L.A. Aleworks

by Sean on February 4, 2013

I help gather the occasional interview for FoodGPS from brewers (which you should totally check out) but this time the interview stays with me because it is from the two guys behind Los Angeles Ale Works. And I am so rooting of them to succeed. They will have a Kickstarter program coming up that I will be bugging the world about. But read on to see why I like what I see.
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At what point did you know you’d work with beer for a living?
Kip: I think there is a point in every home brewer’s life where they consider opening up a brewery. For me it happened pretty soon after we started brewing. John had lost his job and was toying with the idea and I thought it was great. I loved the people I worked with in the IT sphere, but I really didn’t enjoy what i was doing. I’m a creative type person and the thought of physically making something artistic with my hands for a living sounded like a dream come true. Regardless of where the road takes me, I know that beer is part of who I am, I just hope the road takes me to a brewery that I can operate with one of my best friends, John.

John: Like Kip said, the brewery idea kicked into high gear when I got laid off a few years ago. Prior to that, it was an idea that was stirring in the back of my mind but getting louder as time went on. Getting forced out of my job at the time was a blessing in disguise that provided the catalyst to seriously pursue a brewery venture.

Is there anybody who mentored you along the way? If so, what did they teach you that was so valuable?
Kip: That is an easy question. Jeremy Raub from Eagle Rock Brewery. When John and I first started doing research for the brewery concept we called a few of the current industry vets and didn’t have a positive experience. Jeremy welcomed us with open arms and excitement. At first I was wary of him. Could this guy be for real? He so positive and altruistic. Not something you encounter often working in the entertainment sphere. After meeting more people in the beer industry I realized how truly genuine he was. Jeremy’s main strength is his creativity and unique ability to inspire hope. He’s an LA Craft Beer cheerleader, so I would say from him, among all the business advice and beer tastings, he taught us to persevere and not get discouraged. Jeremy and Ting have been friends and mentors through every step of our planning and I don’t ever think there will be a way for us to adequately thank them. If someone says you can’t do it, don’t listen to them.

John: In addition to ERB, we’ve been helped by other small brewers that have broken into the LA craft beer scene in the last couple of years. Cosmic Ales, owned and operated by Chris Brilles has always been a couple steps further along than us and has provided really valuation insight into the pitfalls of contract brewing, working with distributors, and other daily speed bumps that we inevitably encountered.

What was the first beer you ever brewed, and how did it turn out?
Kip: My first batch was an Blonde extract/partial grain recipe from Homebrewer’s Outpost. It turned out okay, but not amazing. There was a bit too much umami for me to call it a complete success. I’m pretty sure it was a yeast pitching and fermentation temperature issue. John taught me to be uber sanitary during brewing so I don’t think that was the issue. In fact, out of the 100′s of batches we’ve done, I can safely say than only 2 or 3 of them have gone bad (knock-on-wood). My second batch went straight into all grain and I believe that was a Saison, which was infinitely better than the first. There is always room for improvement though.

John: I’ve been homebrewing for quite a while now – almost 10 years. For the first few years it was a very casual hobby and I only brewed a few times each year. Those early batches were not particularly memorable, except of course for the lager I brewed at 70 degrees in my garage. That one was well known amongst my friends for all the wrong reasons and lead to a lager moratorium until I owned a kegerator.

What’s the criteria for a beer that you brew at your brewery? What does a beer have to be?
Kip: I tend to go for more experimental type beers and John goes for the classic styles. We usually meet in the middle somewhere and dial each other back. The end result is something that is usually better. For our brewery, we want to invigorate old styles that have fallen by the wayside and also keep creativity alive. I’m not a huge fan of flagships. If we do flagships, I can see us changing something about them seasonally. For example our Saison, Lievre, is made with seasonal citrus. We change the citrus bill as the year goes on and get a lot of unique character from each one. Our beers have to be something we are proud of and something our patrons want to drink. That’s why we are going to have a communal tap where our mug clubbers get to vote on the next beer that gets poured out of it. This will do two things, keep our fans happy, and also help us to see what beers are trending. We ARE making beer for LA not just for us so our beers have to reflect that.

John: A wise brewer once told us, “this is a business, not a hobby.” That is something that has stuck with us and we take it seriously. Complimenting that is an underlying philosophy to not take ourselves too seriously – beer is fun, and making it should be fun. We want all our beer to embody the concept that we take the beer seriously but not ourselves. Hopefully that commitment to quality and creativity will be reflected in every batch.

What’s your top selling beer, and why do you think that’s the case?

Kip: I wish our beer was out in the market right now. If it was I think it would be top selling. Our flagship is called Gams-Bart and it’s a Bavarian Style Roggenbier. The only other brewery that I know of that makes this style is Taps Fish House and it’s great. A Roggenbier is like a Bavarian Hefeweizen, but it’s made with Rye Malt instead of Wheat Malt. The result is something slightly darker, slightly more roasty, but equally tasty. We’ve won quite a few home brewing awards for this recipe, most notably 3rd place at the NHC, but we’ve picked up a number of golds as well. Roggenbier is a really cool style and Rye is a really cool ingredient. We try to incorporate it into everything we do.

That being said, we recently made a Kolsch, Karma Kolsch, spiced with Thai Tea that people went bonkers for. We made it on a whim and brought it to an underground event. The keg blew fast and people wanted more. It’s an easy to drink beer with deeply complex spice profile. For people just wanting to drink it fulfills that need, but beer geeks and connoisseurs will appreciate the complexity. I think this is the sort of thing we try to do with a lot of our beers. Simple yet Complex.

John: What he said.

What do you look for when hiring people to work in your brewhouse?
Kip: We want devoted people that are looking to work somewhere that they can believe in. We want to believe in them and we want them to believe in us. Again, we aren’t actually hiring yet, but we tend to surround ourselves with craft beer nerds and really cool people. We respect and encourage entrepreneurial spirit and I like people that are creative. Work ethic is big for me too. There is a time and place for having fun and I totally want to support that, but we have to keep our eyes on the goal. I think that may be where some people get lost. Home Brewing is fun, a Commercial Brewery is a business. I’ve had to become more business minded as we’ve gone on. So to answer your question, we want like minded people.

John: To expand on that thought, hiring is a little ways off for us so we still have some time to figure out how exactly to staff the brewery. Early hires will most certainly include: Assistant Head Brewer, Brewing Assistants, and Taproom/Sale Staff. We will seek out people that love craft beer, love Los Angeles, and strive to produce quality products. An important part of our business vision is shared ownership; we want employees to not just be workers but to have equity ownership in the company.

How do you go about naming your beers?
Kip: I don’t know why we started this, but most of our beers names are in German or French. My wife speaks french and so I always ask her how to say whatever I decide to name the beer in french. It sounds so much nicer in french and so much more assertive in German. Our starting beers have been the most difficult to name. The Roggenbier has gone through several names, but we decided on Gams-Bart because it made the most sense. My father, Ken Barnes, who does the branding and label work for us, actually came up with it. It means Goat’s Beard, which is a term for the feather or accessorie attached to the Bavarian lodenhut. DampfMaschine means, Steam Engine, which coincides with it being a “Steam” style or california common beer. Lievre, means Hare, and as it’s sort of a spring style saison, that made easy sense. We originally called it Equinox, but we didn’t want to ruffle feathers so we changed it.

Lievre is the closest beer to me. I’ve brewed it the most and we made it for my wedding. I also call this the “wedding saison.” I’ve given the recipe to quite a few friends that have wanted to brew it for their weddings as well. Again it’s easy for non-beer people to appreciate and it’s complex for beer geeks to love. I would love it if Lievre became a staple as a wedding beer, but even if it doesn’t for everyone else, it’s still that for me.

John: Yup.

What was the most recent beer that you brewed, and what was your inspiration and approach?
Kip: The most recent beer we brewed was actually a home brewing collaboration with another up and coming brew team Pipe Dream Brewery. We’ve loved working, brewing, and getting to know both Brian and Kingsley and I love the idea of collaboration. It’s one of the things I’m most excited for commercially. John and I were approaching the tail end of a whiskey barrel we got from my uncles distillery up in the seattle area, Bainbridge Organic Distillers, and we were trying to figure out what to do with it. Brian, Kingsley, John, and I love sours, but we hadn’t brewed one yet. John and I both love rye so that became a main ingredient, other than the belgian base malt. The resulting recipe was a lambic made with rye malt, which we’ll eventually add sour cherries to to make it a Kriek. See you in 1-2 years.

Prior Barrel Aged Roggenbock, which came about from us experimenting with our Roggenbier recipe. We’d like to use similar grain bills to make very different beers commercially.

John: I brew small test batches in my apartment kitchen. I recently scaled back to 2.5 gallon batches and it has been a real joy to brew that volume given my limited space. My latest was an English premium bitter at just under 5% ABV. The English ale style is one that we haven’t explored too much, so I wanted to take an early pass at it. The recipe was a traditional partial mash with the addition of flaked rye.

If you could only drink one more beer, and you couldn’t brew it, what would it be and why?

Kip: If we could drink one more home brew or commercial brew? I think you are asking commercial beer so I’ll answer that first. My answer really changes daily, but I would have to choose the Abyss. It’s a solid imperial stout and it’s the first imperial stout and the first barrel aged beer I ever consumed. It has a lot going on it. I want to analyze every flavor I’m tasting, but in the end I just sit back and enjoy it. It reminds me that beer is meant to be enjoyed and that you should always try new beers to expand your perception of what makes beer good. The only critic that really counts is you. I know it seems selfish to say that you are the only one that matters, but it’s true, which is why opening a brewery is challenging. You’ll have to read everyone else and put their needs before yours. I’m like doing that. It’ll be fun.

John: Probably one of Kip’s brews. Oh, we aren’t allowed to answer like that? Okay! If I had to choose a “desert island” beer it would probably be – and I’m sure I’ll get crap for not being beer snob enough – Anchor Steam. I really appreciate well-made sessionable (aka light easy drinking) beers. Anchor Steam is sessionable yet complex enough to satisfy over the long term. Plus it’s a California craft beer and the brewery is one of the pioneers of the micro beer movement – so what’s not to love!

Honorable mentions: Eagle Rock XPA, Cigar City Hunahpu, any Kolsch from Colonge

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