A visit to Santa Monica Brew Works

An Irish bar tender in Los Angeles couldn't serve a local beer. So he decided to make it himself.

A barrel with Santa Monica Brew Works logo

“What’s the local beer?” is a common question in bars.  But it’s rarely the foundation of a business plan.

Except in the case of Santa Monica Brew Works, the first and – so far – only brick and mortar brewery in my current home town in west Los Angeles.

Carl Sharpley, an Irishman in LA, spent several years behind the bars of Irish pubs in Santa Monica. Requests for the local beer instead of national brands were frequent and insistent by 2011.  But his answers weren’t satisfying his curious customers.

“I’d recommend a leading California beer, like Stone or Lagunitas.  People would say, ‘Yeah, but what’s from Santa Monica?’” Sharpley explained from behind another bar, this time the one in his recently opened taproom on Colorado Avenue, Santa Monica Midtown.

“Even when I’d suggest they check out El Segundo, which was our nearest brewery, they still weren’t happy. So I thought I could do something about it,” he said.

The exterior of Santa Monica Brew Works

The exterior of Santa Monica Brew Works, on Colorado Avenue. Drenched, unsurprisingly, in sunlight.

Doing something about it was no small feat.  There’s a reason Los Angeles is behind the curve of breweries per capita  (LA has roughly 1/6 the brewery density of neighboring San Diego) which is that matching affordable industrial space with the right license and permits is something of a miracle.

“Given the blood, sweat and tears that went into getting set up, I think we’ll be Santa Monica’s only physical brewery for some time to come!” Sharpley said.  “Luckily my partner Scott [Francis, CEO and Co-Owner] is a lawyer.  Without him I don’t think we’d have made it. And there are so many regulations.  We had to dig out 35 tons of concrete to have compliant drains before we could install a single tank.”

But Sharpley’s, Francis’s and original founder Rich Super’s persistence paid off.  By 2013 they were testing logos and a contract-brewed concept (“We had a small batch of a standard pale ale made at another brewery so we could try it out in a friendly bar,” Sharpley explained), and in summer 2014 were able to roll kegs off their line and into waiting accounts.

Santa Monica Brew Works old logo

The original “test” logo didn’t quite make the cut, but it’s still hung in the corner of the taproom for posterity.

“Because of my network from several years’ bar tending, I had about 50 accounts lined up,” Sharpley said. “No sales call is easy, but I was able to look bar-owners in the eye and say, ‘You and I both know your customers are asking for a beer brewed in Santa Monica – here it is.  And it tastes fantastic.’”

The team set themselves a goal of 100 steady accounts before seeking out a distributor (their beers are now sold by Young’s Market Co. as part of a growing specialty beer portfolio) and then opening their own taproom.

“We were sensitive to the business of loyal local accounts when we planned the taproom,” Sharpley continued. “We don’t want this to be just another bar to come and spend the evening.  We don’t have a kitchen, we don’t show sports, we have limited hours.  We want people to come and try the beer, 19 blocks from beach, then go out and ask for it elsewhere.  The purpose of this taproom is to grow the brand in other people’s bars.”

A glass of Head In The Clouds beer

A current taproom-only favorite: Head In The Clouds.  A juicy, near-opaque double IPA brewed the East Coast way.

A snappy logo, an off-beat name (“Why ‘Brew Works’? Well Santa Monica Brewing Company sounded a bit expected, you know,” smiled Sharpley) and some clean, sessionable beers seems to be a solid formula.  I’ve seen the brand in Whole Foods, my early morning rugby pub – Ye Olde King’s Head – and even on tap at iconic 5 star hotel, Shutters On The Beach.  How far does Sharpley think the business can go?

“Well this is one of the top 10 beach destinations in the world, we have about 8.5 million tourists come to Santa Monica every year.  And there’s an affluent and growing number of residents and businesses. If we stay local, there’s plenty of business to be had.  But I also think the Santa Monica brand can travel, you know.  The competition in this industry is tough, and we want to grow, but our first consideration is making great beer and keeping our customers happy.”

Carl Sharpley in his brewery

Carl Sharpley, deep in thought.

10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Carl Sharpley, Director & Co-Owner, Santa Monica Brew Works

  1. Can you describe what your company does in one short sentence?

We provide fantastic beer for the community as well as a great place to hang out.  To sum it up, we make the local beer, and we make it well.

  1. How long have you worked here?

The concept was born towards the end of 2011, and the space was brewing beer for sale in summer 2014.  There was a lot of hard work in between those two dates; we oversaw absolutely everything with the construction, and we had a lot of paperwork to do.

I’ll never forget the day the first kegs rolled off the line.  We loaded up a van with like 10 kegs, and everyone came out to wave us off as we closed the doors.  It was a pretty magical feeling.

  1. How and why did you come to be here?

For the love of fresh beer.

My family’s been in the bar industry, and I spent many years behind the bar.  And while I loved it I just didn’t see myself opening my own bar.  The late hours, the people who’ve had one too many – I just didn’t want to lock myself in to that life forever.

I’ve been in LA for just over 10 years, and I’ve seen the national and local beer scene take off.  The idea to open a brewery occurred to me over time, and I saw the opportunity when a lot of people’s first question at the bar was, ‘What’s the local beer?’.

I won’t say opening a brewery is easy compared to opening a bar, but it’s a different kind of work.   I just love seeing my beer in accounts.  I take pride in seeing people enjoy it.

Santa Monica Kegs

Kegs of various shapes and sizes.

  1. What is your daily routine?

Trying to do some work in between phone calls!  There’s a lot of email, a lot of phone calls, lots of balls to juggle.

I’ll make sure I’m in here a couple of hours before opening, and make sure everything’s in shape and people are getting great service.

Before the tasting room opened and before we were established with Young’s I would spend most of my time visiting accounts, but now the Young’s reps know the beers and know what they’re doing it’s less.  But I’m always around and about.  I hate to lose a handle I’d never want to lose one because we didn’t maintain a relationship.

  1. What is the hardest thing about your job?

I love my job, so there’s not really too much I have to complain about.  There can be stress and there can be frustration, especially if we lose a handle or a placement, but you learn to let it go and focus on the bigger picture.

As long as my customers are happy, I’m happy.  At least for 99.9% of the time.

  1. In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?

It’s probably one of the toughest industries in California – there’s, what, 700 breweries in California these days?

You need great beer, you need a great brand, you need to be well set up.  But probably the X factor is your service. You’ve got to have great service and make sure your distributor and your accounts feel good about selling your beer.

  1. What is success for you?

I would love to say money and profit, but that’s a long way off at this stage.  Success for me right now is seeing a group of people coming in the taproom, enjoying our beers, having a chit chat, having a laugh.

We don’t have WiFi, we don’t show sports [there are two TVs that show lifestyle loops, surf competitions and so on], we just play good music and serve great, fresh beer.  People come here for the beer and to feel like they’re a part of something, a part of the City.

I get a real kick out of seeing people enjoying our beer and having a good time.

Santa Monica beer in Whole Foods

Ignore what Carl says above – surely seeing your beer next to Stone and Ballast Point in Whole Foods is the dream?

  1. If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

People probably don’t realise how dirty the beer business is in the trenches.  If I could have one thing it would be a clean, fair market.

There’s a lot of dirty tricks the reps play on each other, especially against the new kid on the block.  You know, distributor reps are under a lot of pressure to keep every single handle, and the big guys know the main reason they’re losing handles is because of new, local guys like us.

So they’ll resort to a lot of underhand tactics to make out we’re unreliable, like cutting lines, breaking couplers, bad-mouthing your beer at every opportunity

Hopefully someday all that stops, but for now you just have to keep your service up and be responsive.  If a bar calls us with a problem we’ll be out there in a flash, make sure things get righted as soon as possible.

And in a way, you’re being paid a compliment, you know.  If people are going to great lengths to get your beer out of an account they must feel threatened. Which means they know we have a good product.

  1. Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?

Well, if you’re not going to let me say Head In The Clouds…

  1. I love a good stout, and Left Hand’s Milk Stout is a beer I love to drink. Just the right hint of sweetness, and a lovely creamy mouthfeel.
  2. Even though I’m from Leitrim, up towards the north, Murphy’s was actually my first beer back home in Ireland. I was spending the summer down in Cork [on the south coast of Ireland, home of Murphy’s and Beamish] and my uncle bought me my first pint.  I’ve had an affinity for it ever since.  Hard to find in America, but you can buy cans in Trader Joe’s.
  3. I’ve been drinking a lot of Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin lately – it’s tasty and hoppy but not too extreme.
  1. Apart from the Santa Monica taproom, where’s the best place to get a beer in LA?

For craft beer, I’d say Gulp on Pico Boulevard.  About 40 handles, always a good selection, and they clean their draft system every week.  And always Left Hand Milk Stout on tap!

Santa Monica Brew Works taplist

The taps in the taproom, at Santa Monica Brew Works CA.

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