OP-ED: Could Craft Beer Become Long Beach’s Newest Growth Industry?

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Photo by Lydia Chain 

This past weekend, hundreds of people from across the Southland descended upon the Long Beach Bike Fest not just to celebrate two-wheeled cruising in a city that aims to become the most bike-friendly in the country, but for something far more—dare we say—pedestrian: beer. 

The Beachwood and Friends Craft Beer Garden that awaited riders and spectators at the finish line felt like the nucleus of Saturday’s event and its showcasing of all-local microbreweries was rare enough to draw visitors from Orange County, Los Angeles and beyond. These people flocked to Downtown Long Beach, spent money at its restaurants and tasted world-class beer brewed right in our own backyard.

But not all of the beer showcased was made in Long Beach.

As American Craft Beer Week gets underway (May 13-19), it’s worth noting that though the movement away from major-label beer has officially hit greater L.A., some cities more than others are benefitting from the economic impact brought by sud-seekers willing to travel far and spend money on these hand-crafted beverages. The Beachwood and Friends Craft Beer Garden featured six breweries from the South Bay, four of which are located in Torrance—a city quickly becoming the beer capital of L.A.

beermonkishIn his State of the City address held last week, Torrance Mayor Frank Scotto cited craft beer as a new growth industry for the city and noted that the concentration of breweries with tasting rooms that has accumulated in the last three years will attract tourists in the same way that wineries bring people to Paso Robles and Temecula.

One look at San Diego—affectionately known as Beer City U.S.A.—and it’s easy to see the economic benefits of seeking out and welcoming craft breweries.

Starting two decades ago, San Diego brewers like Karl Strauss, Stone, Port, and Green Flash took the brewpub craze of the 1990s to the next level by creating new beer styles all their own and building a rich network of production breweries that to this day inspires countless homebrewers and seeds beer communities nationwide.

As of 2012, more than 60 breweries exist in San Diego County, 32 of the which are inside San Diego city limits, a claim that Mayor Jerry Sanders boasted with pride when he showed up to tap a ceremonial cask at the annual Brewers Guild Festival during last November’s San Diego Beer Week. Sanders also said that he doesn’t support beer just because he’s a beer-drinker. 

“Beer has proven itself to be recession-proof,” he told the brewers in the crowd from the festival stage. “And for every job you create, 5.7 more jobs are created out in the rest of the region. Beer is the highest multiplier of jobs in the city.”

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San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders (center, white shirt) pours beers for attendees at a San Diego Beer Week festival at the waterfront in Downtown. Photo by Sarah Bennett

That’s a crazy statistic—especially for a metropolis that has long built its economic strength on military and tourism activity. But it is one that could also easily happen in a city equally as tourism-driven as Long Beach, which spends millions of dollars a year building shopping centers, courting restaurant groups and drawing conference attendees from around the world to our increasingly revitalized Downtown.

To its credit, Long Beach was ahead of much of the region with its craft beer bars, which began eschewing macro names like Budweiser and Miller at a time when it was still hard to find Chimay at a bottle shop.

In addition to The Factory in Bixby Knolls (the first place in town to tap rare SoCal beer), we are home to the first Congregation Ale House (which has since opened two more locations in L.A.), the second Simmzy’s and numerous bars (from Quinn’s to The Pike) that have swapped out generic tap lists for more interesting ones. The Yard House at Shoreline Village was also the chain’s original location, leaving Long Beach with a unique spot in local beer history.

BBCbeerBut a profitable local beer industry can’t grow on restaurants and taphouses alone. At the center of every thriving beer community are breweries that crank out local brews and currently, Long Beach has three—all of which are brewpub operations that have made history in their own right.

First came Belmont Brewing Company, which opened in 1990 and is the oldest operating brewpub in Southern California. Rock Bottom opened in 1997 as one of the first outside of the chain’s native Colorado (several house beers have also won national medals). And in July of 2011, Beachwood BBQ and Brewing—a brewing offshoot of a Seal Beach spot that is consistently rated among the top five places to have a beer in the country—moved in next door to Congregation on the Promenade, leading locals to dub the Downtown strip “Barley Block.”

Beachwood is by far the Long Beach brewery earning the most attention from outside of the city, especially after it medaled twice at the Great American Beer Festival last year—it was the only brewery in all of L.A. County to do so—and was named the best brewpub in all of Southern California by RateBeer.com. The brewpub’s bottled beers were even featured in this month’s issue of Beer Advocate Magazine, a widely respected national beer publication, furthering our hometown brews’ reach. 

beachwoodbeerbottlesWith renown brewer Julian Shrago cranking out award-winning IPAs, stouts and Belgian-style ales., Beachwood has become a destination for craft beer fans from not just across the region but around the world. When the Scottish owners of Brewdog visited Southern California while filming a new craft beer-themed TV show, it was no surprise that the only stop they made between San Diego and LAX was Beachwood BBQ and Brewing. 

Of course, mini-festivals and craft beer gardens during summer concerts are great ways to encourage beer tourism in our city, but what if Long Beach’s industrial Westside became home to taproom-bearing production breweries like Torrance? What if Stone Brewing Company was able to place a Company Store in the old Blue Café on the Promenade as it has suggested it would like to do? What if local beer tours (that currently serve areas like South Bay, Central L.A. and Orange County) could spend a day in Long Beach? Or even Signal Hill? There must be reasons why Smog City Brewing–which will have its grand opening in Torrance this weekend–looked past Long Beach in its search for a permanent home. Let’s fix those reasons.

We may never be able to compete with San Diego’s beer dominance, but the massive momentum that craft beer has gained in the last three years (during which L.A. County went from one to more than a dozen breweries and the craft beer market share increased to 7%) begs our City’s economic development captains to look for ways to encourage new breweries with reputable names to settle down on our public transit-accessible shores. 

Unlike The Pike at Rainbow Harbor, City Place and other tourism-fueled decisions the City has made over the years, craft beer has proven that if you build it, the money will truly come.

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Sarah Bennett is a contributor to the Hi-lo and the editor-at-large at the Long Beach Post. She is also a professor at Santa Ana College where she was once a student before transferring to USC to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Sarah has written about music, art, food and beer in local, national and international publications for over a decade. An L.A. native and longtime resident of Long Beach, she is the co-founder of Long Beach Zine Fest and managing editor at theLAnd magazine. She never sleeps.
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