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Making Progress in South El Monte with Local Craft Beer

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Something is brewing in South El Monte.

Somewhere in the working-class, mainly-Latino eastern Los Angeles suburb off the 60 Freeway, East Kent Goldings hops are boiling and Belgian yeast is fermenting for the next batch of Bronco Belgian Pale Ale. Malt from England, Germany, and Canada are mashing for the next barrels of Derringer Dunkelweizen and Alamo Cream Ale. At the bar, hardworking Budweiser and Dos Equis loyalists raise eyebrows at the chalkboard above the impressive row of sixteen taps that pour hand-crafted kölsch style ales, sour stouts, imperial double reds, and other varieties of beer brewed in the room next door by guys with chemistry degrees from CalTech and UCLA. The chalkboard announces today's beer lineup, the names reading like something out of an old Western: Pioneer American Red Ale, Cavalry Double IPA, Rio Bravo American Wheat Ale (with Cranberries), and other styles of ales that you can't find at the local liquor store or grocery aisle.

No Bud Light? No Miller High Life? No Tecate?

Welcome to Progress Brewing, a welcome haven for local craft beer lovers and Bud lifers alike in the San Gabriel Valley.

The Founders

Progress Brewing was founded by chemists, Dr. Diego Benitez and Kevin Ogilby. Benitez hails from Mexico City and Ogilby is a Long Beach native. Benitez holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from CalTech. He met Ogilby, then an undergraduate studying chemistry at UCLA, while working as a researcher in biotechnology. Benitez and Ogilby only knew each other as colleagues. They met once, casually, then again in 2008, this time at a holiday party at a co-worker's home. Benitez recalls the host's four home brews that were being poured at the party. He bonded with his colleague over the impressive quality and variety of their host's home made beer. Benitez then began brewing his own beer at home, taught Ogilby the ropes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Although Benitez had a background in wine making -- he took courses in the prestigious viticulture and enology program through UC Davis -- he had "zero beer experience" before trying his hand at home brewing with Ogilby. Before the two chemists embarked on the project that would become South El Monte's first brewing company, they both completed the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). Doing so allowed Benitez and Ogilby to take their brewing practices and recipes to another level. Ogilby explains the beer judging experience taught him and Benitez to pay attention to the small elements and details that characterize a given style of lager or ale. As certified beer judges, they learned how to train their palates to pick up the subtle differences that distinguish one beer from another in the same category, while learning the technical aspects of brewing different styles of beer. The goal of brewing a good beer is to achieve a balance of flavors. "It's like painting," says Benitez. "You learn what hops to mix with which malts to achieve a balanced and cohesive beer."

The Brewery

Benitez and Ogilby wanted to open their brewery in the San Gabriel Valley because there was no craft brewery in the area. Sure, there is the corporate beer giant, MillerCoors, mass-producing their swill just a few miles up the freeway in Irwindale. The area's only other brewery, Skyscraper, left El Monte in 2011 for the City of Industry and has yet to re-open their doors. Benitez and Ogilby struck craft beer gold when they opened up their doors in South El Monte in late 2013.

They chose South El Monte as the site of their brewery for several reasons, primarily because much of the city was already zoned for industry and manufacturing, the category under which beer brewing falls. South El Monte "warmly welcomed us," says Benitez, explaining that the city council supported their plans for a brewing business that would add character and provide something new to the city's small business-friendly industrial environment.

When it came time to break ground and start building, Benitez and Ogilby hired local construction workers, electricians, plumbers, and welders. They used raw material -- sheet metal, cement, lumber -- from local South El Monte suppliers and small businesses, many of which are located down the street from the brewery. They employ five regular staff members that help with day to day operations, all from South El Monte and the area, and they cater to a diverse crowd of regulars and newcomers from all over the San Gabriel Valley.

The Locals

The best time of the day for the brewery and its loyal patrons is when Ogilby and Benitez open their doors for business, ready to pour after-work pints of beer for the area's thirsty locals. Although they have set up shop in the middle of an otherwise ordinary, industrial area of South El Monte, Benitez and Ogilby have created a warm environment that welcomes regulars and newcomers alike.

The scene at Progress Brewing bursts with the sounds and scents of a vibrant neighborhood pub. Local construction workers and schoolteachers pop in for a cold beer after a long day. Young professionals and college students mix it up with retirees, all coming together in the name of freshly brewed cerveza made on the premises just for them.

Cesar Barrera of Azusa works at a construction company down the street. He helped build the big fermentation and storage tanks used at Progress. "It's pretty awesome that our tanks are back there," says Barrera. He and his friends Jesse Mata, Tania Mielnik, and niece Karla Barrera regularly enjoy pints of beer after work and revel in the brewery's inviting and friendly atmosphere. "The owners are enthusiastic and open to feedback," says Mielnik. "They're passionate about their beer, and they've introduced something different to the community. That's why we keep coming back."

Many of Progress Brewing's regular customers had never tasted craft beer until they set foot in the brewery. Much of the working class Latinos and Latinas in the area stick to the beer they grew up drinking, usually lighter mass-produced lagers such as Bud Light, Tecate, and Miller Light. As Benitez explains, "Brand loyalty is big in the Hispanic community, so we're here to make craft beer accessible and cater to everyone who is willing to try something different from what they're used to."

"I drank Miller High Life for forty years," says Tommy from Pico Rivera, "but no more. Now, I come here. They changed my palate. I like the porters and stouts. I'll recommend Progress to anyone who'll listen." Tommy praises the quality of the beer and reasonable prices. "He works across the street and comes in every day to drink a porter and fill up his growler," says Benitez about Tommy, one of his most loyal customers.

Val, a Montebello resident, has been coming to Progress for over a year. "I was looking for something outside of the corporate mass-produced beer you can find anywhere. I came here a year ago with a friend from work," she says, "and I've been coming back since." Val says her palate has changed and that while she has the occasional Tecate or Pabst Blue Ribbon at her local barber shop, "you get spoiled at Progress. It's great beer for a great price, and I'm stoked it's here."

Rudy Macias, a South El Monte resident since 1969, says he usually drinks Bud Light. "But this beer is good," says Macias, "and it's only three blocks from my house. I brought my wife here, then I came back again with my cousins. This is my fourth time here," Macias says, as he enjoys a pint of Alamo Cream Ale. Macias brought his friend of over thirty years, Gene Alvarado, who is drinking Progress beer for the first time. Gene polished off a flight of six tasters before finally settling on a pint of Wolverine American Amber Ale.

Gene's son, Gene Alvarado Jr., is a regular who has lived in South El Monte his whole life. He is a seasoned craft beer drinker of over twenty years and has traveled the world drinking beers from Germany, Belgium, and Ireland. He says it is meaningful to have a great craft brewery right in his back yard. "They do styles from all over the world, and they do them well," says Gene Jr. "And I can ride my bike here."

The Future

Benitez and Ogilby have grown a loyal customer base that reflects the diversity of the San Gabriel Valley while remaining committed to the local community that is home to their brewing business. "They're giving back to the people around them," says Francisco Hernández, a regular from Rosemead. Hernández and other Progress regulars appreciate the owners' loyalty to South El Monte and the city's small companies and businesses that helped build the brewery.

And that loyalty is returned by the customers who keep coming back and who bring friends and family with them to try Progress beer for themselves. Their growing customer base means that Benitez and Ogilby plan to expand their brewery. They want to extend the existing taproom and build an outdoor patio large enough to accommodate its expanding customer base. They also plan to increase their beer output to keep up with demand.

"Our proudest moments," says Benitez, "are when life-long Bud or Miller drinkers come in, taste our beers, and come back for more."

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