Ube Yams and Dragon Tales: Finding Diversity in a New Generation of L.A. Breweries

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The Brewers Association and CraftBeer.com are proud to support content that fosters a more diverse and inclusive craft beer community. This post was selected by the North American Guild of Beer Writers as part of its Diversity in Beer Writing Grant series. It receives additional support through a grant from the Brewers Association’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and Allagash Brewing Company.

The Los Angeles County Brewers Guild counts 95 breweries around greater Los Angeles. Seventy-two of them opened in 2015 or after, most notably in neighborhoods and parts of L.A. historically and culturally associated with blue collar workers, immigrants, and people of color. This includes new businesses in the San Gabriel Valley (44.7% Latino, 25.7% Asian) and in the Inland Empire counties of Riverside (51.6% Latino, 8% Asian-Pacific Islander, 7.5% Black) and San Bernardino (55.8% Latino, 9.4% Black, 9% Asian-Pacific Islander), where the growth of breweries reflects their potential as community-builders and creative centers.

Boomtown Brewery in Downtown L.A., Brewyard Beer Company in Glendale, and Dragon’s Tale Brewery in Montclair are three greater Los Angeles breweries that represent this post-2015 craft beer surge. Open for less than a decade and with strong local followings, each brewery has established itself as a part of their respective neighborhood and the diverse communities they represent and serve. Together, these breweries unlock new ways of understanding the diversity found in local histories, cultures, ingredients, and values that influence craft beer production in greater Los Angeles.

Boomtown Brewing: Creating Space for Beer, Art, and History in Downtown L.A.

Every Wednesday night, Boomtown Brewery hosts Vegan Playground, a street-style food and craft festival that draws Boomtown’s largest weekly crowds. And during L.A.’s professional baseball, soccer, and football seasons, Boomtown becomes a supporters’ heaven, complete with fan camaraderie and games.

“We get the downtown city and federal workers stopping in for a post-work beer, Eastsiders hanging out, and that big vegan crowd on Wednesdays,” says Samuel “Chewy” Chawinga, Boomtown’s co-owner and head brewer. “Our Wednesday night is like a good Friday night. We regularly get 450 to 600 people throughout the evening.”

But the big parties happen when Boomtown drops a new can in its popular Artist Series. Every other month, Chawinga and staff brew between 30 and 60 barrels of a unique hazy double IPA inspired by a featured artist whose work decorates the collectible cans. One beer, Brighter Days Hazy DIPA, was made in collaboration with Russian-Polish artist Bunnie Reiss and featured fruity and herbaceous flavors to reflect the bold, colorful nature of her installation work and paintings. The release parties come alive with music, dancing, and beer flowing in the name of art by local and international street artists, DJs, tattooists, and muralists.

Another “Graffiti” series beer, featuring DJ Neff, remains Boomtown’s bestselling Artist Series can,  and the most-attended party to date honored L.A. graffiti artist Rick Ordonez, AKA “Atlas,” famous for his kitty-cat tags around the city.

The Artist Series is one reminder of Boomtown’s place at the geographical crossroads of urban development, local ancient histories, and the creation of sustainable artist- and community- driven spaces in downtown L.A.

Boomtown opened in August 2015 in a century-old building in a part of downtown hemmed in by railway lines, freeways, and the Los Angeles River. Its front entrance lies several hundred feet from the spot where an ancient sycamore tree grew for over four centuries, when it served as sacred meeting point for the Kizh-Gabrieleño tribe until early Spanish colonizers named it El Aliso. The tree remained an important landmark through L.A.’s Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. statehood eras—until two German immigrants chopped it down in 1895 to expand their brewery.

“It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Boomtown and its location,” said lead brewer Amber Sawicki. “The Aliso Belgian Dark Strong ale names this history of the famous El Aliso tree. We get to know a place through beer.”

Boomtown’s brewery manager, Benjamin Turkel, mentioned the vineyards that once covered the land. “Vignes started wine cultivation right over there,” he said, pointing to the brewery’s main cross-street named for the Frenchman who made wine here in 1831. “We pay homage to these places and stories.” Whether through beers like Aliso Ale, their wine barrel aged saison, or Mic Czech, cleverly named to evoke the microphone as a versatile tool of artistic expression, Boomtown remains committed to its community- and place-based mission.

Sawicki and Turkel said their flagship Bad Hombre Mexican Lager best reflects Boomtown’s community identity. “Bad hombre” re-appropriates a term former president Donald Trump used to describe Mexican immigrants in 2016. The brewery joined many taqueros, bartenders, and others who turned Trump’s words against him in gleeful protest.

“Bad Hombre says the most about Boomtown,” says Sawicki. Beers like Aliso, Bad Hombre, and Chavez Ravine IPA, a reference to Dodger Stadium and its controversial beginnings, “get people talking” about place, time, and these not so past histories.

For Chawinga and crew, these local histories and cultural awareness remain key ingredients for their inspired beers and the diverse communities that enjoy them.

Ube Wan to the Rescue: Nothing Common about Glendale’s Brewyard Beer Company

Brewyard Beer Company sits under the Western Avenue bridge along the San Fernando Road “Craft Beer Corridor,” a 17-mile stretch of breweries north of Griffith Park, just east of the Hollywood Hills and a stone’s throw from Burbank’s famous Warner Bros., NBC, and Walt Disney studios. A restored 1936 Ford flatbed truck greets visitors to the taproom, its chrome grille the inspiration for Brewyard’s logo, a nod to head brewer and co-owner Sherwin Antonio’s former life as a master mechanic.

“He’s the mad scientist around here,” said co-owner and brewery manager Kirk Nishikawa of his childhood friend and partner in beer. When the pair opened Brewyard seven years ago, it was Glendale’s first craft brewery.

They specialize in California Common, or “steam” beers, a unique style with roots in the state’s Gold Rush days before refrigeration, when Germans from the East Coast realized they couldn’t properly cold-ferment lagers in the warm weather. “So they forced the lager yeast to ferment at higher temperatures more suited to ales,” said Nishikawa.

Their flagship, Jewel City California Common, is Brewyard’s most popular and awarded beer. But it was the Ube Wan IPA, made with the sweet purple Filipino yam, that saved the fledgling brewery from the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns of 2020.

“I grew up eating ube in meals and desserts, but I only thought to brew beer with it during the pandemic,” said Antonio.

“What is hard to relay is the overall excitement after we released that first batch of Ube Wan,” said Nishikawa. “Cans flew out the door at a pace that we never saw before. We were being tagged left and right on social media with images of our beer. I was able to catch up on a lot of bills that were stacking up.”

Ube Wan sold twice as much as Kalinga Pilsner, their second best-selling beer made with calamansi, a Filipino lime-orange citrus fruit. The two beers together comprise about 15 to 18 percent of beer sales in Brewyard’s taproom and about half their total distribution sales. “Keep in mind we brewed and sold 25 different beers throughout that year,” said Nishikawa, “so Ube Wan and Kalinga were pulling more than twice their weight in sales.”

With the pandemic success of Ube Wan IPA, Antonio made other beers that reflected the flavors he and Nishikawa grew up with as L.A. kids from Filipino and Japanese-American families. Enter Ube Macapuno Delight, inspired by an ube-coconut dessert and seltzers made with lychee and calamansi, all available at Seafood City, a Filipino grocery chain, and other Asian markets around the county.

“We weren’t prepared for the response to the ube beer,” said Nishikawa. “It seemed like the entire Filipino community in L.A. found us and wiped us out of all our cans. We learned how strong our communities would support us if we ‘went there’ culturally.”

In turn, Brewyard found ways to give back. The U.S. Census shows that Los Angeles County is home to 1.5 million Asians and over a half-million Filipinos, the largest Filipino population in the country. As one of the few Filipino co-owned and operated breweries in L.A. County, they understand the importance of reciprocity.

Antonio and Nishikawa have made beers to benefit organizations such as SIPA, a Pilipino American nonprofit, the Little Tokyo Community Council, and the Glendale YWCA. Their benefit brews are a testament to craft breweries’ valued presence in their communities and the possibilities of meaningful exchange through beer.

Five Years of Blue Beer and Dragon Tales at Montclair’s First Brewery

To celebrate Dragon’s Tale Brewery’s anniversary each year, head brewer Nikki Paternoster makes a beer she calls Errant Ale. She adds butterfly pea tea flowers to a Belgian wit-style ale, turning it blue. For interactive fun, customers can add citrus juice from local Bearss limes to turn it purple—a nod to the signature color of the dragon-themed brewery she co-owns and operates in Montclair with business partner Sousan D. Elias.

Errant Ale exemplifies Paternoster’s playful and creative approach to brewing unique and unexpected beers that pay homage to the region’s agricultural history as a citrus-growing hub, while harkening to a time when women were the primary brewers of styles that pre-existed industrialization.

“Women were the first ones to make beer, and a lot of changes to beermaking through the years were made by women,” said Elias. “It was a natural fit for us to open an all-woman owned and operated brewery,” added Paternoster.

They opened Dragon’s Tale Brewery in 2016, Montclair’s first microbrewery that paved the way for two more breweries to open since then in the relatively small (pop. 38,061) Inland Empire city just over the L.A. County line. Montclair borders the cities of Claremont, Upland, Ontario, Pomona, and Chino—areas most associated with private colleges, suburban sprawl, shopping malls, and a billion square feet of warehouses staffed by armies of workers.

Each of these cities also has at least one brewery, which means Montclair beer drinkers had to drive elsewhere. As longtime residents of Montclair, Paternoster and Elias often wondered why their hometown didn’t have its own microbrewery, so they did something about it.

Paternoster’s connection to the city goes back to the late 1970s, when she was around eight years old and her family moved to Montclair from Monterey Park, just east of downtown L.A. “Back then, it was a small town—just stop signs and citrus groves out here,” she said. Before developers turned it into shopping malls and subdivisions after World War II, Montclair was a 19th-century citrus settlement called Monte Vista.

Paternoster honors her hometown’s citrus heritage with her unique beers. She uses locally grown fruits and other natural ingredients like ruby red grapefruit, Valencia oranges, and wildflower honey. She’ll frequent area farmers markets for organic berries to use in her Mediev-ale Brut Gruit, a hop-less beer brewed with tea. And she’ll often make use of regulars’ abundant harvests from backyard fruit trees, a truly homegrown touch that connects Dragon’s Tale customers to the brews they love.

“Someone will come in with tons of lemons or kumquats and ask if we can use it,” said Paternoster. “It gives customers a chance to be part of the beer making process.”

Grapefruit Wit, Bloody Beerdless Wheat Ale, and Cal -52 Blonde are just a handful of beers on Dragon’s Tale menu that reflect the local terroir, whether it’s a neighbor’s jar of preserves, a basket of blood oranges, or herbs plucked from a home garden. Paternoster, who attended Serrano Junior High School in Montclair, also plans to make a beer using serrano peppers, widely grown and eaten in this area once home to the Maara’yam people who spoke the Serrano language. Through her use of ingredients, Paternoster’s beers become mini portals to another time and place.

“Breweries add something special to the community,” said Paternoster. “It’s really cool that we have people who come out and say they’re comfortable here. It’s a way for people to gather and be themselves.”

L.A. Brews Diversity

Brewyard, Boomtown, and Dragon’s Tale are just three examples of the growing diversity in the relatively new Los Angeles craft beer scene that in some ways has been there since its inception, when Ting Su and Jeremy Raub opened Eagle Rock Brewery in 2009. Because it’s newer—compared to the decades-old craft brewery cultures that go back to the 1980s and 1990s in northern California and San Diego—greater L.A.’s craft beer culture shows that diversity is already part of the brewing landscape, from the people who make the beer and drink it, to the ingredients, methods, and perspectives that inform each brewery’s mission. They not only check all the race-gender “diversity” boxes, but push L.A. craft beer drinkers to also think about diversity in terms of history, space, place, community, ingredients, styles, and other meaningful ways.

L.A.’s newest breweries, many of which opened during or after the pandemic lockdowns, continue to reflect the region’s demographic diversity through ingredients, styles, and products. Locally popular fermented drinks like tepache, kombucha, and natural wines dot brewery menus around L.A. Breweries like these and others in Los Angeles help to reshape expectations of who can make, drink, and enjoy craft beer. Dragon’s Tale, Brewyard, and Boomtown are part of the colorful beer landscape of Los Angeles, where beer speaks to locals and reminds us of our connections to time, space, and place.

The post Ube Yams and Dragon Tales: Finding Diversity in a New Generation of L.A. Breweries appeared first on CraftBeer.com.

This article originally appeared on craftbeer.com

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