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California's Great Craft Beers

© Courtesy The Bruery

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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Not every release is an Oddity of the Month, though. Rue’s stock-in-trade is a year-round line of food-friendly (though hardly conventional) brews in 750-milliliter wine bottles that sell from $8 to $13 or so. For example, White Orchard, a Belgian-style wheat-based beer spiced with coriander, citrus peel and lavender, is a delicious, summery palate zinger, and currently one of the ales featured at Keller’s Bouchon. “A beer mood is different than a wine mood. A lot of bistro food is based in a beer culture. We have dishes like the classic moules frites or fried green tomatoes with shrimp and corn relish and a tomato salsa verde. We love pairing White Orchard with that,” explains Alex Weil, the head sommelier and a novice home brewer himself. “We sometimes get the question ‘Don’t you have anything normal?’ But right now we don’t want to serve ‘regular’ beer. We want to push the envelope. We’re going to lightly force change through the absence of choice.”

Absence of choice can be the most powerful market force of all, it seems. Rue has made his biggest splash with limited releases, individually numbered like allocations of California Cab. In October 2009 he released 2,400 bottles of an onyx-black, 19.5 percent alcohol by volume, bourbon barrel-aged stout called Black Tuesday, and 700 people showed up to buy it, causing a minor fracas when supplies ran out. “It was insane,” Rue recalls. “We were going to release it at around six o’clock at night, and people showed up at three. We heard some people flew in to get it. It’s almost embarrassing.” The rush was not exactly out of the blue. A trusted beer site, RateBeer.com, had given it a perfect 100; soon afterward, the $30-per-bottle brews ended up on eBay for $300 apiece.

Rue may be the first craft brewer in Los Angeles to hit national foodie radar screens, but he wasn’t the first here to brew outside the lines. Pasadena’s Mark Jilg is as likely to expound on the paradox of being an artisan brewer in the middle of Tinseltown as he is to offer an impromptu lecture on the tendency of hops to spontaneously combust (true story). Fourteen years ago Jilg left his job as analyst for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to make beer. Today his tiny brewery, situated in an unassuming industrial park near the Rose Bowl, produces beers that are defiantly pushing the outer limits, too, with Valencia orange rind, Cabernet grapes, white sage and brettanomyces (a yeast found in certain Belgian ales that imparts deeply earthy flavors). “There are a lot of people who are focused on food culture here, but they haven’t considered beer. When they taste something like mine, it blows their mind,” says Jilg. His delivery van may be a green 1946 M-15 Studebaker, but his beer is next-generation.

The entire timbre of the L.A. food and drink scene is shifting, says L.A.–based writer Hallie Beaune, whose new book, cowritten with fellow L.A. beer sommelier Christina Perozzi, is called The Naked Pint: An Unadulterated Guide to Craft Beer (Perigee, 2009). Angelenos (like Portlanders, Denverites and even New Yorkers before them) have embraced craft beers that are all the better when made with ingredients sourced locally, no different than with snap peas, heirloom pork or Pinot Noir. Instead of the coolly manufactured glam of, say, Spago, the more communal, unshaven, nose-to-tail chic of places like Animal are all the rage now. Food carts are going upscale; local coffee roasters and farmers’ markets are multiplying.

Craft beer fits the moment perfectly. “L.A. went through a fancy tablecloths and martinis phase. Now people want a more casual experience without sacrificing the quality of the food,” says Beaune. “Once you have a beer like Orchard White, you’re not going back. People in Belgium have been doing this for a long time, but it’s still somewhat new here. The Bruery has consistently created interesting beers. And with their events and tasting room, they’ve created a community. That’s what L.A. wants right now.”

Rue speaks freely of what he risked on his bank account–draining brewing project: everything. “It was definitely a once in a lifetime, make it or break it sort of thing. I didn’t have a lot of savings; this was pretty much it.” To use gambling parlance, he was all-in. Did he really think it would work?

“I didn’t,” Rue says, smiling. “I was of the mentality that you only live once. If you want to be successful, you’ve got to take risks.” Sounds like a risk worth drinking to.

For more information, go to thebruery.com.