Los Angeles is a sprawling and diverse city, one of the cultural capitals of our world, but until very recently, its beer culture was nearly nonexistent. Thankfully, the craft beer tidal wave has finally broke on the shores of Los Angeles, and the long-suffering beer desert is now inundated with great beer pouring at bars, beer-centered restaurants and some world-class breweries.
In true L.A. fashion, finding the best the city has to offer means looking in some unexpected areas and going beyond the shallow surface. The rewards for exploration are worth the trouble, and if you can’t find a personal guide to the best of the L.A.’s craft beer scene, then you can start with these recommendations. Leave your preconceived notions in the hotel — the beer in Los Angeles has gotten really good in recent years, and San Diego isn’t the only destination-worthy beer region in Southern California anymore.
It was only a few years ago when the number of breweries in Los Angeles could be counted on one hand. Thankfully, Angelenos thirsty for local suds now have their choice from dozens of production breweries and brewpubs, some specializing in hop-bombs and others in funky wild ales.
The South Bay Trifecta
The South Bay region of Southern California is an amalgamation of beach-side municipalities, blue-collar towns and ethnic enclaves that showcase the famous diversity of Los Angeles. The craft brewing industry has found a foothold in the industrial parks of cities like Torrance, Redondo Beach, and Carson. There’s a lot of brewing action in the South Bay, but three breweries in particular demonstrate some of the best the Los Angeles has to offer: Smog City Brewery, Monkish Brewing and Phantom Carriage.
Smog City Brewery is the largest of the three and the most traditional. They brew a handful of excellent IPAs (Hop Tonic and Amarilla Gorilla, particularly), a perfectly crisp and floral bohemian pilsner, and one of the best coffee porters out there. The brewery is packed with dozens of wine and spirit barrels where bold stouts get the bourbon barrel aging treatment and wine barrels sour and funkify saisons and other belgian ales. Smog City is also known for their small-batch experimentations that often feature foraged fruits and herbs, one-off cask preparations, or explorations into wine/beer hybrids; they may be the region’s most well-rounded brewery.
1. Smog City Brewing – 1901 Del Amo Boulevard #B, Torrance, CA 90501
Just a block away from Smog is Monkish Brewing, a distinctly different operation that turns a modern sensibility on some monastic brewing traditions. Owner and Brewmaster Henry Nguyen uses beer as a creative outlet and his Belgian-inspired brews range from hop-forward and drinkable pale ales to potent tripels infused with all manner of uncommon botanicals. Nguyen has tried everything from thyme (in the sadly retired Vigil dark wheat beer) to lotus seed (in Sunset Beer, a brett-spiked Belgian wit) to pistachio nuts (in the sublime Seme Della Vita, which also features vanilla beans). The secret to the beers is Nguyen’s restraint with these adulterants. Nothing is overpowering in a Monkish beer — every spice and botanical is in balance with the estery yeast and complex malt profiles.
2. Monkish Brewing – 20311 Western Avenue, Torrance, CA 9050
In Carson, just a few miles away from the Smog City-Monkish one-two punch, is one of the South Bay’s newest, and most exciting operations: Phantom Carriage. This “small batch beer endeavour” is part cafe, part brewery, and part barrel-filled blendery. The genre-defying brewery focuses on wood-aged sour ales and early offerings have shown tremendous promise. Named for a 1921 Swedish horror film, this nod to the dark and macabre carries through to the beer names (often paying homage to classic horror performers like Cushing and Rathbone) and the ambience. There’s even an on-premises screening room (though L.A. Galaxy MLS games are shown about as often as the spooky stuff — the team is headquartered in Carson). Supplementing the house-beers is a guest tap list and a bottle-fridge filled with old-world favorites and American craft classics alike.
3. Phantom Carriage – 18525 S Main St, Carson, CA 90248
Hoppy brews dominate tap lists in Los Angeles, and nearly every brewery in town has a delicious hoppy offering to help slake Angelenos’ never ending thirst for pungent brews. However, few L.A. breweries do hops as well as El Segundo Brewing Co. The trick is the brewery’s focus on teasing disparate flavor profiles from different hop varieties. They have IPAs that focus on the tropical hops, earthy hop flavors, and classic West Coast pine and citrus profiles. Don’t miss White Dog IPA — a wheat-based and tropical brew that’s a perfect match for L.A.’s balmy climate, or the equally intense Mayberry IPA that showcases the subtleties of Mosaic hops.
4. El Segundo Brewing Co – 140 Main Street, El Segundo, CA 90245
Maybe the Best Brewpub in America
Beachwood Brewing and BBQ in Long Beach has earned a reputation among beer geeks as one of the highlights of brewing on the west coast, and the judges at the Great American Beer Festival have named them “Brewpub of the Year” two years running, as well as bestowing a half-dozen medals on individual beers. The food is smokey ‘que with a west coast flair, and the brews are bold, clean, and plentiful. You’ll be tempted to order a glass from the list of AAA-tier guest taps, but the house brews never disappoint. Even styles that normally get no respect from beer-lovers are executed with panache and respect. Hops of Brixton is a delicately balanced ESB, Tart Simpson a bracing Berliner Weisse with a subtle hint of funk, and Foam Top will change your mind about the relevance of the American cream ale style in the modern craft beer milieu. They also make some of the best IPAs in Los Angeles (if not the State). You can’t lose.
5. Beachwood BBQ – 210 East 3rd Street, Long Beach, CA
The Cutting Edge
When Highland Park Brewery opened in the rapidly gentrifying L.A. neighborhood of the same name, many beer-fans wrote off the operation as just another homebrewer trying to turn pro on a makeshift brewhouse. But veteran of the L.A. craft industry Bob Kunz has surprised everyone with the quality brews he’s created in his tiny, 500-square foot brewery shoehorned into the back of a hip bar. From complex hoppy ales like Party IPA (which is also infused with Spanish cedar) to refreshing table beers featuring foraged botanicals (Yard Beer) to the funky stuff like Lazy Susan (a tart wheat ale made with 300 pounds of local peaches and nectarines) or Uncontrollable (an all-lactobacillus beer that was fermented in the warmth of the bar’s parking lot to give the heat-loving bacteria some extra energy), Highland Park Brewery demonstrates a remarkable breadth of offerings for such a humble operation. It didn’t take long for word of the great beers to get out of the neighborhood, and now HPB draws beer fans from across Los Angeles. The team hopes to open an ancillary tasting room by the end of 2015.
6. Highland Park Brewery / The Hermosillo – 5125 York Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90042
The “Real” Niche Brewery
Los Angeles has breweries that cover a lot of niches. There are big production breweries catering to the mass market and small IPA-focused operations and neighborhood spots with a loyal following, and in 2014 MacLeod Ale Brewing Co. opened in the Valley suburb of Van Nuys to bring UK-style “real ale” to the L.A. market. The small brewhouse is focused on turning out traditional British styles conditioned and served from casks in the traditional manner. It sounds like a risky move, but the brewery has found a fervent fan-base, and Brewmaster Andy Black has managed to make classic styles like ordinary bitters, small stouts, and drinkable Scottish ales exciting for the L.A.’s beer lovers. Nearly all of MacLeod’s brews are under 5% alcohol (some are well under that), and they’re served up in the taproom in generous 20-ounce Imperial pints at a balmy 54-degrees. Expect darts, dogs, and bagpipe music when you visit.
7. MacLeod Ales – 14741 Calvert Street, Van Nuys, CA 91411