Top New Breweries
Highland Park Brewery (Los Angeles) turned three over the summer, and they continue to impress with a lineup of on-trend beers and more experimental fare. Sure, they joined the legion of SoCal breweries making hazy IPAs and holding brewery-only can releases that see dedicated fans line up for hours before the beer goes on sale, and they’ve continued to explore the funky realm of mixed fermentations with additions of local fruit, but for my beer money, it’s the clean and refined lagers pouring at the brewery that keep me going back. From German Pilsner to Baltic porter, the HPB crew is turning out deliciously drinkable lagers that have somehow stayed under the radar in L.A. I can’t wait for their new brewery and tasting room expansion in Chinatown to open.
Brewery REX (Santa Barbara, California) is a small project started by two industry veterans. There’s no tasting room, there aren’t bottles on the shelves at the local shop or a big social media presence. SometimeS you just see a new Brewery REX beer on a beer list, and if you’re smart you order it. Everything I’ve had from the team up of Tyler King (the Bruery and a bunch of other spots) and Brian White (Monkish, Chapman Crafted) has been, as the kids these days say, “straight fire.” From the simplicity of El Whaler inspired by refreshing Mexican lagers (and served with a lime slice) to the complex and breathtaking Malum Belgian IPA, the brews demonstrate deft balance and vivid flavors.
Cellador Ales (North Hills, California) is one of those unconventional projects that wary beer writers rolls their eyes at—until they get a taste. Started by a young couple and focused on wood-fermented mixed fermentations that lean on locally grown fruit, Cellador was one I initially dismissed as another homebrewer trying to go big. Then I opened a bottle of a saison spiked with tangerines and was blown away. A tasting room visit the next day proved that the worst beer in the lineup was better than most “wild ales” that come across my desk. I can’t get enough Cellador beer; it is regularly inventive and unique, but more importantly it’s always eminently drinkable. Get these young guns on your ISO lists and keep an eye on them as they grow.
Most Underrated Brewery
AleSmith Brewery (San Diego, California) has been quietly making some of California’s best unsung beers for more than two decades, but their ubiquity today has led to an unfortunate complacence among beer geeks seeking out the latest and greatest. Their IPA and Speedway are all-time classics of American craft brewing and paragons of their styles, but this year they managed something almost unheard of—they released a beer tied in with a musical group that is really great. Sublime Mexican Lager is not only on-trend but may be the best beer of that trend. Not just another light and refreshing golden lager in the growing fad of brews drawing inspiration from south of the border, the AleSmith entry is closer to an amber Vienna-style lager with a malt richness offset by a crisp and dry finish. The beer is perfectly balanced and perfect for backyard barbecues.
Top Beers of the Year
Pizza Port Brewing Graveyard’s (San Diego, California): A San Diego-style pale ale from the masters of drinkability (and named for a popular surf spot along the California coast), Graveyard’s is dosed with Mosaic and Southern Hemisphere hops for an intensely hoppy aroma and bitter bite. But it’s the almost chewy texture, thanks to Munich malts and even some Weyermann CaraRed, that gives Graveyard’s its staying power.
Three Floyds Space Station Middle Finger (Munster, Indiana): As I’m based in California, I don’t get the chance to drink a lot of Three Floyds beers, though Zombie Dust and the like are always on my watch list when in Chicago. This year I was gifted a days-old bottle of this out of this world pale ale, and it became an instant favorite. The bright fruit flavors and touch of fresh phenolic bubblegum aroma on top of a lean body and bitter finish have me wishing I could stock my fridge with this brew.
Highland Park Brewery Timbo Pils (Los Angeles, California): A Pilsner variant that trades noble hops for a big bouquet of Mosaic and Nelson Sauvin, Timbo is lager turned to the dank side. There are few things in beer that I enjoy more than the tropical funk of Mosaic hops and the diesel fuel aroma of Nelson, and Timbo is brimming with both. Cans did not last long in my house.
Mikkeller San Diego Raspberry Blush (San Diego): This magenta beauty merges a tart Berliner weisse with big fresh raspberry flavor and underpins all that brightness with coffee. It sounds incongruous, but the beans (roasted specifically for the beer) are flawlessly integrated with the brew. A roasty bitterness helps balance the Berliner’s tartness, and a fresh coffee flavor peeks through in the finish.
Eagle Rock Brewery Revolution (Los Angeles, California): I probably drank more of this L.A. classic than any other single beer this year. A hoppy pale ale with a light body and sessionable ABV, “Revo” in cans is a mainstay in the beer fridge and a great accompaniment to everything from grilled chicken to Indian curries.
Favorite Beer Trend
I’ve heard from many brewers who are anxious about the declining popularity of the 22-ounce “bomber” bottle, but I can’t help but love the proliferation of actual six packs of beer from local breweries. In 2017, L.A. favorites such as Beachwood Brewing, Three Weavers, and El Segundo Brewing began bottling their flagship IPAs, and having a ready supply of Amalgamator, Expatriate, and Mayberry makes this hophead happy (Don’t get me started on cans of Pilsner and Kölsch and the other styles perfect for outdoor adventure!). Large format bottles certainly have their place—especially with boozy stouts and pungent DIPAs—but grabbing fresh, locally-brewed six packs from the corner store is one step closer to beertopia.
Least Favorite Beer Trend
I tried to get into it, I really did, but I just can’t find a hazy IPA that I would order over a bright and bitter West Coast–style IPA. There’s more than enough room for both IPA siblings to co-exist, but the near unquenchable thirst for the “juicy IPAs” has produced more mediocre (or worse) beer than clean, excellent examples in the hazy family. I can’t keep from ordering every new one that comes along, hoping that one day I will have a eureka moment and become a convert to the juicy stuff, but these brews rarely strike a chord with me. More often, I get a muddy and turbid glass that tastes like Flintstones Vitamins. I can accept that the style is just not for me, but I can’t accept the common sentiment that the style is somehow better than traditional IPA.
Best Beer-related Experience of the Year
It was my privilege to join dozens of brewers as a judge at the L.A. IPA Fest again this year, and the event has become one of my favorites. Some of the best brewers in California assemble to taste and critique IPAs, and the table talk among the judges gets nerdy—like “biotransformation of polyphenol” nerdy. It’s a great time to pick brewers’ brains and get some insight into their process, and this year provided a glimpse at how hazy IPA brewing techniques are impacting even West Coast IPA brewers.
Hope for Beer in 2018
I love a good brewpub—someplace with great beer and great food designed to complement each other, a local spot that’s comfortable and serious about beer service. It’s been difficult for the brewpub model to thrive in Los Angeles—the restaurant scene is intensely competitive—but lately it looks like a new wave of brewpubs may break in L.A. In a city that hates to drive but loves its neighborhoods, Los Angeles needs a lot more local brewpubs to serve those thriving ’hoods.