Mark McDermott

Froth Cometh: Local craft beer, food, and music at The Froth Awards on St.Pat’s Day

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Brewers in arms: Henry Nguyen, Thomas Kelley, Rich Marcello, Brian Brewer, and Rob Croxall. All five local breweries will take part in this Sunday’s Froth Awards: the Easy Reader Beer Experience and Gastropub Challenge. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Brewers in arms: Henry Nguyen, Thomas Kelley, Rich Marcello, Brian Brewer, and Rob Croxall. All five local breweries will take part in this Sunday’s Froth Awards: the Easy Reader Beer Experience and Gastropub Challenge. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Some years ago I returned to the U.S.A. after two years in Ireland.  I’d arrived there via the Irish ferry from Northern France and intended, through hitchhiking the length and width of the entire green island, to investigate the history and culture of the nation my family had left, under duress, in 1832. I was the first of my family to return.

I’d visit ruins and countless little village libraries. I’d discover the stories of our family’s namesake and the deep old Irish poets not well known outside Ireland. (“Kavanaugh is yer man,” a hairy-eared old fellow told me in a pub one day. “Yeats, he was a rich little British fecker.”) I’d learn the rudiments of the magnificent, dying Irish language, Gaelic. I’d hear world-class musicians play in the front of pubs ‘til the wee hours for nothing more than the honor of taking their place in the centuries-old Irish musical tradition and the pints patrons put on the table in front of them. I’d fall in love with an Irish country girl and I’d have a hell of a time ever leaving.

But first things first: I walked up the hill from the ferry terminal at Rosslare, found a pub, and ordered my first real Guinness Stout. I’d already heard the legends – “Guinness doesn’t travel well,” and the “mighty stuff” is really only itself in Ireland, where the pouring of a pint is an art unto itself.

It took the barkeep five minutes to pour my stout. The deep brown beer would settle on itself, then he’d add a few fingers more, until finally this rich swirling foam-topped pint was in my hands. It was alive. I took my first sip and very nearly fell to the ground. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted.

As I travelled through Ireland, when money was low I’d make a meal out of Guinness. Once, a fellow hitchhiker and I got talking about pints out by Roaring Water Bay in County Cork, and we immediately got what the Irish emphatically call “the thirst” and headed towards town. We found a payphone on the outskirts and placed a call to the pub so the pints would be ready by the time we arrived. My throat was almost quivering by the time we finally made it to our waiting pints.

I returned to the U.S., heartbroken, on Saint Patrick’s Day. A friend picked me up at the airport and we went directly to a bar. No sooner had I walked in the door than somebody handed me a green beer. I fought the urge to ungraciously throw it the man’s face. And thought to myself, how did this happen? How did America end up a land of thin nasty beer, be it green or urine colored? Why did we stomp the life out of a vital drink?

Much has changed in recent years. The craft beer movement has returned beer to the deep arts. And nowhere is that art flourishing more strongly than in the South Bay. Five breweries have established themselves here in the past three years, and dozens of gastropubs and other restaurants who take beer and its accompanying food very seriously have sprung up. Little rundown liquor stores have begun stocking their shelves with big bottles of small-batch releases from craft breweries. Two local breweries, Strand Brewing Co. and El Segundo Brewing Co., have recently begun bottling their brews.

And so Easy Reader, in partnership with Saint Rocke, five local eateries and all our South Bay breweries, this year is presenting a different kind of Saint Patrick’s Day event: The Froth Awards, also known as the Easy Reader Beer Experience and Gastropub challenge. Celebrity “Top Chef” Brooke Williamson will be on hand, as well TMZ reporter and Hippy Tree advocate Max Hodges. Five chefs will concoct small plates specifically made to go with five brews from Strand, El Segundo, Monkish Brewing Company, The Brewery at Abigaile, and newcomer Smog City Brewing Company. Three bands will play, awards will be given, guests will vote on the best pairing.

And beer will be drunk. Good, living, freshly brewed, local beer. No green beer.

Tom Kelley and brew master Rob Croxall at El Segundo Brewing Co. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Tom Kelley and brew master Rob Croxall at El Segundo Brewing Co. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Brothers in froth 

The Froth Awards began as something somewhat different.

The idea was to gather a panel of cicerones – certified beer specialists, the equivalent of sommeliers in the wine world – and judge local beers against one another. There was to be a “Best IPA”, “Best Dark Arts”, “Best Light Arts” and other awards.

Local brewers objected. Henry Nguyen, the brew master at Monkish Brewery in Torrance, who also happens to be theologian and generally a very thoughtful man, said that competition was beside the point among South Bay breweries. They are all small breweries, he argued, in a market dominated by behemoths.  The breweries are all on the same side.

“‘Best of’ tend to be (to me) a reflection of our American imperialistic values,” Nguyen wrote in an email. “The craft brewing community (in the SouthBay) is very small….Our survival is increased if we support each other. So to compete against one another or be subject to such competition at such a small scale would only hurt the community, not help the community. We all need to be highlighted.”

Some of the local brewers had some of their particular devotees come to their tap rooms and sheepishly make an admission: that they’ve been to another local brewery’s tap room. Nguyen said both he and Strand’s Rich Marcello, also based in Torrance, had the same experience.

“Rich and I have talked before how some of our patrons in our tasting room feel that they are ‘cheating on one brewery if they visit another — and liked the beer!’” he said.

“We get a lot of people coming to our tap room saying things like, ‘Oh, we are regulars at Strand, now we are here – we feel like we are cheating on Strand,” said Tom Kelley, El Segundo Brewing’s sales director. “No, it’s not cheating! We love those guys and they love us. They’d love to hear  you were here.”

“There is no place for anything but that,” Marcello said. “If I am out as a competitor, not promoting Rob [Croxall, of El Segundo Brewing], I am undermining the entire industry. Because I am in the same boat – the craft beer industry, we are all in this together, all in the same lifeboat. We have to all help each other to survive; there’s no room for people to be selfish.”

If the brewers have an enemy, it’s Big Beer. As craft breweries nationwide have started to take market share from the large mainstream breweries, those breweries have responded by releasing what are called “crafty” beers within the industry – mass market brewed beer creatively packaged to look like small brewery beer. Sales of craft beer have climbed steadily in recent years, with a 15 percent increase in 2011 and a projected 14 percent increase last year. Overall, though, the craft brew market is a small part of overall American beer sales – according to the Brewers Association, in 2011 roughly 200 million barrels of beer were sold, only 11.4 million which were produced by craft breweries.

It’s a David versus Goliath fight, except there’s a bunch of little Davids running around, and they are helping each other try to take down the big guy.

“There’s definitely a huge sense of community between us all,” Kelley said. “It’s such a small segment of the market. We are all fighting a giant. The big boys make 10 times what we make combined, even nationwide. In LA, we are a smaller percentage, but growing. We all trade secrets and all try to help each other as much as we can.”

The newest arrival to the South Bay scene is Smog City Brewing, which just moved to Torrance from Tustin. Brew master Jonathan Porter said he and his wife, Laurie, chose to bring their brewery here in part because of the existing brewery scene.

“One reason we looked at Torrance was to be close to other breweries,” Porter said. “You know, we are always just helping each other out – it’s good to be in proximity for a lot of reasons, if not just to stop by for a beer or borrow a bag of malts. Like, ‘Hey man, I forgot to order a bag of Cascade. Can you loan me a box?’ ‘Yeah, sure!’”

A year ago, there were only five breweries in the city of Los Angeles. Growth is happening quickly, with roughly 20 breweries now in LA County. But this still means the SouthBay, with five breweries in distribution mode and at least one more, Dude’s, working towards becoming operational, is the epicenter of this emergence.

Brian Brewer, the brew master at The Brewery at Abigaile in Hermosa Beach, said one reason is financial – warehouse square footage is cheaper here than places like Santa Monica or Culver City. But it’s also just a matter of brewer master temperament – brewers tend to be laid back, unpretentious types, in fitting with the presiding South Bay ethos.

“It’s kind of a sweet spot as far as proximity to the people, and the beach, and affordable costs to open up a brewery,” Brewer said. “That’s why all the breweries are coming here now, honestly — it’s LA, but the South Bay has more of a laid back vibe, kind of surfer, artsy…I think the brewers identify with that and think that their beer will be well received by that crowd.”

Breweries historically came from a sense of place deeply rooted in American culture – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin all brewed their own beer. According to one estimate, in 1870 there were 4,131 breweries in the U.S. Prohibition knocked the number down to near zero in the 1920s and it rebounded slowly. According to the Beer Institute, in 1979 there were only 44 breweries in the U.S. By the end of last year, 2,751 American breweries were in operation.

The good beer movement has not coincidentally happened at the same time a “slow food” movement emphasizing artisanal-sourced ingredients and small plate dining has emerged, both nationally and especially locally.

Porter said there’s a strong connection between the two movements.

“That is what craft beer has always been about — the fight against the big guys has always been, ‘Think about what you are drinking.’” Porter said. “You know, there is no flavor in those other beers. And craft beer has always been for people who want more than just something wet that they have a buzz at the end of the game with. So the same mentality goes with food. Like I am not going to go to a beer pairing event with Carl’s Jr. And Southern California leads the country in the forward thinking food movement, thinking about what you are eating and slowing down. It’s more like the food is catching up and craft beer is becoming more popular and the two help each other.”

Rich Marcello and Joel Elliot of Strand Brewing Co. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Rich Marcello and Joel Elliot of Strand Brewing Co. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Beer and food

What Sunday’s Froth Awards have become is an outright celebration of the emergence of craft beer and a more adventurous culinary scene in the South Bay. Hudson House’s Brooke Williamson, who recently was a finalist on “Top Chef,” will be on hand as an honorary judge.

Williamson said that the combination of craft beer and creatively prepared food is utterly natural.

“I think they go hand in hand,” Williamson said. “People who appreciate good, seasonal, eclectic food appreciate craft, seasonal, good eclectic beer. I think people are just more aware now and more educated.”

Mike Simms, co-owner of Simmzy’s and Tin Roof Bistro (both will be represented by chefs at Sunday’s event), noted that the South Bay has always had a streak of culinary adventurousness, with establishments such as Café Pierre and Chez Melange providing a decades-long example, as well as the legendary Saint Estephe, which closed in Manhattan Beach two decades ago but is still remembered as a pioneer in Southwest cuisine.

“So there’s always been fine dining, but LA for some reason always gets thought of as being the food destination,” Simms said. “When I came down here, I saw the same type of individual who lives in LA who just doesn’t want to deal with the chaos and just loves the outdoors – so there is no reason there shouldn’t be great food. I call it soulful food, where it’s very handcrafted, like art or music or anything that is handcrafted with the person’s soul going into that presentation.”

Simms opened up Simmzy’s, which carries 24 handles of craft beers, just six months before the first local brewery, Strand, began producing beer. Mediterraneo, Naja’s Place, and Simmzy’s were among Strand’s first clients.

“It’s fun supporting local people, and the more local the better in my book,” Simms said. “And truly, when Strand opened and started distributing…we truly were on a lifeboat together. It was a really tough economy and we were trying to figure out if people were going to buy our products.”

“Our restaurants came in very hands-on with our beer guys,” Simms said. “Beer and food, I see them as being the exact same: a handcrafted product that is meant to be shared with friends and family.”

Much like the breweries, many of the local restaurants don’t see themselves in competition with each other so much as on the same side.

“The restaurants in the area, we are all super supportive of each other,” Williamson said. “We realize we are all in this together and not against each other…That is kind of one of the great traits of the SouthBay, the sort of unity and camaraderie between all the businesses down here.”

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Simms said. “The more competition that comes in, the more spots there are – and typically the more recognition from the outside world, which helps all of this. And people within the community, when they all of a sudden eat that one meal at some restaurant that makes them change their mind about going out – as I say, we live to eat, a lot of people eat to live, and the more people who discover this, the better off all restaurants are.”

“I don’t care what anybody says, everybody is next door to each other – and nobody goes to the same restaurant every night,” said Allen Sanford, co-owner of Rockefeller and Saint Rocke and the driving force behind the Froth Awards. “You might be competing with somebody but it’s rarely on the same night.”

Sanford also sees a connection between the cooperative spirit prevailing locally among both the breweries and restaurants.

“It’s people playing the course, not the player,” he said. “People not reacting to what everybody else is doing – people reacting to their creative tendencies rather than their competitive tendencies. That is what moves the industry forward.”

This is certainly evident among the breweries. Brewers, like chefs, are essentially artists. Monkish, for example, has only been producing beer for a little more than a year, and already Nguyen has produced 18 different beers, experimenting broadly.

“I brew what I want to brew and what I like to brew,” he wrote via email. “I only brew Belgian-style beers because that is what my wife and I like to drink…But my Belgian styles are my takes on what I want beers to express. Also, you will notice that most of our beers are infused with spices. My wife and I love to drink tea, so I am often spending time in beer shops getting inspiration for what to brew next.”

This broadness is a quality that many craft beer lovers believe has made beer an equal to wine in pairing with food. Such a notion was heresy in culinary circles not long ago, but it’s become an increasingly prevalent notion.

“Over hundreds and thousands of years, they have gone hand in hand – wine, and beer, and food,” Williamson said. “Neither one is better paired than the other but stylistically, I think, there is a broader range of pairings when it comes to beer. I think there are a lot of food-friendly wines, but that is exactly what you’d get when you look at that range of wines — it’s a very specific range of wines. Whereas beer you can pretty much pair with anything.”

“I mean IPAs are so good with food,” she added. “They are so easily paired with spices, big full flavored beers. Any kind of spice generally goes with an IPA — BBQ, big bold flavors go really well…I think that is what IPAs were designed for, almost – initially the hops were to hide the flavors of unpleasantness when transporting beer. A lot of foods can actually stand up to those hops. And you have to actually find specific varietals of wine to do that, whereas beer is kind of a little bit broader.”

The term gastropub will likely fade from usage as such notions become more mainstream. The South Bay has everything from a Brazilian BBQ, Silvio’s, to an American BBQ, Pinkie’s, to a New York style Italian joint, Charlie’s, that feature craft beer with their food. And one of the entries featured in Sunday’s Gastropub Challenge is no gastropub – The Standing Room, a wildly creative sandwich stand located in the back of a liquor store on Catalina Avenue in Redondo Beach. The stand opened up two years ago when its owner, Lowell Bakke, moved from Hawaii to help his cousin open the store. He’s since had tourists from Canada seek out his little shop and people driving up from San Diego for one of his specialty burgers.

“It’s amazing,” Bakke said. “It kind of trips me out.”

Bakke is looking forward to pairing his food with beer. “I mean, it doesn’t get any better – good beer, and good food. It all makes sense. It all lines up.”

The Froth Awards begin March 17 at noon. See saintrocke.com for ticket info. The schedule is as follows:

12:30 p.m.: Hang Dog Expression (band)

1:00 p.m. The Brewery at Abigaile and The Standing Room. Death or Glory IPA with TBA.

1:45 p.m. El Segundo Brewing Co. and Rockefeller: Blue House IPA with Tuna Tostadas

2:30 p.m. Monkish Brewery and Tin Roof Bistro: Monkish Feminist Trippel with chilled mussel on the half shell with curried aioli..

3:15 p.m. Strand Brewing Co. with Hot’s Kitchen: Russian Imperial Stout with TBA.

3:30 p.m. Johnny Jump Up  (band)

4:00 p.m. Smog City Brewing with Simmzy’s: Dessert!! Chocolate Coffee Porter with Almond biscotti.

5:00 p.m. Audience Participation Awards: Best Beard, Fastest Chug, Boozey Bee

6:00 p.m. Announcement:  winner of The Froth .

7:00 p.m. Los Sindicate  (band)

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