Friday, May 31, 2013

Beer Tripping Volume III: The Neighbors - Smog City and Monkish

Malt Mecca 

It's no secret that Southern California - especially San Diego - is a mecca of the craft beer world. Plugging in "craft brewery" into Google Maps while you're in the area is a great way to turn the map into a pincushion - to say there's a ton is a bit of an understatement, and if you ever have the pleasure of being in the area, you owe it to yourself to pick one or two (or three or four...) breweries to seek out.

They have a guild. Does your Guild have beer?

What you might not know, however, is that a short trip north (about two hours by car...and on a separate occasion, please, I don't think "I'm studying craft beers!" will hold up against a DUI charge) will put you in Torrance, a beer-fertile region, ripe with brewery-friendly industrial parks, that is sprouting up baby-breweries and quickly becoming a more local bastion of surprisingly talented brewers peddling their wares. From Strand to Dudes to the two we'll discuss in a bit, the area seems to have ambitions of becoming a sort of Mini Diego, a treasure trove of "little guys," and a much more local option for the Los Angeles beerheads like myself. It's going to be a place to watch in the upcoming years.

The notion of the craft brewing phenomenon (a term that is well earned and well suited by now, I think) is indeed a romantic one; a bunch of lil' brewery Davids beating their little hydrometers on the massive leg of InBev and the other Goliaths. But, as much as we want all of those little guys to stick it to the man and end the reign of, as Stone calls it "Fizzy Yellow Beer," the harsh truth is that a lot of the little guys just can't make reliably good beer (yet).

As a humble blogger (with a phenomenal beer pallet and nearly unrivaled penchant for the written word and other such skills you should be jealous of), I don't think I'm in a position to give a bulleted list of breweries that aren't quite there. A homebrewer myself, I cannot imagine the difficulties of translating your little homebrew recipe that you've toiled over and multiplying it to a degree that makes it viable for distribution, so I do think that some patience is required - I'm not so arrogant to assume that just because I didn't care for a beer or two the brewery is doomed. I genuinely believe that any hiccups in the brewpot can be sorted out, and besides, even a bad craft beer is leaps and bounds better than the uninspired stuff being sold by the truckload (literally) by those Goliaths. But still, the concern remains; just because you want to open a brewery (and it does indeed seem to be a popular dream) doesn't mean you should. Lots of those aforementioned "little guys" get caught up in the dream, and their plans spiral into the impractical and poorly realized.

That said, the breweries you're going to experience in Torrance do not seem to have fallen victim to any such kinks in the line. Especially these two:

The Neighbors

It's common for breweries to be a stone's throw away from one another; it's what makes brew tour buses so feasible in San Diego. But for breweries to be literal neighbors is practically unheard of. And yet, Torrance start-ups Monkish and newbie Smog City are walking distance from one another, and make for a wonderful afternoon of some truly inspired beers.

Smog City Brewing

The newest brewery in a town of old friends, Smog City represents the efforts of Jonathan and Laurie Porter (talk about destiny), a talented couple that just seems to be excited about being a craft brewery. I was lucky enough to be in attendance for their tasting room's grand opening earlier this month, and it was one of my favorite beer memories. They seemed to be overwhelmed by the turnout - but responded not with panic, but rather gracious smiles. It was abundantly clear they were having the time of their lives.

Before the rush began, the brew room was quiet . Too quiet. 
"We sometimes feel like we're working in a bubble," says Laurie, "and don't see the buzz surrounding our work/beers." That ethic is noble (and palatable, but we'll get to that in a moment), but the bubble was certainly burst: after that Saturday, it was undeniable that Smog City was onto something great. But even better, Laurie managed to stay entirely likeable, excited and humble about the whole thing, even as people downed samples and pints with supreme gusto.

Given that it was the grand opening, the line twisted around the entire tasting area. The wait was notable, but as Laurie noted, no one seemed to mind the wait, especially when there was handcrafted beer waiting on the other side.

After all Helles broke lose (Haha!..Hop puns)

Offering both a selection of dependable standbys (Penumbra Stout and their IPA, Sabertooth Squirrel- seriously) and oddities (Quercus and the aptly named Weird Beer), the gamut present is unexpectedly excellent. They don't appear to have a clear-cut inspiration, opting to instead pick and choose their favorite influences from throughout the industry or, better yet, whatever they feel like doing. Here's a quick breakdown of some of the excellent brews on showcase at Smog City's tasting room debut:

Tell me this wouldn't look good framed above their bar. THANKS ART SCHOOL. 

  • Groundworks Coffee Porter - Coffee and beer isn't a particularly new concept, but it does have the unfortunate potential to come off as sort of gimmicky ("You got coffee in my beer! No, you got beer in my coffee!"), but if done well, the natural roast flavors of both unite to make a wonderful concoction. Groundworks, for the un-caffeinated (and the East Coasters), is my favorite local coffee chain, so putting it in beer is is sort of awesome by default, and was innately tempting. The distinctly rich flavor Groundworks coffee is on the pedestal here, and is full-bodied but surprisingly light and crisp. Potentially could replace your morning cup, if you seek two sorts of buzz at once (and I, for one, wouldn't judge you for an instant). 
  • Quercus Circus - Smog's funky beer evokes those crazy sours that are so en vogue right now. Cidery with a touch of that oaky and acidic goodness. Fun and approachable, it may not impress those who prefer their beers pucker-worthy, but Quercus is, well, quirky enough to warrant a taste. 
  • Sabre-toothed Squirrel - Their entry in the obligatory "We're From California So Let's Make Something Obnoxiously Hoppy" category, this squirrel has quite the bite (hehe). It's undeniably hop-forward and should please the hopheads in search of the next tongue-scraping experience.
  • Weird Beer - As advertised, this beer has a unique pedigree that made me think my Christmas had crashed into my summertime. Vanilla, cinnamon,  spiciness, lemon - it sort of reminded me of a lighter, more drinkable version of The Bruery's 5 Golden Rings (that Christmas beer I loved so much; needless to say I dug this one quite a bit). 
  • Penumbra Stout - By the books stout, with no frills (or thrills, really). Solid, but the least memorable of what I tried. 
  • Bourbon Red - For me, the crown jewel of the whole lineup was this beautiful ruby-colored goblet of burning love. Tremendously oaky with a wonderful collection of robust aged flavors, the smoothness of this one belies its strength. Very excellent. 
If you've had the pleasure of drinking extensively with me (it's awesome and highly recommended), you know I have a bit of a bone to pick with the craft industry: as craft beer finds its place grow in the market, so too do the egos of many of the brewmasters, who consider their work to be godlike, as though beer has suddenly transcended the bar and bottle and has become the burden of some deity ("Solve overpopulation strain" is right up there with "brew a killer stout using cumin," as it were). I don't decry a sense of adventure, but I do grow weary of snobby beer bars and craft elitism (a recent encounter at work told me that  he "doesn't drink hoppy beers that aren't refrigerated." I'm still trying to find my eyeballs after they rolled out of my head). 

Which is why I'm a fan of the Davids out there, the Davids like Smog City. It's an excellent and wonderfully welcome place that I genuinely wish great things for. They're not bottling, yet. That'll supposedly happen before the end of the year, and it'll be considerably longer still for their saturation to increase, but I'm tellin' ya (and you should listen to me because of my many, many books), Smog City is going places. They're just, you know, starting in Torrance. 

Monkish Brewing

A few uncoordinated stumbles to the left will put you at Monkish, a homebrew-turned-brewery with a decidedly Belgian influence and a veritable pantry's worth of unique and unexpected spices. Like the beers brewed by the brewery's namesake, all of the offerings are yeasty and malty, but make use of interesting ingredients that add a level of fascination to each brew.

Trade tokens for different tasters of Monkish's impressive lineup. 

Crux, a Beglian style single with elderflowers, and Feminist, a Trippel with hibiscus, were born of small batches before being joined alongside the likes of Lumen and Vigil as the brewery grew. Pink peppercorns, rose hips and thyme are just a few of the unique ingredients that have found their way into the beers, and the brewers claim that they have a dozen more in their back pocket for future adventures.

Magnificat was the leftover Christmas offering from Monkish, a delicious and warming ginger-wrapped brew that rocketed me straight into December. Anomaly was also another favorite, a rich and silky dark Belgian strong ale with tremendous yeast and caramel character. I was so taken with this one that I walked away with a growler's worth. It was gone within a day. 

Monkish is a bit closer to being ready to bottle and distribute, and the head brewer claims they should be up and running in about a month or two. Naturally, I asked if collaborations were imminent with their new neighbor. They seemed to think that was certainly the case, and were excited to have the company. 


Go to Torrance, if you happen to be driving between two of the big southern cities in California, or even if your Saturdays need some variety. It's a goldmine of fantastic David breweries and should certainly be experienced, if only to gain some hipster points. 

Just remember, I liked them before you ever heard of them.

Quick Plug

Oh...! Plug for beer friends that I made at Smog City! Please check out Girls Who Like Beer for a wonderful look at one girl's LA Beer Adventures, and follow @TheHoppyBeer for another's IPA fascination.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thoughts? Concerns? Pay my loans?! By all means let me know what you think.