It’s the holidays, and Arts District Brewing in (you guessed it) the Los Angeles Arts District has finally opened its doors bearing gifts for us all. With former Pizza Port brewer Devon Randall taking charge, LA adds yet another well respected brewer to its roster. Randall is just the second female head brewer to grace the LA beer stage (Alex Nowell of Three Weavers being the first) but as is the case with beer, who we are takes a distant back seat to what’s in the glass. In the case of Randall, the quality of the brewer as well as the beer she’s producing is already top-notch.
2015 has been a great year for the advancement of beer in Los Angeles, with plenty of new breweries opening their doors for us to explore. The Arts District is putting itself on the map in many ways, but for me its transformation into a community of beer purveyors and roaming beer fans is definitely what has caught my eye (for a wider picture of the Arts District, check out my previous writings on it).
Arts District Brewing is the latest installment from the 213 Nightlife Group (responsible for such great LA bars as Seven Grand, Las Perlas, Casey’s Irish Pub, and plenty others) and Blue Palms Brewhouse owner Brian Lenzo. They’ve created a well-designed multi-use space packed with offerings for beer nerds and tag-along friends of beer nerds, too. The beers themselves are clean and inviting; best enjoyed among the backdrop of this large brewpub space that provides a little something for everyone. I picture my future spent playing free skeeball with a Traction IPA in one hand and rotisserie chicken gracing my table; compliments of chef Neal Fraser from Red Bird. Did I mention there’s a full bar as well?
I had the opportunity to speak with Randall, the results of which lie ahead. Enjoy and happy holidays! There’s plenty more to explore in 2016.
Nick: Tell me about your beer and brewing history. When did you first find it and how did you get to where you are today?
Devon: The first beer that I really liked, that wasn’t a macro beer, was Moose Drool. I was working at Raleigh’s as a server while I was going to school in Berkeley. I remember a point at which I didn’t want to drink anything but Moose Drool. I didn’t want another beer; I didn’t want wine, just that nut brown. It was so good and so flavorful. That was the point where I knew beer wasn’t going to be same anymore for me.
I moved back to Los Angeles after college…
Nick: So you’re from LA?
Devon: Yes, I’m from the Santa Monica area. This is home, but it’s also the East Side of LA, so it’s still kind of new. When I moved back I joined Pacific Gravity, the home-brew club in Culver City. I liked learning about beer but I wasn’t brewing it very much. My boyfriend at the time brewed and we’d brew once a month or so. Once that relationship ended I wanted to brew again. I realized it wasn’t much of an investment so I started brewing on my own and just loved it.
I brewed all the time. I wasn’t hanging out with my friends because I was brewing so much. I didn’t love my job, which was in marketing and sales, and my apartment was way unaffordable in Santa Monica. I just didn’t like the trajectory my life was on, so I started pursuing my hobbies. There were no breweries hiring seven years ago in Los Angeles, Eagle Rock had just gotten started. They didn’t want me to volunteer and they couldn’t afford to pay me, but they were super nice about it and they’re great friends now.
I looked down in San Diego [and] went to several different breweries, knocking on doors asking if I could just come watch for a day. I was doing BJCP at the time so people took me more seriously than the person that just walks in the door asking to brew. Lost Abbey actually let me come in, and once they let me in the door I did everything I could to be helpful. Sweep the floor? I can do that. Clean the bathroom? I can do that. I wanted people to want me around so I could gather more information. I kept showing up unpaid for a while and eventually there was a position open – I got hired for the bottling line and warehouse.
It was later on, on Labor Day actually, that they told everyone they could take the day off or come in and they’d find work for you to do. Everyone took the day off except for the head of packaging, the head brewer, and me. The head brewer was overwhelmed with work, so he said, “I’m going to show you how to clean a bright tank.” I cleaned three of them. That was my in to get into the cellar; I worked on the barrel program. Lost Abbey has a huge bourbon barrel and brandy barrel program, and a lot of sours.
I was really happy with my position doing special projects and floating around getting to do a bit of everything, but a great opportunity popped at Pizza Port to become a head brewer. I was at was Ocean Beach and trained with Yiga Miyashiro for six months, and when he left to start Bressi Ranch I went to Solano Beach. I was at Solano Beach for two and a half years doing great. We did a ton of fun collaborations with Cervercia Tres B out of Mexicali, with Lindheim Company in Belgium; I got to travel to all the different CBC locations and Denver every year.
Then along came this opportunity, which is even better. Solano Beach was great but there wasn’t a whole lot of growth. I was ready for something new and more challenging, and this has definitely been that. I’ve been here since May and we started brewing mid-September, so there was a lot of working on a construction site. Getting anything done was a challenge, and getting everything here installed… I’m familiar with the equipment of course but it’s a whole different story getting it installed and figuring out the tools you need.
Nick: What take away do you have now looking back on the planning and building a brewery as opposed to running one?
Devon: It takes a lot longer and a lot more money than you think it will. I’ve heard that before but now I’ve witnessed it. When I got here, people told me we’d be open in eight weeks and brewing in twelve. That was so far from the truth. It takes a long time and you can’t really come up with a good timeline when you’re in the middle of it; there are just so many unpredictable things.
[The City of] LA is notorious for being onerous. It’s a person-to-person thing, there are different people for different aspects and they all work together and communicate. Some of them are more realistic and big picture, but some are really nit-picky and down to the letter. Everybody was great but there are a lot of different personalities to work with.
Nick: What’s the plan for getting beer out to the LA consumer?
Devon: We’ll distribute, but not very far, and we don’t have plans for that to be the majority of our output. We hope to sell most of our beer at the bar. Part of the goal is to have control over everything to keep the quality high and not fling beer really far where you don’t know what’s happening to it. We want to elevate the education of a draft system in Los Angeles at every bar, starting with our own.
We’re having our bar managers learn to clean their draft lines. Not because they personally have to clean each one, but I don’t want them to have reps come in, clean the lines but not really, and not know that that’s happening. We did a draft class yesterday and their homework was to ask questions. “What chemicals are you using and why? Are you soaking it, pulling it apart? Are you pulling the faucet apart? Why not? How often do you do that?” Getting them really comfortable and getting them to understand how important that is [is a priority].
Nick: Tell me about Arts District Brewing. What’s the philosophy and what should people come for?
Devon: The owners here are huge on quality, so we’ve done everything we can to make sure the beer is in the best possible shape. It’s super fresh, the bright tanks are behind the counter. When you pull a tap you can actually see it bounce. Part of the goal was to show people the beer; it’s right in front of you. The brewing equipment is through the front door. I try to get work done in the morning but I’m sure people will see some work going on. The food at Fritzi’s is phenomenal; it’s attached but a separate business. Neal Fraser from Red Bird runs it. They’re known for their rotisserie chicken and we have a rotisserie… I think I ate a half chicken the first time they let me try it.
There are plenty of places to hang out and outlets for those that want to hang out and work. The bar is massive; I think it’s 100 seats maybe. And there are games: skeeball, darts, ping-pong, giant Jenga, there’s talk of shuffleboard. And there’s a full bar. They won’t make the cocktail program a huge part of it (they’ll stick to basics) but if you want a cocktail it’s available.
[The owners] wanted a place for people to hang out. If you’ve been to Golden Road that place is just packed, and I love going there to hang out too. There are families and dogs; it’s just a place to go beer-garden-style where you can hang out a good portion of the afternoon. That’s the plan here, to offer space for people to gather and give have different things to do. What you want should be here.
Nick: Let’s talk about your beers. When I tried a couple they were all very clean, very delineated flavors. Do you have a philosophy to how you brew or aspects that you like to see in your beers?
Devon: Thank you for saying clean, that’s what I strive for. Distinct flavors as well. I think there will be a lot of people walking in the door who will be new to beer, and I want to have lots of different options for them, so a diverse list [is important.] At some point we’ll be doing a barrel aging, spirits and sour program. So far I’ve stuck to basics dialing the system in, but I do like to use unique ingredients. A cranberry wheat, a coffee porter, fun things like that.
Nick: Can you expand on the Cranberry wheat?
Devon: These are beers I’ve done in the past and I’m not sure I’ll do them again, but the cranberry wheat was done because I do not like pumpkin pie, and I said that I wasn’t going to brew a pumpkin beer. I find pumpkin pie spices to be weird, and pumpkin pie itself is just baby food to me. Thanksgiving came around and I wanted to do something for the holidays, so I decided on cranberries. I made a cranberry tincture, which is steeping dried cranberries in alcohol and then boiling the alcohol down to 5%, so that it wouldn’t add or reduce the content of the beer. It had a little rosiness to it and it was an American wheat beer. I haven’t seen another cranberry wheat beer out there but there probably is. You can never be original anymore.
Nick: How do you guys plan to separate yourselves from LA or the Arts District, how will you carve a space out for yourselves?
Devon: As far as the Arts District is concerned, at this point it’s a rising tide that floats all ships. We’re a brewpub so that makes us different already. We can make one-off batches, and food is part of the draw. And we’re not sending beer out; when you send beer out you’re a little more limited because you can’t explain it to people unless you have a huge sales team. That differentiates us already and allows us to be creative. It’s just a matter of training our bar staff, and I get to see them every day.
Nick: Tell me about the Arts District and what’s happening here right now. What’s the sense of community like?
Devon: Chewy (Samuel Chawinga, Boomtown’s brewer) and the owners over at Boomtown have been super nice and invited us for their opening. Over at Mumford, Peter has stopped by and I’ve stopped by his place. Darren Moser from Iron Triangle (from Maui Brewing) I’ve known for a while, and Angel City has been super helpful. They gave us a keg when we didn’t have any beer, which was much needed. I think we’re all going to be good buds. Everyone’s really excited, but man am I happy to have a parking spot! The Metro’s been nice but they’re redoing the stop up the street. When it’s up and running again I want to encourage people not to drive, because there’s nowhere to park!
Nick: And they can try more beers that way.
Devon: That too.
Nick: Do you consider yourself a craft brewer or just a brewer? Does craft mean what it used to, or has it changed along with the industry?
Devon: I would say craft brewer. I could run any small, medium, or large brewpub, but I probably couldn’t work as a technician at Budweiser. With the buyouts, it’s interesting that it’s all happening so fast. It’s been an avalanche rather than one here and one there. I think that will continue to happen, but I don’t know what it means for the future. I’m not going to stop buying Ballast at this point, they make great beer and in LA it can be difficult to find good beer on the shelf.
People don’t understand refrigeration, that’s another one of my crusades. Bottle shops really need to learn quality control. There’s a local bottle shop, I won’t say which one, and the guy is so excited, but I see beer sitting out warm. They just refrigerate the beer before they sell it. I’m thinking, “All this great beer that you care about, you just killed it.”
That reminds me of when I was a kid and my family had lobster for dinner. I felt bad for the lobsters because they were suffocating in plastic bags on the counter. I thought, “I’m going to put them in the sink so they can be happy before we kill them.” I ended up killing the lobsters, because you can’t put salt-water animals in fresh water. It’s one of those situations where intentions are really good, but you don’t understand what you’re doing. I see that happening all the time with liquor stores trying to up their game, but they’re killing the beer by not refrigerating it.
Nick: So you think LA has some catching up to do?
Devon: Yes. Within our network at Pizza Port all the bar managers knew how to clean draft lines because it was important to the brewers. Fortunately everyone I’ve talked to is excited about having better quality, and when they learn how to do something they want to tell the world, “I cleaned my own draft lines! I cleaned them this morning.” They take pride in it and I hope that continues.
Devon: I love everyone who’s in LA already. Eagle Rock, I love those guys. Craftsman’s been making great beer for a long time. I’ve been friends with John Porter at Smog City since [Pacific Gravity]. Highland Park Brewery is doing an awesome job. It wasn’t a big mystery of what’s going on, I knew it was good.
It’s different than San Diego; the rate at which new breweries and beer bars are popping up [in San Diego] you can’t keep up with, unless you make a full time thing of it (which kind of I did). Here it’s more manageable and a bit more fun knowing everyone who’s at it right now. It will reach a tipping point and get so big that you can’t keep track, but I think that’s a good thing. A long-term goal is to have a brewery or beer bar walking distance in every neighborhood so you can meet your neighbor and not travel long distances to get there.
Nick: Going back to the craft beer question, what does craft beer mean to you? Has its definition changed at all?
Devon: That’s a tough question. I don’t know how to define it, but [for me it’s] taking care in what you do and what you make. I think it applies to food too. I like to see restaurants where there is a person paying attention to what comes out and what goes into it. When I worked at a large real estate corporation I’d try to do something creative and they’d say, “no, no, just do your job, don’t do anything more.” [It’s] having the freedom to do more and getting your ideas heard.
Nick: That’s a very valid answer. How much beer will Arts District Brewing produce?
Devon: The goal for year one is 1,500 barrels, so that’s about 100 brews, which is about twice a week. Year two we may double that, and year three we’ll need more fermenters. We don’t plan to make more than 5,000 barrels in this facility.
Nick: What is it that you love about beer? Why go through the headache and what makes it worth it?
Devon: It’s really entertaining on a lot of levels. You get to look at it scientifically, calculate colors and IBUs, you have to keep inventory, which is up my alley. I like statistics, too. There’s also the imaginative part of it. When you think of making soup you think of what you want it to taste like and how to get there. I get to do that all the time on a much bigger scale, and I get to hear everyone’s opinion on it, which I guess is a double edge sword. Sometimes people aren’t that into it but a lot of times people think it’s great. They say, “Oh, get what I mean. You used this hop in such a way that it juxtaposes with this malt and I totally get it, it tastes like mangos.” Sometimes you get to hear that and it’s really gratifying. A lot of people work hard and don’t get that, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
And it’s beautiful. The stainless steel is gorgeous, the color of beer, the malt, the equipment… I still remember when I didn’t understand everything and how complicated it looked. I’m pretty proud of myself that I actually designed how all of it fits together. I’m so lucky to get to do it, even the days where you get frustrated. I always come around and can smile about it and think of things that make me happy about it. It’s a great field to work in.
Nick: Any last thoughts?
Devon: I’m really looking forward to seeing the equipment in use the way it’s supposed to be. I’m looking forward to seeing faces on the other side of the bar. I hope everyone gets the chance to come in and check it out; it’s a little bit different than most places around in a unique area with unique offerings in a unique space. It’s going to be a great time here.
Visit the Arts District Brewing Facebook Page for additional info. Open Mon-Thurs (4pm-12am), Fri (4pm-2am), Sat (12pm-2am), and Sun (12pm-12am)