It seems that in the swelling seas of the craft beer movement, Los Angeles has not yet begun to fight. From longtime brewers like Craftsman in Pasadena through the first new wave at Eagle Rock Brewery, up to and beyond Golden Road Brewing, Angel City Brewery downtown and even Smog City, Los Angeles continues to flourish with up-and-coming brewers doing inventive things with hops, ryes, wheats and barley. And there's still plenty of room in this pond for more.
One of the strongest new swimmers has been L.A. Aleworks, a two-man unit comprised of home brewers John Rockwell and Kristofor (Kip) Barnes. The pair have been brewing batches together for nearly five years, and have produced the sort of award-winning brews that would make anyone consider making a run at going commercial. So, after their pseudo-flagship roggenbier named Gams-Bart took home a bronze medal at the highest level of the National Home Brewers Competition, the duo set up an LLC, tossed in a few grand on some large-scale brewing equipment, and have readied themselves for the next step. That's where you come in.
Rockwell and Barnes have begun a Kickstarter to take them out of the high-level home brewing phase and into the commercial world. The money raised will go towards the fermenters and other equipment that will enable L.A. Aleworks to continue to produce the beer they love and deliver it to the Los Angeles craft beer community. Beyond that, the guys will begin funding for their very own full-fledged operation somewhere within the city limits, ideally along the Expo line.
We recently sat down with both Kip and John for the launch of their Gams-Bart batch at Beer Belly in Koreatown. While the brewers will be making the rounds with their latest batch, the first night was about friendship, community and they payoff that comes from a lot of hard work. There was talk of the past that brought them to create L.A. Aleworks, the current state of their brews, and what the future holds for one of the brightest upcoming stars on the L.A. craft beer scene.
So it seems like you've hit the peak in terms of what traditional home brewers can do. Is that why you decided on the Kickstarter?
Kip: We could take out loans, and we're fine with that, but I like being involved with Kickstarter. I've Kickstarted breweries myself, and I like being a part of that. John and I both believe strongly in community. We do Bierkast, the L.A. Beer Bloggers, we go out and help breweries pour, we're going down to Smog City tomorrow to help them set up. We just like being a part of it all, so we set one of our $25 award level to where you get your name engraved on the fermenter. We wanted to set it low enough that you could be enticed to get involved. We're doing private equity as well on the side, and that's going to start at the end of March.
How has the jump been so far, from home brewers to something more commercial?
John: When we bought all of our kegs, that was big. That was our first purchase together, we spend $15,000 on 200 plastic kegs last year.
And now you're taking your equipment on the road as a sort of gypsy brewer, working with others to trade off equipment and time in the fermenters.
Kip: We were about to release our first beer back in August, but our batch had some issues and we had to dump everything. We had a lot of momentum, we were planning on serving here at Beer Belly and the same places we are now. Actually, at Spring Street Smokehouse, we were on their chalkboard, and going in there was really painful. I dumped everything personally, right down the drain.
We're very meticulous about brewing, so we had to find a brewery that was more along the lines of who we wanted to brew with, and that was very difficult. We tried brewing with Bayhawk, but that didn't work out. We really wanted to brew with Eagle Rock Brewery, but they're just at capacity. But Ohana Brewing had just opened and we started to talk to them. It's actually fairly recently that we decided to brew with them.
Once your round of private investments are over, you hope to have a home right here in the city, right?
John: Ideally. It'd be great to be within walking distance to the Expo line, in one of those cool light industrial complexes.
Kip: Zoning is a real problem, though. There are a number of breweries that we've met along the way that are up-and-coming that are looking at opening in the area, and they've hit zoning issues. But ultimately we'd love to see multiple breweries open up along the Expo line, because it would make the area a destination, and people wouldn't have to drive.
Now you've got your first commercial release under your belt with the fantastic roggenbeir. What made you decide to brew such an ancient ale?
John: When we were home brewing and working out our own recipes and deciding what we liked and didn't like, we would read a lot. We read about the roggenbier and wanted to try some but couldn't find it on tap or in bottles. You couldn't even get it at BevMo, so we decided to brew one to see how it would taste. It ended up tasting pretty good, so we entered it into some competitions and it kept winning medals. Eventually it won a bronze at the National Home Brew Competition at their top level. It's one of the highest decorated German wheat or rye home brew ales in the country.
Kip: It's a fun beer. When I went to Germany recently, I couldn't find it over there, even. It was difficult to find. It's funny, because it's so similar to hefe, and everyone brews with rye, so it would seem like a no-brainer, but they don't do it.
When you taste it, you'll notice a lot of similarities to a traditional hefe, but you'll also taste some big differences. It's fermented colder, so it really highlights the clove, but not so much the sweeter bubble gum and banana flavors. And you get a lot of breadiness from the rye, it's almost like a toasted rye bread.
So, beyond the money, where does L.A. Aleworks go from here?
John: We'd like to hopefully do more collaborations with other breweries, and really embrace the gypsy brewing model. We want to keep that theme of community development going through every phase of our business. We're talking about doing a triple IPA with Eagle Rock Brewing, Ohana Brewing and us, maybe in early summer.
[The beer scene in L.A.] is great. You know, a normal interaction is 'we're going to be at Beer Belly', and the person we're talking to says 'oh, Jimmy is awesome!'. Everyone knows the owners. It's cool, and I hope that lasts a long time.