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California's Great Craft Beers

Made using everything from cocoa nibs to sweet potatoes, The Bruery’s sophisticated small-batch craft brews have beer connoisseurs buzzing.

Just before noon on a bright spring day in the Chicago neighborhood of Bucktown, a sleepy Patrick Rue shocked himself back to life with a spicy top-shelf Bloody Mary. The night before, the 29-year-old law school grad had been surprised—along with 2,000 other attendees gathered in the ballroom at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers—when he won not one but two golds in the 2010 World Beer Cup, a prestigious global competition of craft brewers. Beating out 50 other contenders, Rue’s Brett Autumn Maple topped the Experimental category, and his Oude Tart, which judges noted had “beautiful rose and cherry notes,” bested 20 other entries in the Belgian-Style Flanders/Oud Bruin or Oud Red Ale group. Inevitably, some serious revels commenced after the five-course gala. “It was an incredible night,” recalls Rue. “I wasn’t expecting to win anything. There are so many amazing beers in the categories we entered.”

Rue’s World Beer Cup triumph was the latest in a string of hits for the California native, whose upstart company, The Bruery, has barnstormed the beer world from an unlikely base camp: Orange County. He’s fast becoming the torchbearer for a mini-revolution now hitting Los Angeles, one in which the city’s finicky gourmands have pretty much gone craft beer–crazy, following the lead of craft-brewing capitals like Chicago, New York, San Diego and Portland, Oregon. Beer-focused bistros, specialty beer bars, festivals and several new brewing projects have fired up recently, with more on the way. Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Beverly Hills is among the top-flight restaurants serving Rue’s beers, which were the first L.A.–made brews to find relative fame and a twenty-state market. In the food-obsessed city that proudly spawned the drive-thru cheeseburger stand, Wolfgang Puck’s empire and, most recently, the Korean taco, craft beer is suddenly very much at the table.

Rue’s Chicago celebration was as unexpected as it was deserved: His company, an ambitious, if thinly capitalized, joint partnership with his brothers and parents, hadn’t even turned two, and it was only just starting to turn the corner financially after burning through his trust fund and then some. Rue, for his part, was an unlikely brewmaster. A few years ago he was in law school, reluctantly headed for a law career, when his wife bought him a home-brewing book from a 99 cent bookstore. Soon Rue was blowing off homework to brew dozens, even hundreds, of batches. “I’d brew almost every weekend and during the week, when I was ‘studying.’ I got to know my local brewers and begged them to let me intern for free,” Rue recalls. In other words, he was preparing for a different kind of bar.

The diligence obviously paid off. Rue’s balanced but aggressively innovative beers bested entrants in styles traditionally dominated by long-established Belgian firms and domestic craft-brewing powerhouses like Delaware’s Dogfish Head. As he sipped his liquid breakfast (with a pair of local craft ales for dessert), he explained the logic behind what appears to be a strategy of unhinged experimentation. Rue hews mainly to Belgian brewing traditions, which, generally speaking, tend to produce beers that are spicier, more intensely flavored and higher in alcohol content than their American counterparts, and often bear the tannins and acids from wood barrels and wild yeasts. Since its inception, The Bruery has released a total of 84 beers, though some, conjured out of such ingredients as Thai basil, pasilla peppers and purple mangosteen, are only dimly recognizable as beers to the layperson. To make his award-winning Autumn Maple, Rue roasts yams on a barbecue until they are soft and sugary, then smashes them up and adds them to a mash tun, a brewer’s tank used to extract fermentable sugars that normally come entirely from grain.

Such formulations sound bizarre, but they’re often delicious and drive Rue’s small-batch momentum forward. While a winery must wait a year for every vintage, craft brewers can brew every day, which allows them to try almost anything. (It helps that beer’s base ingredients are also modestly priced and store well.) Marketing his beautifully labeled bottles through specialty bars, traditional distributors, a large mail-order “Reserve Society” and directly out of the tasting room, Rue has built a thirsty, curious clientele.

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