Hidden among the arteries of our local freeways and often buried within boxy industrial complexes is a counterculture of flavors rooted in one of the world’s oldest beverages: beer.
According to the Brewers Association, Orange County alone has the same number of breweries as the entire state of Nevada, with an estimated economic impact of more than $400 million yearly. As a whole, California, with more than 700 independent craft breweries, earns a stunning national high of $7.345 billion.
Behind the average local brewery are owners who may have tapped their 401(k) funds dry and milked every last penny from friends and family. But they don’t go it alone; the people who do the grueling work—everything from serving guests to cleaning glassware, kegs, toilets and parking lots—are rarely recognized as being crucial toward the brewery’s success.
But our burgeoning beer scene isn’t average; in fact, we’re spoiled rich. Breweries in Orange County and Long Beach have won more national and global awards than Los Angeles and San Diego counties combined. Not only do we have the most repeat wins for IPA, but we’re also renowned for coffee stout and a style that is having a resurgence: crisp, clean lager.
Who are the people behind the hundreds of styles of beers with thousands of creative names? What’s next for our local beer scene? For the answers, I looked to the men and women entrenched in steamy brewhouses who together have one goal: to build on Orange County’s hard-earned reputation as an epicenter of innovative craft brewing.
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While the rest of the world is asleep, Gunwhale Ales (2960 Randolph Ave., Ste. A, Costa Mesa, 949-239-9074; www.gunwhaleales.com) assistant brewer Tasha Bogdanski is decked out in well-worn railroad coveralls, safety goggles and black steel-toed muck boots. “You caught me cleaning our lines,” she says with a smile. “Hang tight!” Water then spews from the stainless-steel tap handles uncontrollably. For a brewery that doesn’t have a full brew system, the morning holds a lengthy to-do list. “You kind of came on a great day,” she continues. “I’m doing some tank readings, titration, dry-hopping three IPA tanks, kegging and yeast harvesting.”
As Boy Pablo’s “Dance, Baby!” jams in the background, Bogdanski slings five bags of chilled pelletized hops onto Gunwhale’s second-level fermentation catwalk, climbs up a squeaky ladder, then squirts isopropyl alcohol around a tank’s bottom port. “I have to blow off some of the hop matter caked in the bottom,” she explains, then waits patiently as nothing comes out. After a little CO2 pressure and whacking the pipe with a rubber mallet, Donkey Kong-style, green hop sludge gushes down the brewery drain 10 feet below. “Dry-hopping is my favorite part,” she says, grinning like a pleased plumber.
When an IPA is dry-hopped, a brewer dumps tiny hop pellets on top of an already (mostly) fermented beer to add to its aromatics. “It’s cool to smell the hops going in, then smelling that character in the final beer,” says Bogdanski.
One of Gunwhale’s three owners, JT Wallace, enters with a paper coffee cup and a stressed look on his face. While the brew team currently leases space from a nearby local brewery, he’s been planning a new location in Orange that will have it all. “We’ve been getting all the [tenant improvements] done . . . handicapped-compliant doors, exits, restrooms and such,” he says.
The new brewhouse’s double mash tuns have been sitting on the lot since summer, notes brewer Kevin Hammons. “I remember sweating my fucking ass off getting tarps put over it,” he says, stroking his long beard.
The new mash tun Gunwhale bought is a press system mostly utilized by brewers in Belgium. Malt is first pulverized into flour, then pressed at certain temperatures to extract the sugars. The mash press also allows for nontraditional brewing malts such as 100 percent wheat, rye or even spelt, any of which would traditionally clog up a regular brewhouse. Added bonus: It makes great hazy IPA.
“Once we’re all moved in, we’ll convert [the original Costa Mesa location] to all mixed fermentation,” Wallace vows. While mixed fermentation inside a brewery can often make regular beers unintentionally sour or funky with cross-contamination, having two locations is common among breweries utilizing that technique (e.g., the Bruery and Bruery Terreux).
“I like doing this,” Bogdanski says, referring to her brewing work. “It all makes me so happy.”
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Along the 5-mile La Palma Beer Trail, there are 10 breweries, one of which is Stereo Brewing (950 S. Va Rodeo, Placentia, 714-993-3390; www.stereobrewing.com). Assistant brewer Tina Anderson can best be described as petite, but her brewing prowess makes her a giant in the beer business. She got her start at Tustin Brewing five years ago, then haunted the likes of Anaheim’s Bottle Logic and Fullerton’s Bootleggers before landing at Stereo permanently.
“Our brewing process here takes more than eight hours, so [owner] Rick [Smets] starts the day by mashing in, and I’ll take over and finish up by doing the runoff, hop additions, whirlpool, cooling and yeast pitch,” she notes.
Stereo’s production facility isn’t like that of a regular brewery; some buildings can smell like a chemical plant mixed with yeastiness, but not here. “I’m kind of OCD, so I’m always cleaning,” Anderson confesses. “Sometimes, I like to clean even though it’s already clean. I have to just accept that something is as clean as it’s going to get and move on.”
The process is grueling work. “Whenever someone tells me they want to be a brewer, I always tell them that 90 percent is cleaning and being organized,” Anderson says. The other 10 percent is spent ordering supplies and actually operating the brewhouse. “Right now, you caught me doing CIP [clean in place] on a tank, which is a mix of time, friction and temperature. Get the liquid hot, shoot it fast and time each port, then take it all apart to sanitize. Lastly, I purge the tank with CO2.”
Just as a chef utilizes mise en place, the practice of having all food prep in place, Stereo’s brewhouse is set up similarly, so an experienced brewer such as Anderson should be able to make beer blindfolded. “Tina has a great deal of fastidiousness,” notes Smets. “If I’m not here, her attention to detail is intense. . . . She’ll be here doing things that I don’t ever fucking dream of, and I’m insane when it comes to this place.”
Being an assistant brewer means there’s not always room for creativity, Anderson notes. “Most of the time, you’re brewing someone else’s recipe over and over, with little room for input,” she says. That said, she sometimes tests her ideas by dosing a single keg with extra ingredients to create a one-off. “I did a coffee-cinnamon cold brew oatmeal stout that was super-tasty and rewarding.”
At Stereo, the quality of the beer is just as important as the quality of the music playing—though Smets and Anderson definitely don’t agree on the sounds they listen to. “Although Rick has turned me on to a number of bands, like Television and Pavement, I still can’t get him to like the Deftones,” Anderson says. “He calls them the Tonedeafs,” she continues, laughing. “I’m more of a rocksteady reggae gal, and he’s a Deadhead.”
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When TAPS Fish House & Brewery (multiple locations; www.tapsfishhouse.com) started in 1999, during the golden age of big-showy brewpubs, the thought of a branded food truck was probably the furthest thing from owner Joe Manzella’s mind. “Craft-beer drinkers, in large part, are frequenting the many OC breweries in greater numbers and with measurable consistency than they are brewpubs,” he says.
Although his traditional locations in Brea, Irvine and Corona still do good business, they’re much more food-focused than they were 12 to 15 years ago. “Our dining guests still drink beers,” Manzella says, “but it’s largely as a result of eating there and having one or two pints.”
But with the addition of Tustin’s Brewery & Barrel Room, TAPS has definitely seen a shift, with beer-lovers coming in for the beer, then staying for the food. “We’ve adapted, and we’re not complaining, but there has been a definite shift,” Manzella notes.
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Down in San Clemente, word travels fast when the world’s most sought-after beer is being tapped nearby. “We’re feeling younger again!” Pizza Port (301 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949-940-0005; www.pizzaport.com) staff announced on the company’s Instagram in February. By the official tapping time of 5 p.m., word had gotten out, and every beer geek in South County lined up for a pint of Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, a triple IPA reminiscent of a sparkling hop wine. The sticky-icky aromatics are hypnotic and euphoric—and it can possibly cure whatever ales you.
Russian River Brewing recently brought online a huge second brewhouse in Windsor, which means a lot of Pliny-receiving restaurants got almost double their usual amount.
Although some made the trip up to Santa Rosa and Windsor to drink Younger fresh from the source, many knew just where to go locally. Among the places to stalk next year if you want a taste of the youth-giving hop-nectar is definitely Pizza Port. It’s sort of the SoCal version of Belgian Trappist breweries; instead of monks, surfer-types make some of the best, most consistent, award-winning beers around.
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Tustin Brewing Co.’s (13011 Newport Ave., Ste. 100, Tustin, 714-665-2337; tustinbrewery.com) Jerrod Larsen is receiving a shipment of 50-pound malt bags from Brewers Supply Group (BSG). Standing in damp brew boots, he combs the pile for what brewers call “pallet treasure.”
“BSG always puts in a Salted Nut Roll candy bar somewhere in the middle,” he exlains. Sort of like a Payday bar made by the same company that produces Bit-o-Honey, the candy has surely been eaten as breakfast by every brewer in the U.S.
The door swings open as an older customer walks in. “Oh, hey, Clutch,” Larsen says to him. He then explains admiringly that the guy fought in World War II and is “a total badass.”
“Wait, is that the guy you named Clutch’s American Wheat after?” I ask.
“That beer is all he drinks, so we named it after him,” Larsen says. “We were super-stoked to win with that beer at the 2018 World Beer Cup.”
In the mid-’90s, living across the street from the place, I cut my teeth on microbrewed beer here. Now, whenever I walk in for a fresh pint of Old Town IPA, it’s sort of comforting to see not much has changed inside the place—yet the beer seems to always get better.
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What most local beer-lovers don’t realize is the average IPA is a blend of ingredients from all over the globe. It might have malts grown in Canada, Germany or even England; hops that come from the Pacific Northwest, New Zealand or Europe; and yeast that originated sometime in history somewhere in the world that was then propagated in a lab. Each ingredient is loaded with local flavor, and yet, in the glass, it all comes across as a cohesive beverage that tastes like home.
Sour-beer producers such as the Good Beer Co. (309 W. Fourth St., Santa Ana, 714-714-2988; www.thegoodbeerco.com/welcome) go a step further by harnessing wild yeast and bacteria organisms to create a specific house character, then integrating locally grown fruit. A brewer using the same ingredients and techniques on the other side of the globe would yield totally different results.
In Good Beer Co.’s downtown Santa Ana brewery, steam from oak barrels being cleaned floats up the historic brick-sided walls toward skylights glowing above. Assistant brewer Ian Cirson fills barrels with piping-hot water, then scrubs the previous fermentation santorum off their bunghole region.
Despite the livery-throwback vibe here, wooden barrels have been used the vast majority of time since the industrial era. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that stainless-steel kegs stored and served beer, but modern-day sour producers once again utilize the porous wood barrels to create microclimates for wild yeast and bacteria to thrive.
“We grow our own heritage barley for a special beer,” notes co-owner Brandon Fender. If you were to pull the stats of how many breweries in America are growing their own grain, the number would be fewer than 10 out of thousands. “Out on a family ranch in Julian, we grow grain, and my brother Bryce has a combine that harvests it.”
California doesn’t necessarily have a grain-growing tradition, so Fender turned to Midwestern farm blogs for inspiration on the project. The problem wasn’t finding info, though; it was locating small-scale production techniques. “We had to research how people grew grain maybe 50 years ago and borrow from that,” Fender says.
“A neighbor brought out their seeder, which is sort of like a big pizza-cutter-like contraption that cuts a groove in the soil, then drops seeds in,” Fender explains, making hand gestures akin to those of a pizzeria employee.
Mother nature does the watering, with no additional irrigation on the field. “Right now, the grain is all under snow and will spring back in, well, spring,” he continues.
With barley, a grower has to trick the grain into thinking it has been rested for a year by controlling its environment. When it’s ready to be malted, the grain is submerged for a couple of days so it can germinate. “It’s kind of crazy,” Fender says. “All the roots kind of grow into one another, and it heats up on its own. . . . It’s a fun experience, and yet it’s so detached from beer.”
So much of what the brewer does contributes to the flavor. “I guess our hands are what creates terroir in beer,” Fender says. In the wine world, the term refers to how a particular region’s climate, soils and terrain affect the taste of the vino.
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OC Brewers Guild executive director Errica Cook is often spotted in local tasting rooms. “Ooh, did I tell you about OC Beer Week this year?” she asks, jumping up and down with excitement.
Starting April 27, the festivities kick off with the fourth-annual OC Brewers Guild Invitational, held this year at the Elks Lodge in Garden Grove. Tickets can be found at events.ocbrewers.org (use code NAGEL15 or buy early-bird).
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Before Riip Beer Co. (17214 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach, 714-248-6710; riipbeer.com) had a tasting room, it was best known for delivering DanK IPA to Huntington Beach residents from the back of a classic Helms bread truck that had been purchased from Brewbakers. Now with a raging brewhouse on PCH, co-owner Ryan Rasmussen says, the company doesn’t have time for that anymore. “We sell 90 percent of the beer we make across our own tasting-room bar,” he says, as the Offspring’s “Self Esteem” plays in the background as if it’s some sort of local anthem.
But the Brewbakers heirlooms didn’t stop with the truck. “We were pretty stoked to bring brewer Ian McCall in, as he’s such a high-level brewer,” Rasmussen says, “and it’s cool that he got his start at Brewbakers.”
“I actually met my wife at work in Brewbakers back in 2008 and taught her how to brew,” McCall says. “We now have two babies.”
After working at the homebrew shop and bakery, he cut his teeth professionally at Beachwood BBQ and Brewing in Long Beach, during a time when the pub racked up an extensive list of honors, including back-to-back Brewpub of the Year awards at the 2013 and 2014 Great American Beer Festivals (GABF).
Riip is now known for its ultra-dank Super Cali IPA, which won silver at the 2016 GABF under brewer Andrew Moy, who now brews at Lake Forest’s Gamecraft Brewing.
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It’s tough to talk about local beers without mentioning Beachwood Brewing (multiple locations; beachwoodbrewing.com). Stationed at the 10-seat Seal Beach bar where it all started, co-owner Gabe Gordon rants about coffee. “Dude, imagine if Yelpers were to actually rate breakfast spots where the coffee has been burning on a 1970s Bunn carafe hot plate for an hour and the eggs are served burned,” he says.
The dude who came up with a draft system dubbed “the flux capacitor” to ensure proper pours is now geeking out on a new breakfast program for his restaurants. “We spent almost a year figuring out this menu and coffee service,” Gordon says as he takes a sip of his fruity Ethiopian blend.
I order a Funkmosa, which is orange juice and Lambic-sour beer from his Long Beach Blendery project and ask about his next location, inside a SteelCraft in Garden Grove. “It’s on a week-to-week slip, believe it or not, because of the weather,” he says. “They’ve been trying to pour concrete all year, but they need a perfect set of 10 days of dryness to make it happen.” The new spot will serve Beachwood beer and possibly wine, weather permitting.
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A few miles away from Beachwood, Levi Fried and Harmony Sage are hard at work at the Long Beach Beer Lab (518 W. Willow St., Long Beach, 562-270-3253; lbbeer.com). As Fried hauls blue barrels of spent grain down the sidewalk, Sage checks the huge timer on her wrist regarding the bread that’s baking.
You would never guess Fried (pronounced lay-vee) was a doctor in a previous life—in Israel, no less. Sage was a pastry chef at a Ritz-Carlton in Georgia. The couple met on a beach in Israel in the ’90s, an odd coincidence since they’re both from California. “I started making beer in 2007 while in med school,” Fried says, wiping grain dust off his hat bill as he recalled craving fresh hoppy beer, a style that was lacking in the Middle East at the time.
The beer at Long Beach Beer Lab seems ahead of the curve of most modern experimentation. “Right now, we have a sourdough beer with mango,” Fried says nonchalantly.
He has been experimenting lately with a yeast that supposedly can ferment a beer in three days; it will allow for quicker turnaround on smaller session beers, something that’s been a struggle. “Kveik is a Norwegian farmhouse yeast that you can ferment over 100 degrees Fahrenheit with no off flavors, so my goal for this week is to turn around a blonde by Friday,” Fried says.
“Yeah, we’ve had great results with that yeast on our pastry stouts because it gives it a super-soft quality—almost like we treated the water,” Sage adds.
The food here isn’t an afterthought. All of the bread is made in-house, and some specialty grains are milled on the same machine the beer grains are put through. “I mill our purple prairie malt, rye and spelt in the back,” Sage says. “Believe it or not, we also grow our own herbs hydroponically on site, and our brewery and bakery are all 100 percent solar-powered.”
Something I often hear from brewery owners new and old is that every day is a new day. “I can only imagine what this place will be like in five years,” I remark.
Fried pulls a fresh bottle of wild-fermented beer from the tasting-room fridge and pops the cork.
“I still feel like we’re just getting started,” he says.
Greg Nagel has been writing about beer since 2011, is an avid homebrewer of wine, cider, and beer, is a certified Cicerone Beer Server, level 1 WSET in Wine, a podcaster with the Four Brewers Show, and runs a yearly beer festival called Firkfest happening this June!