Photos by Brian Addison. Above: Beachwood’s selection of independently brewed brews.
Where we eat, what we drink, who we support with our dollars… . These are important things that we should consider as consumers.
Sometimes, admittedly, it’s difficult to discern what is right over wrong or, even more difficult, to balance our bank accounts with costs. (Because a Dollar Menu is oftentimes impossible to beat over that $65 chicken.)
It may sound odd to some but food has ethics for me—this is the basis for the upcoming Foodways summit—and sometimes, the best way to understand those ethics is by examining history, using it as a frame for today’s market, and making a choice. Sometimes that choice is the cheaper one. Sometimes it is the easier one. Sometimes it is neither.
But the conversation I want to start about beer is so much more than a discussion about the wonderful liquid itself.
This is, hopefully, a good history read, giving Long Beach a light it deserves when it comes to the birthing of the SoCal craft beer scene.
This is, hopefully, a tale that strikes a chord with those seemingly innocent trips to Ballast Point. (They’re not so innocent.)
This is, hopefully, a fruitful dialogue that talks about consumerism, capitalism and the culture of self-image—right here in Long Beach and throughout the LA region.
Long before Congregation taught Downtowners how to drink beer in Long Beach…
Long before Beachwood was named the world’s best gastropub…
There was the Belmont Brewing Company (BBC) and soon-to-be-but-not-yet corporate nightmare Yard House, pouring brews that were crafted locally and offering selections that were outright baffling during the 1990s, the decade before “craft beer” became synonymous with Southern California drinking.
There were the liquor stores and ma’n’pa markets that, long before it was cool and profitable, carried odd cases of unknown brews. From Benson’s Liquor to Stearns Liquor, each reminds its patrons of how Long Beach was ahead of the craft beer curve (and reminds me personally of how friend and beer writer Aaron Carroll told me about Stearns being the sole place to score Sierra Nevada in the entire city back in the early 1990s).
These were the institutions—paired with the rich history of oversize schooners filled with watery American lagers at Joe Jost’s for nearly a century to the many-decades-old dive bars offering cheap drafts along Retro Row—that puts Long Beach in a cemented but overlooked place in the history of independent beer.
And with Long Beach’s own ins and outs of independence, to be discussed over this piece, the larger conversation of “keeping it local” becomes an important cog in the ethics of drinking beer.
The BBC in Belmont Shore, founded by David Lott and David Hansen, came alive in 1990—one year after Karl Strauss opened in San Diego, just over a decade after New Albion became the nation’s first formal microbrewery in Sonoma, and nearly a century after Anchor set up shop in San Francisco in 1896—and with a quarter of a century in operation, it has the distinction of being the oldest brewpub in the region.
“Back then, as was the case with a lot of the early brewpubs, most brewers tended to brew colors, rather than distinct styles—a blonde, a golden, a red, a pale, a brown, and maybe a stout or a hefeweizen—all of them ales,” wrote beer historian and writer Tomm Carroll in one of the first editions of Beer Paper LA. “It was fresh beer, and it wasn’t thin, yellowish liquid like the ubiquitous Budweiser and Coors, so it was a welcome respite from the then-norm.”
In its beginnings, BBC went through brewmasters quite quickly but didn’t find a true grounding until it brought on its third brewer, Kevin Day. According to Carroll, Day was experimenting with Belgian Tripels and English barleywine styles on the seven-barrel system, marking BBC as one of the most forward-thinking breweries at the time.
However, by the end of his run, BBC returned to what it still offers today, including its famed Strawberry Blonde that can be found everywhere from Total Wine & More to local restaurants—though you’ll find its current brewmaster, who goes mononymously by Blackwell and takes to the beer lines every day at 4 a.m., taking on more contemporary styles like West Coast IPAs under the BBC’s Ale of the Month selection.
“Some kids still get pissy with me when I tell them I sometimes don’t have an IPA on draft,” Blackwell said. “But that’s okay—it’s good to have a new generation of beer lovers.”
Wanting to mimic the BBC’s aura—a craft-y joint complete with a view and, at the time, much sought after “California cuisine”—Harald Herrmann, Carlito Jocson, Steele Platt, and Steven Reynolds had a particular vision that they had originally hoped to create in Queensway Bay: a 400-tap beer behemoth where customers would pair their food with the beers.
Creating the world’s greatest tap room was no easy feat and, after inking a deal with Shoreline Village, the Yard House was born (albeit with 250 taps, not 400).
On opening night, they served Elvira’s Night Brew with Elvira in tow. They soon, however, did something another craft beer giant—Ballast Point, discussed ahead—did: they sold out for a cool check, abandoning their craft roots and comfortably escaping on their boatload of cash. However, despite still being a massive corporate chain still in existence, Yard House holds a distinct place in the history of Long Beach food and drinks.
Perhaps the owners of the Yard House were prescient.
What followed was a bubble burst—most gastropubs of the 1990s closed up shop—and then, about a decade later, craft beer saw a resurgence that was largely led by San Diego and then rippled through the entire country. An obsession with West Coast IPAs lured folks away from faint-yellow macro-beer and into the silky, hoppy, calorie-heavy world of great beer.
In Long Beach, that much needed palate training was led by two now-famed institutions: Congregation Ale House and Beachwood BBQ & Brewing, both in DTLB.
A stein’s throw from each other other, these formidable establishments taught Long Beach what beer was, how it can be as culinary as it can be communal, and that craft beer had ethics.
Yup, you read that right: craft beer was introducing ethics into our alcohol consumption. It was teaching drinkers about small business, the incredible talent of master brewers, hop and barley farming, the cultivation of yeast, the sourcing of water…
When talks about Ballast Point and Firestone Walker creating brewpubs in Long Beach began surfacing around 2012, with scouts eying locations to expand each prospective brand, Long Beach was excited. Rightfully so: It meant that we were creating a beer economy that was purely California, worthy of a presence in a our city, that our beer institutions as they stood deserved more neighbors.
While Firestone eventually chose Venice—inducing jealousy amongst those Long Beachers who had previously visited their massive Paso Robles campus or Buellton location—Ballast chose Long Beach, opening in June of 2016 to crowds that Alamitos Bay hadn’t seen in years.
Clean, contemporary, and utterly impressive, Long Beach cheered, myself included.
Perhaps, it turns out, for all the wrong reasons.
Ballast Point was purchased by Constellation—mothership for massive brands like Corona, Modelo and Pacifico—for a cool billion dollars in 2015.
Yes, one billion.
And it sent shockwaves throughout the craft beer world. It not only prompted assurance that the craft beer scene was viable, if not envy-inducing amongst the very companies that mocked it, but also brought to question craft beer’s role in the other part of the world that largely laughed at it: corporate macro beer.
But the ultimate question—the one that was prompted by Anheuser-Busch’s purchase of LA’s Golden Road (the same year they made the commercial linked above and shortly before Ballast’s purchase) and further exacerbated by Heineken’s full acquisition of Lagunitas last year after it had acquired 50 percent of its assets in 2015—is what this means for a beer community that was, at its core, the precise opposite of everything macro beer stood for.
For the owners of Beachwood, it meant mocking Ballast—quite literally. For Congregation, it was a the shrug of the shoulders if anything else; it wasn’t who they were. For Modern Times, it meant pulling a joke that smelled like they were selling out, only to have its owner, Jacob McKean, write an eviscerating blog post about what “selling out” really means and eventually becoming an employee-owned company last year.
And surely, these witty, scene-driven responses were wonderful, particularly that last part of handing over operations to the employees who made profits possible. (And it should be noted that Anheuser-Busch has effectively cut off the entire American independent beer business from South African hops.)
But ultimately, independent breweries won’t conquer it alone. It essentially comes down to the consumer’s behavior and being informed.
And Long Beach, I can tell you this, those gorgeous glasses of Sculpin from Ballast Point—with a quality that has truly not diminished even after the acquisition by the corporate giant—have to come from somewhere.
What you’re drinking isn’t only a $16 six-pack of Corona with more hops, you’re being fooled into thinking that what you’re consuming is different from macro beer.
“This isn’t a Bud Light, you lowly drinker!” you declare, your mind assuring you that you’re still drinking San Diego-based, craft sensation Ballast Point—a real beer. Prices never dropped with the acquisition. Quality didn’t either, admittedly. So what are you left feeling after you throw down for that six-can box of Grapefruit Sculpin? What are you contributing toward with your dollar?
Well, you’re directly sponsoring the privatization of water in the town of Mexicali as Constellation, constructing a massive, $1.5 billion brewery in the Mexican town, plans to churn out over 200 million cases of beer every year from the location using the town’s connection to the Colorado River.
Farmers feel frightened that the corporation’s consumption from the river will affect local farmers’ reliance on that river, which has already seen a roller coaster of output thanks to droughts and climate change as it rolls through the United States and into Mexico.
“There’s this mythology intertwined with the lives of us here, where water is a fundamental aspect of our history,” said Jesus Galaz Duarte, a member of Mexicali Resiste, a group that has amassed nearly 50,000 followers on Facebook and is taking on Constellation’s build-out directly. “Defending this water is in many ways defending our history.”
Mexicali Resiste celebrated its first anniversary this year, continuing the battle as Constellation plans to open the brewery in 2020.
Duarte does not mince his words when it comes to the resistance, noting that the struggle at Standing Rock is comparable to the one in Mexicali—just with less coverage, less acknowledgement, and less outrage.
“People are being forced to give up a way of life in the name of progress,” he said. “And not a drop of the beer will go to Mexico.”
That last point is important: without a drop going to its citizens, who is consuming the beer?
100 percent Americans, according to Constellation. who noted that all the beer made in Mexicali will be deliver into the States—and that includes you, dear Long Beach supporter of Ballast Point’s seductive brewery location and stores throughout the region.
When asked for specific comment, Constellation referred to a previous statement: “We continue to work with local authorities to ensure all aspects of our brewery construction project are in full compliance with all applicable rules, regulations and laws. This has been validated by Mexico’s Ministry of the Interior.”
Now, it should make sense as to why so many breweries are joining Beachwood eschewing the dub of “craft beer” toward labeling their brews as “independent beer.” Craft beer is slowly being removed from its base, morphed into a consumer-friendly, We’re-Still-Family-and-Local façade that is almost entirely false and certainly misleading.
Craft beer has been hijacked by corporate hacks and those hacks are using the small but mighty dedication of the craft scene’s loyal consumers to fit the bill for their continued growth.
You have a plethora of other options. Beachwood. The Blendery. BBC. Congregation—all as mentioned previously.
You also have Liberation Brewing Co., which literally opened this week. You have the Long Beach Beer Lab, which will also be opening a taproom up in North Long Beach. You have Ten Mile Brewing. You have Ambitious Ale opening soon. You have Steady Brewing opening soon. You have Trademark opening soon.
You have options that aren’t at the expense of a water war with our neighbor or blocking South Africa from selling to small businesses. Take those options.
Support our journalism.
Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.