Strange Brew: How L.A. City Hall 'Skunks' Craft Beer Makers

"Skunked" beer smells bad and tastes worse. Skunking is what happens to unpasteurized beer when it's been badly handled.

Local brewers rightly fear they're being skunked by a mishandled permitting system that makes getting permission to open a small-scale brewery in Los Angeles a long and expensive process that too often hits a dead end.

Pacific Plate Brewing -- just one example -- chose to locate in Monrovia to escape the costs and frustrations of dealing with the bureaucracy that clogs small business development in the city of Los Angeles.

As the Daily Breeze recently reported, microbrewers and brewpubs have found welcoming neighborhoods in Redondo Beach, Long Beach, Claremont, Upland, Covina, Pasadena, and even my hometown of Lakewood. City planning commissions and city councils seem eager to add local brews to the rebranding of suburban communities as places where good beer is an attraction.

Torrance is so accommodating that it's become a hub of craft brewers, so much so that Torrance is being compared to the brew happy towns of San Diego County, where the boom in craft beers began in Southern California.

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Localism is the faith of several social movements -- driven by politics as much as demographics -- that aim to bring a "sense of place" to the nation's big-box-and-mall landscape by focusing on the goods and services that can be found a walk or a bike ride away.

Beer brewed in the neighborhood where it's drunk is a happy part of the new localism.

But it's hard to be that local in L.A. Small-scale brewers need the paid services of a "permit expediter" just to navigate the complexities of the permitting system at City Hall. Hearings, multiple copies of documents, arbitrary decisions by plan checkers, and glacial slowness define the process.

It's no wonder that some craft brewers have abandoned Los Angeles for the welcoming (and procedurally simple) process in other cities. Laurie Porter, co-owner of Smog City brewery in Torrance, told The Daily Breeze:

We had been dealing with the city of Los Angeles for about three years intermittently, going in and talking to them. Every time we went in it was not the best experience and every time we went in it was a different person. We came to Torrance and it was the same people (we were dealing with) over and over and over again I felt like I could create a relationship with, get to know and if I needed an answer I could call the right person.

Better capitalized beer entrepreneurs haven't entirely given up on Los Angeles. And there are still some empty industrial buildings on the edges of the city's several "downtowns" that could house a brewery. But the little guys who want to make good beer -- and make a fringe neighborhood more convivial -- feel they're being badly handled by a system that's focused on big projects with lots and lots of political juice.

"Skunked" is the word for what some small brewers are feeling.

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About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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