For most of the 2010s, the growth chart of the Los Angeles craft beer scene only moved in one direction: up. This came after decades of flatlining, save for a few names like Mark Jilg of Craftsman Brewing (opened in 1995), even as explosive craft beer movements took hold in San Diego and Orange County. Then, beginning around 2009, the line on the chart began to climb. And fast.
Over the past decade and a half, Los Angeles’s craft beer industry has grown from a handful of one-off operators like Ting Su of Eagle Rock Brewery and Cyrena Nouzille of Ladyface Ale Companie in Agoura Hills to a hundred or more breweries just within the county lines. Upstart breweries began finding fast success setting up in unincorporated parts of LA County or in brewery-friendly cities like Torrance, buoyed by waves of enthusiasm and media attention. Awards piled up, beer fans came calling, and for a time it seemed like the LA craft beer scene was the talk of the nation.
Soon big-name players like Golden Road Brewing were selling for millions of dollars to conglomerates like AB InBev, makers of Budweiser, Stella Artois, Modelo, and other corporate labels. The scene was about as hot as it could be — until it wasn’t.
In just the first three months of 2023, a trio of large, well-respected craft breweries have closed in LA County, including Strand Brewing Company, which has long been considered a flagship for the LA scene. Many believe that more closures are coming, too, part of a larger trend of flagging sales and shutters in the craft beer market nationwide. So what happened?
“A bunch of the [recent] closures have been shocking,” says Andrew Fowler, managing partner of Hawthorne’s LA Ale Works. “Los Angeles is probably one of the hardest markets to do business in, just with the cost of real estate alone and the footprints required to brew beer. Our gas bill went up 300 percent last month, and when you use as much as we do to fire our burners, it can start to feel punitive.”
Fowler isn’t just a brewery owner, he’s also a prominent member of the Los Angeles County Brewers Guild, a cohort of craft brewers who advocate together while sharing resources and marketing materials across the county’s beer scene.
“Ten years ago there were 10 breweries” in the Guild, says Fowler. “Now there’s close to 100. We’re likely going to see more closings, and we’ll see more openings, too. It’s an ebb and flow.”
For years, young brewers saw only opportunity in LA’s emerging craft scene, even if the work itself was arduous. In the March 2023 issue of industry monthly Beer Paper LA, Strand Brewing Co.’s Joel Elliott describes 18-hour days at the brewery, missing family events, and working on a shoestring budget. “I used to sit on the floor next to the front door,” writes Elliott. “In the dark. With my head resting on my knees. So tired that I wasn’t sure how I might muster the energy to tie my boots, much less get up and leave.”
LA Ale Works’s Fowler can sympathize. “I think some people jump in,” he says, “and realize ‘Oof, this is seven days a week, 16-hour days. I’ll go back to my day job.’”
Gabe Gordon of Beachwood Brewing, which opened in 2011, also remembers the long, early days at the beginning of the LA craft beer movement. The work was never-ending, but neither was consumer demand. “When I first got into craft beer,” says Gordon, “you could pour the most obscure styles of beer, and people were really stoked to try it. There was no pressure to drink a particular style.”
Within a few years, the proliferation of bright, bitter India Pale Ales began to reshape the California scene, creating an arms race for rare varietals of hops and muting a lot of innovation in other areas like barrel-aged beers, sours, and lighter, less-powerful lagers. Some names, like Monkish Brewing, which opened in 2012 in Torrance, enjoyed a rabid fan base specifically for its Belgian-inspired creations, but plenty of other breweries found themselves chasing the same hoppy IPA flavors. Gordon says that hasn’t helped the LA craft beer cause.
“It’s been pretty relentless for the last three years. Some people are just done.”
“At the end of the day there are a lot of craft breweries, and we all make mostly the same beer,” says Gordon. “So how do you tell two breweries apart?” Branding and marketing are more important to independent breweries than ever before, he notes, but ultimately he feels like the entire craft beer scene has stopped iterating, even as the number of total breweries has increased.
“I want people to be rewarded for only being an English-style brewery, or for only brewing German beer, or Belgian beers,” says Gordon. With the region’s IPA obsession, that’s been difficult. “Yorkshire didn’t make it, even though they were making really cool beer,” says Gordon. MacLeod Ale in the San Fernando Valley, which specializes in English-style ales, has also been public about its struggles to stay solvent.
Jennifer Febre, owner of MacLeod, says the brewery spent years trying to overcome the effects of the pandemic, of shutdowns, and confusing red tape that kept customers from even picking up beer for a time. She expanded her Van Nuys facility to include a fully licensed pizza restaurant as a way to defray some of the brewery’s costs, but a brewpub expansion into Highland Park in the fall of 2022 almost bankrupted the entire company.
“This winter was like no other,” says Febre. “Our beer sales were down 20 percent from even last year, which was in the middle of [the] omicron [wave]. Who would have thought that we’d be doing worse?”
Febre says that the rising cost of raw brewing materials, a sudden drop in demand, and increased overhead from the new Highland Park location hit the business at the worst possible moment. She closed the Highland Park restaurant for a month and had plans to shutter the Van Nuys facility as well, but days after laying off her entire staff she found herself still kicking around at the brewery, opening the door to anyone who happened to show up. Slowly, the idea of a complete closure began to recede, and sales picked up enough to keep the lights on and to hire back a few workers. Febre feels better about MacLeod Ale’s chances but knows the brewery’s future is far from certain.
“It’s not lost on me that my optimism is based on pain and suffering that I’ve caused employees and vendors,” says Febre. “There are still a couple of big bills that I’m not quite caught up on yet. I’m appreciative of everyone that’s worked with me and understood. And my employees — this was the worst thing to happen, was to have to lay them off.”
Macleod’s Highland Park location is open once again, running (like the rest of the company) with a skeleton crew and a shoestring budget. Febre stands by the decision to expand to the restaurant in the first place; without adding food to its repertoire, she says, MacLeod wouldn’t have made it out of the earliest days of the pandemic in 2020. “I don’t think a lot of us got into this to do brewpubs,” she says, “I was just expecting to be a production brewery with a taproom, but [food] just opens us up to a wider audience.”
Beachwood has found its own success by diversifying, though it’s not without its own hiccups. “The restaurant industry has its own challenges that are different than breweries or taprooms,” says Beachwood’s Gordon, who runs five different taprooms and restaurants in addition to a production brewery. “Once you get into the restaurant model you are subjected to all of the things that all restaurants have to go through. The fact that you make your own beer is great but it’s not a cure-all,” says Gordon. Does the average consumer care that you medaled at the World Beer Cup?”
Gordon, like Fowler, believes that more closures are coming to the Los Angeles craft beer scene. And like Febre, he feels that diversification can help to spread around some of the inherent risks of modern craft beer brewing, including overhead costs.
“The cost of everything is going up,” says Gordon. “Grain. Aluminum — and that’s if you can even get cans. Some people are just done. It’s been pretty relentless for the last three years.”
Next up for Beachwood is a move into the distilling space, with its new Bixby Knolls taproom, restaurant, and production facility in Long Beach. It’s yet another money-making avenue for Gordon and his partner and wife Lena Perelman, who continue to believe that for many modern craft beer breweries in LA County these days, simply producing, bottling, and selling beer is no longer enough. “Diversifying into distilled spirits just felt like a necessary thing to do,” says Gordon. “I wanted to add another aspect to Beachwood that would help us stand out. That’s one thing we’ve always been good at: We go back to the basics of what we do well, and we do it all ourselves.”
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” says Fowler of the Brewers Guild. “It’s sad, don’t get me wrong, but there is some new blood coming in, and they have new ideas,” he says. The Guild is still onboarding new craft breweries, and some newer names are already picking up real steam. “You look at someone like Benny Boy Brewing coming in,” says Fowler, “and they’re really thriving.”
There is still pain, though, and there may be more on the horizon. “I’m especially heartbroken about Strand,” says Febre of MacLeod. “That was a really hard blow. And of course Mumford, all of them. You grow so close. These are people and friends that we know.”2023-03-17T20:55:07Z dg43tfdfdgfd