In a sleepy beach town less than twenty miles from downtown Los Angeles, a five-year-old craft brewery is on a mission to change how people see—and taste—hoppy beer. El Segundo Brewing Company has quickly evolved from a favorite of local beer geeks to a destination in L.A.’s thriving South Bay craft-beer scene. And now, the hops-obsessed brewery is gaining national attention for a unique collaboration with an iconoclastic entertainer. At the end of 2015, El Segundo Brewing (ESBC) partnered with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin—legendary professional wrestler turned reality TV star and podcaster—to craft Austin’s ideal IPA. The result was Broken Skull IPA, and it’s more than just an off-the-shelf IPA adorned with a celebrity name. The beer, which ESBC Founder and Brewmaster Rob Croxall calls a “hybrid of old-school and new-school IPAs,” was designed from the ground up to appeal to Austin’s tastes, and it has become a massive crossover hit with a whole new demographic.
“He’s got a pretty good palate,” Croxall says. “He knows what he likes, and he’ll tell you if he doesn’t like something.” The ESBC team got to know Austin’s preferences, which tend toward the classic California craft flavors of C-hops, and Croxall wrote a recipe that combined the iconic character of Cascade and Chinook hops in the kettle with a Citra-heavy dry hop. Showcasing a bold mid-palate hops flavor and more subdued bitterness and aromatics than the typical ESBC IPA, Broken Skull strikes the balance of quaffable and striking that Austin was looking for. “I may be biased,” Austin told the assembled throng of wrestling fans (who greatly outnumbered craft-beer fans) during the Broken Skull release party at the brewery, “but it’s a damn good beer!”
Broken Skull, with its emphasis on hops flavor over aromatics, is a departure for ESBC, even among the brewery’s more than two dozen other IPAs. When the brewery launched in 2011, they brewed a flagship IPA that showcased Simcoe hops and a wheat-heavy and Nelson Sauvin-hopped IPA called White Dog. They soon added a double IPA to the mix, and as Croxall got more comfortable in the production brewhouse, more new IPA recipes found their way onto the brewing schedule.
Co-owner and Director of Sales and Marketing Thomas Kelley helped push his partner further into his hops obsession. “We didn’t set out to be the IPA brewery,” Kelley says, “but when we were entering the market in that first year, there was no [other brewery] in L.A. saying ‘we make hoppy beer; that’s what we do,’ so I told Rob that we needed to typecast ourselves.”
“I wanted to brew the stuff that I love to drink, and I love hoppy beers,” Croxall adds. “It’s always been where my heart is.” His goal is to show off the incredible diversity that hops offer, and he has a knack for mixing and matching hops varieties to create a layered and distinctive flavor profile. Even after a couple of dozen different hoppy beers—from the crowd-favorite Mayberry IPA that’s rich with the tropical dankness of Mosaic hops to the diesel-oil punch of Nelson Sauvin hops that defines Hop Tanker DIPA to a pair of wins at the prestigious Bistro Double IPA Festival during San Francisco Beer Week in 2014 and 2015—Croxall doesn’t see any end to his focus on the hoppy side of beer. “It isn’t so much about making the next new IPA; it’s about finding these great ingredients and learning how to use them,” he says. “There’s always a new oddball hops variety to play with. I haven’t had a chance to use the Idaho 7 hops yet….” His voice trails off, and it’s clear that his mind is already working on an idea to showcase the hype-heavy new variety.
Croxall has the deep tan and laid-back demeanor that you expect from a SoCal native, but he also has a ceaselessly analytical mind. Before opening the brewery, he worked in the aerospace industry, but in finance rather than engineering. A decade plus of crunching numbers has left him well-tuned to evaluate the economics of his brewing operations. The brewery’s growth has been fast, but it’s been very controlled, as Croxall has added trucks and cooperage and more staff to support all the expansion of production capacity.
Building the business on the strength of IPA sales poses a unique set of challenges for the small brewery that produced about 4,500 barrels of beer in 2015. “Freshness is of paramount importance,” the brewer says. “It’s part of our identity.” This obsession with freshness led to what the brewery calls its “Day One” program. Each month, one of the brewery’s hoppy brands is bottled and sent to retailers across California. “It’s in drinkers’ hands literally hours after we bottled it,” Croxall says—no small feat for a self-distributing brewery. Croxall believes that controlling quality and keeping fresh beer on the shelves is too important to leave up to wholesalers. Day One events started as a way to educate consumers about the importance of freshness, and hops-conscious drinkers in Los Angeles are savvier to the importance of cold storage and bottled-on dates than ever before.
“It’s incumbent on the breweries to make quality beer, to have quality beer on the shelf. We have to make sure when drinkers try craft beer for the first time that it’s a good experience; otherwise you could scare those people away forever. It’s not just attracting customers to the craft segment; it’s about retaining them.”
The freshness awareness campaign propagated through social media and won many new fans for the brewery, which quadrupled the size of its tasting room in 2015 and added more cellar capacity. “We’re pretty much maxed out in this facility,” the brewer says with a hint of wonder in his voice. “Now we’re focused on improving processes and becoming more efficient.”
“I grew up in El Segundo, and this is where I want [my business] to be. Los Angeles has such a huge, diverse population, and we’re just scratching the surface.”
“Where’s the ceiling for IPA?” Kelley asks rhetorically. “Do you see a ceiling? We’re still not there. We keep adding tanks, and we keep blowing the ceiling off. So I guess we’ll just keep making IPA.”
In the fall of 2015, the brewery organized “Wet Hop Weekend”—a days-long celebration of the hops harvest that featured a lineup of specialty brews cooked up with the bounty of freshly harvested hops that Croxall had secured. The brewery’s fans lined the street before the doors opened and crowded around the bar three or four deep to get a taste of the unique offerings.
Croxall sees no sign of the fervor for hops diminishing. “The sky’s the limit for IPA,” Croxall answers. “People new to craft beer sometimes think that all IPAs taste the same, but what sets our hoppy beers apart is that you can taste the difference. You can always taste the hops we’re using, and that’s something that we’ve always stuck to.”