wicks, and they source a rotating tap list featuring other craft brews as well. In this brew there is a classic brown ale aroma complex, with caramel malt notes and a very slight chocolate edge and faint nut essence. Hazy medium brown color. The flavor is definitely brown ale, in the drier American style, and although the pecan character is not prominent to me, it is nevertheless a nicely drinkable beer.

The Bruery “Mischief” Belgian-style ale. Award-winning homebrewer and law school graduate Patrick Rue opened his brewery in 2008 in Placentia to feature unique Belgian-inspired beers that are frequently barrel-aged. Unique ingredient combinations typify their offerings, and it seems each one is more unusual than the last. This ale hits me with a distinctly hoppy aroma, quite unusual for a Belgian-style beer. The pale reddish-gold color leads me to a soft and creamy flavor with a slight but supportive bitter edge. It finishes well. Nice!

Enegren Brewing Co. “Big Meat” Rauchbier. This brewery has a history close to my own home in Westchester, namely Loyola Marymount University, where Chris Enegren began brewing in his dormatory room before outgrowing that space and continuing his quest at his family's home in Moorpark in Ventura County. His younger brother Matt and Chris's LMU Lacrosse teammate Joe Nascenzi joined the team, opening a tiny 3-barrel commercial brewery in 2011. By January of 2015 they had progressed to a 15-barrel brewhouse, clear evidence of progress and market demand. This Rauchbier provides an interesting and complex aroma of dry smoke and malt – the smoke leads, and the malt finishes. A red-brown color leads to a flavor that nicely reflects the elements and balance found in the aroma, with a reliably dry finish.

I must give a shout out to Tiffany Ashrafi and her home-brewed Thai Iced Tea soda, one of several homemade sodas brought by Falcons and other homebrewers to the event. This was delicious and the perfect pick-me-up at a point when my energy was flagging just a bit. And on I went to sample other beers...

Santa Monica Brew Works “Feel Good Hit of the Summer Rock & Roll” cucumber melon Kolsch. As a native of Santa Monica, it's good to know that my city has its own brewery again, something it hasn't had since the late 1980s when the City of Angels brewpub folded after a short run. Scott Francis, Rich Super and Carl Sharpley partnered and began putting the brewery together in 2011, and opened it in 2014 with the slogan “beach brewed” and featuring pale, quaffable styles including Witbier, Blonde Ale, and XPA, now including an IPA and a pale-colored Porter. In this Kolsch brew there is definitely cucumber and melon in the aroma, also some sweet and grainy pale malt, with a pale gold color. The crisp but creamy flavor is dominated by cucumber (cucumber seems to be a trend in pale beers, as you'll read later in this article), however the melon gets buried flavor-wise.

Alosta Brewing Co. “Belgian Tripel.” This Covina brewery is the project of longtime homebrewers Herb Adams and Brendan Wehrly, and is named for a disappeared community south of Glendora in the 19th century whose founder, George Gard, feuded with Glendora's founder, George Whitcomb, over the morality of alcoholic beverages (Gard favored them, Whitcomb did not). Glendora wound up absorbing Alosta, whose main drag was part of the Route 66 path between Chicago and Los Angeles. This Tripel shows good ester development against the aromatic malt intensity, and a deep gold color with slight red 'influences.' The nicely balanced flavor features malt and citric notes, and hides its alcohol well. A nicely done version of a classic Belgian abbey style.

Eagle Rock Brewing Co. “Zaigermeister” sour ale aged on pluots and mangoes. When it opened in 2009, this Glassell Park brewery was the first to be founded within the Los Angeles city limits in several decades. Father and son Steve and Jeremy Raub, and Jeremy's wife Ting Su, partnered in this enterprise, and since no one had done it in so long they blogged the whole experience to provide valuable guidance to those who would follow. Their experiences can only be described as a series of searing lessons in the foibles of city government bureaucracies and the capricious terrorism of conditional use permitting those city agencies can subject businesses to, particularly in alcohol sales scenarios. No wonder Los Angeles had such a bad reputation for beer for so long. This brew has a “farmhouse Brett” aroma with fruitiness and earth/funk/phenols, but these do not overwhelm it. Thoroughly hazy yellow color. The crisply acidic flavor has lots of fruity complexity. Not for everyone, but I found it quite complex and refreshing.

Highland Park Brewery “Vacation” Belgian-style single. Another brewery located in one of the enclaves of the City of Los Angeles is this eponymous brewery situated in The Hermosillo, a neighborhood beer and wine bar; it is a partnership between main brewer Bob Kunz (an alumnus of Washington state, Father's Office as general manager, and Craftsman Brewing Co.), Ross Stephenson, Michael Blackman and Dustin Lancaster that opened in 2014. This Belgian-style single shows a richly malty aroma for such a pale beer, as well as a thoroughly hazy yellow color. The creamy-malty flavor has hop bitterness in a nice supportive but out-of-the-way role, quite Belgian in that respect. There is also a tiny edge of spice. Very nice!

Hand-Brewed Beer “VRB” vanilla raspberry Bourbon Porter. Chatsworth once had a brewery, a small contract facility called Angeles Brewing that the Maltose Falcons visited in the late 1980s. Now it has another, and it's about time. Despite the city's pressures as faced by the Eagle Rock folks, breweries keep opening and at some point the city's bureaucratic bluenoses are going to get the point – it's good for business and the community and the people want this! This enterprise is another four-way partnership (many hands make light work?), in this case between longtime friends and college roommates William Capelor, Anthony Castaneda, Brian Hand and Andrew Pletcher that appears to have gotten off the ground in 2014. In this VRB brew, you get most of those three elements in the aroma. There is a nice dense creamy head of tiny-bubble foam atop a very deep garnet color. In the flavor, there is an excellent interplay between the raspberries (dominant), vanilla (supports body) and Bourbon (helps give a dry finish). Nicely done!

Kinetic Brewing Co. “Cucumberbatch Kolsch.” Opening in December 2011, Kinetic has become an important Lancaster watering hole and restaurant in the parched high desert. Its principals are local homebrewer Steve Kinsey and Myrle McLernon. The cucumber-into-Kolsch idea has clearly influenced more than one craft brewer at this festival. This one has a good balanced mixture of cucumber and pale malt in the aroma, and a fairly clear pale yellow-gold color. The flavor shows similar balance to the aroma, with the cucumber leading and the malt finishing. Cool, refreshing, and nice. Is cucumber the new finishing hop for summer beers?

Karl Strauss Brewing Co. “Hoppywood & Bine” India Pale Lager. San Diego's oldest brewery dates from 1989 and is named for a former Hamm's Brewing Co. production executive who was a cousin to co-founder Chris Cramer and helped in opening and promoting the brewery. At first specializing in lager beers, the company has expanded its product line considerably as the market for craft beer has grown; it is still owned by Cramer and his original partner Matt Rattner. Certainly, this brew has one of the best names at this festival (brewed especially for L.A. Beer Week), and presents a nice complex hop aroma with some malt support. There is a deep gold color with touches of red. An IPA-like hop-driven flavor shows some lager smoothness as well. Its richness and balance convinces me that this is the most successfully crafted IPL I have yet tasted.

Iron Triangle Brewing Co. “Dark Ale.” One of the growing cluster of downtown Los Angeles Arts District breweries, Iron Triangle is named for the term given to a trio of men responsible for the development of the Los Angeles water supply in the early 20th century, the Owens Valley Aqueduct: DWP head William Mulholland, ex-mayor Frederick Eaton, and geological survey engineer Joseph B. Lippincott. The brewery opened in 2015 as the project of Nathan Cole and now includes his team of brewmaster Darren Moser, vice president and Maltose Falcons member Kale Bittner, assistant brewer Nathan Watkins, and bar manager Eli McAdams. The Dark Ale is one of their three regular beers, and has a nice roasty-caramel malt aroma which seems midway between Brown Ale and Porter. There is a very dark brown-into-black color. The rich, complex, malt-dominated flavor has a good sweet-dry balance built into it. A Brown Porter, I'd say, and a good one.

Mumford Brewing “Mindcloud” Double IPA. Another eponymous brewery in the Arts District, this enterprise of homebrewers and brothers Todd and Peter Mumford and Todd's wife Tien opened in 2015 featuring an American Black Ale as their signature brew. In this DIPA I find a classic intense fruity-complex hop aroma in which a tropical fruit quality is prominent, a very West Coast style currently. There is a quite hazy orange color. The good hoppy flavor has sufficient malt support with just a bit of 'space' on the early palate to give an overall satisfying profile.

Pacific Plate Brewing Co. “Tom Yum” Witbier. In the burgeoning expansion of craft brewing in the greater Los Angeles area, Monrovia now has its own brewery, tiny though it is at one-barrel capacity. This three-way partnership between brewmaster Stephen Kooshian, equipment and yeast specialist Steven Cardenas, and sales manager Jonathan Parada apparently opened in 2013 and is gaining a reputation for producing fusion-styled beers such as Horchata Stout. This Witbier is an attempt to channel the flavors of the Thai Tom Yum hot and sour soup as a beer. The aroma has essences of lemongrass and Thai basil, with an herb-spicy edge. There is a thick dense head with a fairly clear light yellow color. The creamy flavor is punctuated with herb and spice notes.

Claremont Craft Ales “Grapefruit DIPA.” The husband and wife team of Simon Brown and Emily Moultrie opened their craft brewery in 2012 (in Claremont, of course) with the assistance of cousins and business partners Brian and Natalie Seffer, starting with a small 3-barrel brewhouse and undergoing rapid growth to an anticipated 3,000 barrel production in 2016. They readily admit to a fondness for hoppy West Coast-style brews, which dominate their lineup. And it was certainly inevitable that with a grapefruit-like flavor complex imparted by certain blends of hop varieties, incorporating actual grapefruit into an IPA or DIPA would occur. Here the aroma has rich hops with some citrus – grapefruit character. Medium dark gold color. There is a nicely balanced flavor, rendering it quite drinkable for a double IPA, with a prominent grapefruit lead-in to the flavor profile. Well done!

Brouwerij West “Popfuji” unfiltered Pilsner. Brian Mercer started this enterprise as a contract-brewed brand in 2010 and as of late February 2016 with the help of brewmaster Jeremy Czuleger now brews his own in the renovated Warehouse No. 9 at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. Popfuji is the first non-Belgian style beer that has been produced (Mercer has a passion for Belgian styles gained through his experiences importing Belgian candi sugar used in brewing). Here there is a nice clean lager nose featuring grainy but sweet malt, and an unfiltered yellow color, all of which is followed by a crisp, balanced Pilsner flavor. An excellent rendition of a classic style.

Brouwerij West “The Dog Ate My Homework” Blackberry Saison. Given the crazy name of it, I had to try this one. A big blackberry aroma with red wine elements is present, with a nice (though hazy) deep red-purple color. Blackberry fruit dominates the flavor. The beer is nice, but not very Saison-like.

Brewyard Beer Co. “Soul Cal” California Common. The happy phenomenon of “new brewery in town” continues in Glendale with this homebrewers-turn-pro project of Sherwin Antonio and Kirk Nishikawa that opened in November 2015. They favor hybrid lager styles fermented a bit warmer to develop some ale character. Certainly, California Common Beer falls into that class. Here there is a rich malty aroma featuring caramel and grain, and a quite hazy amber color. The clean and crisp flavor recalls the Vienna-Marzen style it may have been originally inspired by, with a more developed palate trending toward an ale, and a dry chocolate edge to the finish. Nicely done!

Boomtown Brewery “Limelight IPA.” The downtown Arts District strikes again with this artisan ale brewery opened in 2015 by head brewer Samuel Chawinga and managing members John Rankin, Charles Lew, and Alex Kagianaris. One has to admire their stated commitment to “old world, unfiltered, gravity-fed, full flavored beers with integrity” and their devotion to providing a nexus for the local arts community. Here there is a bigtime intense and complex hop aroma from Citra, Amarillo and Mosaic hops, three of the current favorite varieties among many brewers of IPA. There is a beautiful rocky head on top of a copper-yellow color. The classic hop-driven IPA flavor has spice and resins adding additional hop depth.

Beachwood BBQ and Brewing “Table Saaz.” Few breweries have ever “raced to the top of the charts” as fast as Beachwood, due in no small measure to the skills of its head brewer, Julian Shrago, a highly-accomplished homebrewer in Long Beach. Barbecue and beer are natural partners, and the brewery opened in July 2011 to accompany a well-established barbecue joint owned by chef Gabe Gordon. Many awards have followed, including the Large Brewpub World Beer Cup championship for 2016. As critical success generally boosts demand, a production facility is underway in the former Beach City Brewing space in Huntington Beach, and the enterprise also features the Beachwood Blendery in Long Beach dedicated to the blending and aging of sour and wood-aged brews. In this particular beer there is the aroma of ultra-classic Saaz hops,and a huge head on a hazy yellow beer. The flavor features a clean and crisp hoppy break with some complex malt flavors, providing a very convincing rendition of a classic Czech Pilsner.

Arts District Brewing Co. “Kablamo” Rye IPA. Yet another new brewery from you-know-where, this one opened in December 2015 with L.A.-local brewmaster Devon Randall (from Pizza Port) and chef Neal Fraser (from Redbird) operating this project of Cedd Moses (213 Hospitality), Brian Lenzo (Blue Palms Brewhouse), and Eric Needleman (The Spirited Group). In this brew there is a nice classic IPA hop aroma, and a deep gold-amber color. The rich flavor has a creamy smoothness for an IPA without losing its complexity, and does display some rye character. The best rye IPA I have yet tasted, a style concept I think is rather difficult to execute successfully.

Absolution Brewing Co. “The Common” California Common. The Torrance cluster of craft breweries continues to expand in parallel with the downtown L.A. Arts District cluster. Absolution opened in Torrance in 2013 with the slogan “Pure pleasure, no guilt.” The team includes head brewer Bart Bullington, assistant brewer Nicholas Springer, CEO Nigel Heath, and Senior VP of Sales Steve Farguson. This is an ale brewery that shows some English stylistic inspirations and explorations well beyond that grand tradition. As in this brew, where there is a nice malt-grain aromatic complex with a fresh toasty edge. The light honey-amber color leads me to a smooth flavor with some diacetyl but also a supportive hop bitterness.

Modern Times Brewing Company “Fruitlands” Apricot. Jacob McKean, formerly social media director for Stone Brewing Co., developed his craft brewery concept in 2012 (it's named for a utopian community built on Long Island, New York in 1850) and began releasing beer in June 2013. His team includes head brewer Matt Walsh and brewers Derek Freese and Alex Tweet, and a host of other staff at this San Diego brewery with tasting room locations in Point Loma (the “Lomaland Fermentorium”) and North Park (the “Flavordome”). They specialize in “sessionish” beers that are often hybridized from classic styles infused with offbeat ideas. This Apricot beer from their Fruitlands series has a nice interplay of apricot and malt/grain essences aromatically. The hazy light orange color matches the concept, too. The flavor is fairly deep into the fruit, bringing out the acid and dried-rind aspects of apricot with good intensity and complexity. I enjoyed it quite a bit, as apricot is one of my favorite fruits and this was executed well.

Topa Topa Brewing Company “Cali Common.” This Ventura brewery, helmed by head brewer Casey Harris (former senior brewer at Stone), co-founders Jack Dyer and Kyle Thompson, and marketing director Ryan Jacobs, opened in June 2015 and now has a tasting room in Santa Barbara. This is an ale brewery dedicated to high-quality classic styles. Here there is a nice malt-grain complex to the aroma including toastiness, and a beautiful honey-amber color. The crisp, fruity-malty flavor is classic for this iconic style. Nice job with this one!

My congratulations to the Los Angeles Brewers Guild and to all the participating breweries and cideries for this excellent event. Thanks to their efforts, the prospects for better beer for Los Angeles are brighter than ever!

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