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Finders Keepers

We set out to explore how several craft brewers in Los Angeles are adding a sense of place to their beers in unexpected ways.

John M. Verive April 17, 2017

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A dozen miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, in the sage-scented hills below the San Gabriel Mountains, a brewer walks with a purpose. Founder of Pasadena’s Craftsman Brewing, Mark Jilg is a trailblazer of artisanal beer in Los Angeles, and Craftsman started making distinctive beers long before craft beer caught on in the region.

Triple White Sage is a yearly signature brew that captures the “rather assertive aroma” of the chaparral woodlands, and Jilg forages the hills for the Belgian ale’s key ingredient. “I used to spend a lot of time mountain biking in the Front Range [of the Angeles National Forest],” Jilg explains. “And I have a lot of familiarity with the flora—and the aromas—of the foothills.”

Before 2010—when the new wave of craft producers hit the L.A. area—there were only a scattered handful of brewpubs and small breweries. Many new operations now cater to the shifting tastes of thirsty Angelenos, but the veterans at Craftsman hold their course. The brewery makes two distinct families of beer: expertly executed examples of classic styles (“four-ingredient beers”) and more esoteric brews. These “complicated beers” are often wood-aged and feature local ingredients. Jilg wants his beers to be expressive and authentic. He forages for ingredients to create a connection with the environment. Jilg has worked with spruce and even acorns, but it was Southern California’s ubiquitous citrus that compelled him to add a sense of place to his beer. “I have two really old Valencia orange trees in my backyard,” he says, “and that sort of got the ball rolling on taking advantage of the bounty of Los Angeles.”

Brewers have searched their surroundings for flavors for as long as there’s been beer to brew. In the modern craft-beer culture, where anything goes and everything old is new again, the trend is on the rise. It’s a trend that Jilg implies is often more about marketing than authenticity. In Los Angeles, where authenticity is often in short supply, brewers forage for inspiration and a bond with the land. They are discovering some unexpected connections—to both the environment and their neighbors.

Serendipity

Bob Kunz has a small brewery in the backroom of a hip bar in one of L.A.’s historic neighborhoods, and he makes beer for his neighbors in Highland Park. Years ago he was an assistant brewer at Craftsman, and Mark Jilg’s influence on the young brewer is clear. They both talk about beer with the same determined romance. As at Craftsman, the brews at Highland Park Brewery fall into two camps: “predictable beer, where we try to control all of the parameters, and unpredictable beers where we embrace it having a life of its own,” says Kunz.

“It is a fun thing. Maybe you don’t engineer it as much. You try to think about [how you can] use [your] geography to [your] advantage.”

One Highland Park brew that takes advantage of spring’s bounty in Los Angeles is Yard Beer. Using botanicals gathered from Kunz’s mile-long walk between his home and the brewery, the beer captures the scents of a spring morning in the verdant community. For the 2015 batch, Kunz planned to add lemon grass, sour-grass flower, and limes to a kettle-soured saison dosed with _Brettanomyces. _

“Urban foraging is kind of a funny thing,” Kunz quipped as he set off on his meandering stroll to gather the items on his list.

“You’re just in a concrete city, but there are all these plants and vegetation [if you look]. It’s right there: the edible landscape.”

But foraging is never a sure thing. After harvesting lemongrass from his own yard and stuffing a bag until it overflowed with the sour-grass flower that had taken over his business partner’s lawn, the urban forager came up short on the citrus. The trees he’d planned to harvest had been under-ripe and he only managed a handful of scrawny limes. Disappointed, the typically unflappable Kunz grew quiet for a few blocks and pondered what adjustments would salvage the brew. Then a chance meeting with Carlito saved the day.

Walking past a bushy citrus tree in a fenced yard, Kunz perked up when he spied a lemon dangling off a branch that overhung the sidewalk (making it fair-game for foraging). He plucked the fruit just as the homeowner poked his head out from under the hood of a car in the driveway. Instead of reprimanding the brewer, the man opened his gate and welcomed Kunz to gather more. Which trees to focus on in Carlito’s orchard-like yard was sorted out in a jumble of Spanish and English, and soon a shopping bag was brimming with oranges, Meyer lemons, and limes.

“There’s something about pounding the pavement—just getting out and walking,” Kunz says at the end of the journey. “You don’t experience the same sights and smells, or interactions, when you’re in the car.”

Back at the brewery Kunz washed the herbs and zested the citrus before adding it all to a ferocious Vitamix blender. He added the resulting vivid green and pungent slurry to the 7-barrel batch of tart saison. The beer was tapped a week or so later, and it’s aroma was remarkable. The botanicals added a brightness to the edgy tartness and earthy Brett character. It tasted like spring.

Backyard Harvests

On the other side of Los Angeles, Brewmaster Jonathan Porter and his wife, Laurie Porter, opened a production brewery in Torrance in 2013, and foraged ingredients are in Smog City Brewing’s DNA. Using local flavors is about “defining who we are as a brewery and redefining the rules,” Laurie Porter says. Their foraging projects are a way to develop a connection to their community and the environment, and the beers capture local flavors such as the piquant scent of the fennel flowers that dot the hillsides above the coast (and the alley behind the Porter’s house).

There is also a kumquat tree in the Porter’s backyard, and it wasn’t long before the ornamental citrus found its way into a brew. The first 55-gallon batch of Kumquat Saison used more than fifty pounds of pureed fruit, and it was a runaway hit in the taproom. This year, the Porters wanted to brew a full-sized production, but the 15-barrel batch would require almost 500 pounds of the tiny citrus. It would take more than the Porter’s backyard tree to produce that many kumquats.

Commercially grown kumquats, they discovered, are too sweet. They were after the tartness of the more characterful fruit from backyard trees. Like Bob Kunz’s fortuitous run-in with Carlito, a chance meeting led to a source for the citrus. At a wedding, Laurie Porter met Rachel Maysel, the Backyard Harvest Manager of Food Forward. The L.A. nonprofit organization “rescues” unsold produce from farmer’s markets across Los Angeles, rerouting the would-be waste to food banks and shelters. Food Forward also organizes hundreds of volunteer-run backyard harvests that collect fruit from the bountiful citrus trees on private property around the region. They had access to a large surplus of kumquats, and the two organizations partnered to create Kumquat Saison.

It was a logistical challenge, but Food Forward Founder Rick Nahmias says, “All our fruit donors and volunteers were canvassed ahead of time to take part in this special project, knowing that instead of feeding the hungry as all our other harvests do, this small amount of fruit would be a fundraiser.” In return for almost 800 pounds of kumquats that Smog City would receive from Food Forward, the brewery would specially distribute bottles of the beer to the area where many of the trees were found to raise money for the nonprofit.

“It’s a lot of love that’s gone into this batch,” Maysel says.

“The whole staff has gotten involved and passionate about it.” Nahmias adds, “Beer is a real connector for our Food Forward community. We’re hopeful this is the first of an ongoing collaboration.”

Smog City’s Kumquat Saison made its official debut at the Food Forward Spring Melt fund-raising dinner in April, and the Porters were on hand to pour the collaborative brew. The beer was delicately tart with an intense citrus flavor balanced against the earthy character of the saison yeast. It was full of flavor, yet eminently drinkable, and the crowd response was overwhelmingly positive.

“This might be my favorite beer we’ve ever brewed. I could drink it always,” Laurie Porter said before telling a story of one harvest she helped with. It was a decades-old backyard tree that an avid homebrewer had planted. Each year he had made his own kumquat beer, but he’d recently passed away. His widow and daughter were present for the pick that yielded 250 pounds of fruit, and they said their husband and father would be proud to know kumquats from that old tree were still getting made into beer.

Sharing a Goal

While the beer industry in Los Angeles may be underdeveloped, brewers who look beyond established paths and who bring dedication and creativity to the scene are helping it catch up fast.

For Mark Jilg, place is as important an ingredient as barley, hops, or water. His quest for authenticity and creative expression has fueled decades of experimentation with local flavors. Bob Kunz highlights local flavors as a way to establish ties between his young brewery and the changing neighborhood where he lives and works. Jonathan and Laurie Porter define their brand through a tireless search for exciting flavor combinations. Different as they are, all three breweries share a goal: They want to share the abundance of natural flavors that grow around and throughout Los Angeles with the swelling crowd of craft-beer fans in L.A.’s developing scene.

The Porters have moved from their old home and had to leave behind the kumquat tree and the fennel, but their new home holds possibilities that excite Laurie Porter. She’s already purchased almost an orchard’s worth of citrus trees, and she says of her new neighborhood, “The landscape is so different. Who knows what [flavors] we’ll find.”

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PHOTO: JOHN M. VERIVE

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