I visited Angel City Brewery, one of the oldest and most storied breweries in LA, and found it’s changing faster now than ever before. It’s moved three times, been bought by a division of Boston Beer Co., and it’s only now finding its feet.
When I moved to Los Angeles recently there was one brewery I was especially curious to check out. I had heard about Angel City Brewery because it was famously the first brewery purchased by Boston Beer Company’s Alchemy & Science division in 2012. I’ve seen it referenced many times, but never really learned anything substantive about it. Googling it, as I discovered, doesn’t tell you a deal beyond the bare bones.
Alchemy & Science itself, founded by Magic Hat Brewing Company founder Alan Newman and his first employee, Stacey Steinmetz, in 2011, is also quite enigmatic. According to the press, after selling Magic Hat in 2010 Newman and Steinmetz registered the name and domain “Alchemy & Science” without knowing what to do with it, until a meeting between Newman and Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch persuaded the pair to become a semi-autonomous “incubator” for Koch’s Boston Beer Company.
Angel City – founded in Culver City in 1997 by avid homebrewer Michael Bowe – was bought by Alchemy & Science in 2012, not long before Newman and Steinmetz created their own beer company in Burlington VT (the home of Magic Hat) which they called Traveler, specializing in shandy. In 2013 Alchemy & Science bought NYC’s Coney Island brand from Shmaltz Brewing’s owner Jeremy Cowan (and built a brick and mortar brewery for it in Brooklyn not long after), then announced the birth of Concrete Beach Brewery in Miami (which opened in 2014).
That’s about all you can find online. I was keen to know more.
Through my friend and Guinness colleague, Chris McClellan, I was introduced to Angel City’s operations manager, Renée Rubin (a childhood friend of Chris’s, and a fellow Magic Hat alum) who kindly offered to show me round the brewery and get me up to speed.
Situated in downtown LA’s Arts District, Angel City occupies a mind-boggling 81,000 square feet of an historic building, first built as the west coast home of the John Roebling Company in 1913. “There’s a myth that cable for both the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge was housed here,” Rubin told me as she showed me round the – frankly stunning – building. “But given the Brooklyn Bridge opened in the 1880s, comfortably before this building existed, one of those stories is unlikely!”
I wanted to understand more about the role Angel City plays in the Alchemy & Science and wider Boston Beer network. “We’re all part of the same company, and we feel like it. Alchemy & Science is not that big, and we’re constantly on the phone with our sister breweries and head office in Vermont,” Rubin explained. “We share a lot of resources and production facilities with Boston Beer. All our 12oz bottled beer is brewed in the Cincinnati brewery, for example.”
So how much is this Alan Newman’s show, I wondered, versus the vision of Jim Koch and the Boston Beer leadership?
“I’ve known Alan Newman since he hired me to Magic Hat in 2008 – he’s a self-styled serial entrepreneur,” came Rubin’s answer. “And he has quite a personality. Alan has a significant influence on everything we do here.”
“The link into Boston Beer tends to be at a logistical and resourcing level,” she continued. “Alchemy & Science is its own company creatively and strategically.”
Angel City Brewery was already 15 years old when Alan Newman bought it for Alchemy & Science, though it had only lived two years in its impressive Arts District home at that point. The operation was actually shuttered for over a year after its purchase, as Alchemy & Science worked through a pretty major overhaul.
“Angel City has come a long way since I started here [in June 2013],” Rubin commented. “And the beer culture of LA is growing up alongside us. Our mission is to be LA’s hometown brewery, so we’re constantly honing and refining our operations and branding to achieve that.”
With a 500-person capacity and a fully functioning concert venue inside the brewery, it’s easy to see how the magnificent space alone functions as a magnet for the fast-growing downtown LA community. But that broad-based community-first appeal is also core to the brewery’s beer offering.
“Angel City is an incubator for craft beer styles,” Rubin told me, bringing to mind the kind of mad-scientist approach to brewing of a Crooked Stave or the eclectic experimentation of a Hill Farmstead. “While we want to be able to satisfy the kind of person who drinks Heady Topper we’re also here to bring people into craft from mainstream beer. Our brewers have license to experiment with styles and techniques, but their brief is to make beers that can find an audience. We always have at least 12 beers on tap, and several of them will be seasonal or even one-offs. The idea is that they’re all reasonably drinkable.”
The approach seems to be working. The brewery is “on fire” according to Rubin, producing 5,000 BBL in 2015 and tracking well ahead of that in 2016. Despite its long history, Angel City only began selling beer in package in late 2013, and expanded distribution statewide in California in early 2016. It’s still early days.
“Beer-wise, I think LA is still figuring things out,” Rubin reflected as she sipped on a glass of Angel City’s new sour pale ale, Sunbather. “The population is growing, the population is changing, and this part of town in particular is developing like crazy. New breweries are opening all the time. I think it’s inevitable that craft beer will explode in LA, and we’re doing everything we can to be at the forefront of the movement.”
It was clear from my conversation with Renée Rubin that the staff at Angel City is optimistic but earnest about future success. There’s a big wave headed their way, sure, but they still need to be able to surf it.
10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Renée Rubin, Operations Manager at Angel City Brewery
- Can you describe what your company does in one short sentence?
Angel City Brewery is an incubator for craft beer. We get to screw around to make a lot of different beers to please every palate – we want anyone with an interest in beer to be able to find something they like here.
- How long have you worked here?
A little over three years.
- How and why did you come to be here?
I was given an opportunity at a time of need, I probably wouldn’t have chosen LA otherwise. But it’s worked out well so far.
My career has been shaped by interventions, not really by a masterplan – by taking opportunities when I got them I’ve been able to do a lot of cool stuff. Which is funny, because my major in college was in graph theory, which is largely about finding connections between apparently unrelated events. That’s kind of how things have turned out for me.
I graduated college in 2008 when nobody was hiring for anything, and I ended up just Googling “cool jobs in Vermont” and got myself a sales job with Magic Hat. I moved with Magic Hat to cover DC. When Magic Hat was sold in 2010 there was a huge layoff and once again I was without work.
I wanted to stay in DC and through a friend landed a job with LivingSocial that took me into operations and planning. I consider myself to be a very organized person, and I get a kick out of designing processes and systems to help businesses operate more effectively.
LivingSocial was great because it was a true start up. I was involved in creating ideas, getting people on board, putting them together, launching them and watching the numbers. There were 90 hour weeks, but it was creative, rewarding work.
I started looking for a change and through Alan Newman I found out about my current role which seemed like a perfect fit. It took me back into beer, which I love, and allowed me to combine my experience in operations, sales and start-up conditions. Managing sales demands with operations and supply planning can be difficult at times, so I find my sales experience is helpful.
- What is your daily routine?
I am an early bird. I report to the east coast, so I’m usually at the brewery and working between 6 and 6.30. It’s actually helpful, because this place gets a bit crazy by lunch time. I find I get most of my work done before a lot of other people even come in.
While the east coast is online there will be a lot of logistics and answering emails. We have to make sure we have fresh product for deliveries, and I need to manage on hand levels so we have everything ready when we need it. I’m the overseer for everything that comes into the building and everything that leaves it, which includes managing the amount of beer needed for our in-house bar and what we can sell to wholesalers.
When the east coast goes home I get to work on my own projects. Like building better spreadsheets, or improving our back office processes. And there’s pitching in to help other people in the team – there’s only 15 full time staff, so everyone has to wear a lot of hats.
We designed the structure of the team to be highly collaborative, to encourage cross-pollination of thinking from one person to everyone else. It’s a big building and a pretty complex set of operations, so we need everyone who works here to help make it work.
- What is the hardest thing about your job?
Telling people no. When you work in a small, young, hungry company you want to sell your product to whoever wants it, but sometimes that isn’t possible. The right thing to do is to manage expectations: it’s better to turn somebody down than it is to promise something you can’t deliver.
But still, telling someone who wants your product that they can’t have it always feels wrong. It’s hard to do.
- In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?
A lot of patience. Especially nowadays, you have to take the long view and have the resilience to realize whatever ambition you have.
Capital and passion are both very important, but the days of instant success in beer are probably over. Patience always wins out, however.
- What is success for you?
When I leave work feeling like I’ve had a good day! It seems so small and simple, but I always have a lot on and manage several projects at once, so I like to appreciate the little victories. I work 12 and 14 hour days sometimes – it feels great to be excited to come back when you leave at night.
- If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
I don’t think the increasing sense of rivalry is necessary in this industry. We’re all making beer, we all want it to taste great, and we all like this industry because it is – or at least it always should be – fun.
Consolidation is the way of the beer world and just because someone gets bought, it doesn’t mean there aren’t still passionate, engaged people making the beer.
We could all be working in steel manufacturing, or making furniture or detergent or something way less cool than beer. But we make beer, so let’s enjoy it.
- Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?
- The Vermont Pub and Brewery in my home town of Burlington, Vermont makes a smoked stout called [Handsome] Mick’s Smoked Stout. It has always been one of my favorite beers. It’s original and I’ve never had anything else like it. I always go back to it when I’m in town.
- I admire the classics. There are some beers out there that have been popular for decades but have never been bettered. One of those is Anchor Steam.
- And another is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I think a good pale ale is the mark of a good brewery as it’s a hard style to make well. Sierra is the master.
- Apart from the Angel City taproom, where’s the best place to get a beer in LA?
Wendell. It’s right across the street from my apartment! And they serve pretty good beer on tap.