Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In Search of Burgers and Beer

I love flying westbound over the United States. Whenever I can, I book a window seat and an early flight so that I can entertain myself by watching green hills turn into golden plains turn into white-capped mountains turn into dusty red, brown and orange-colored deserts.

This flight was extremely early. The Cisco Brewery Brewpub in Terminal B at Logan Airport wasn’t even close to opening—not that I was looking for a beer at 5:15am. The only thing I would be drinking was a very large Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee. I was headed out to Los Angeles to visit with my friends Mike and Katie, but as is almost always the case, I was also on the lookout for good beer.

Of course I shared.
The flight was lovely with my window seat and blue skies clear across the country.  The six-hour flight had put a hunger in me that no $7 snack box would satiate, the only cure coming in the form of made-to-order, all-beef patties from, what should be everyone’s first stop in LA: In-N-Out Burger. Luckily the closest is located just a few minutes from the airport where Mike and I met up with Katie.  The plan for the day, that was hatched from this bastion of burgerdom, was to spend a little time at Venice Beach, take a quick hike up Runyon Canyon to work up a thirst, culminating with happy hour at my favorite watering hole in LA, Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood.

There are a number of satellite Barney’s in Los Angeles that play on the same theme as the original: magazine clipping collages on the tables, breweriana on the walls, a tap selection of a several dozen domestic and imported beers and a mile long list of bottles. The satellite locations are fine if you can’t get to the original, but with a storied 90-year history that includes a gallery of Old Hollywood legends and notoriety for having been the last place Janis Joplin sipped a drink, Barney’s position near the end of old Route 66 just has a different vibe.

Katie and I ordered up a first round that, for me, had to include a West Coast IPA. Bear Republic Racer 5 was up first: juicy, mouth-watering, citrusy hops balanced by a 7% ABV maltiness really hit the spot after that hike up Runyon. Next up was Stone Brewing Company’s Arrogant Bastard. I remember my first time trying this beer was on a trip several years ago to LA and Barney’s Beanery. I’m not sure I was worthy then for the, frankly, arrogant amount of hoppage…but I might be now. I finished the night at Barney’s with another Racer 5 and despite my jetlag and my better judgment, Mike, Katie and Katie’s roommate Matt and I ended up hanging out well passed midnight at her apartment where I sipped on some Firestone Walker Pale 31, a dry-hopped beauty of a California Pale Ale. Having been up for something like 26 hours I was, shockingly, remarkably chipper but fading fast. The next day we had plans to meet up with former London pub-crawl champion Alex, who had moved to LA shortly after our meet-up in England, so we gulped our last sips and packed it in just before 2am.


With temperatures in the low 70s and a breeze all week, I couldn’t have picked a better time to visit. Mike and I stumbled out of the house just before noon with plans to meet Alex at the newly established Golden Road Brewing just off Interstate 5 (I know, The 5). Beer industrialists Tony Yanow and Meg Gill opened Golden Road Brewing in 2011 and it seems that it’s already garnered quite a loyal following. The place was packed at lunch, but Alex, Mike and I found some room at the bar. I ordered up a round that started with one of two flagship beers: Point the Way IPA. Citrusy, slightly earthy with hints of grapefruit pith and tangerine, the hops are not overly aggressive, but they certainly make their presence felt. 

As Mike and Alex got in line to order lunch, I considered trying their other flagship, Golden Road Hefeweizen. But since I had already seen this beer a few other places I opted to try something of a rarity on their menu, a Berliner Weisse. I can count on one hand how many different Berliner Weisse style beers I’ve had over the years.  It simply isn’t a style produced with any regularity these days. With only a few breweries still producing this style in Germany it’s the type of beer that when I see I have to try it. Golden Road’s Berliner Weisse is very low in alcohol (2.8%) with an assertive tartness in the aroma and a balanced tart/bready flavor.  I chose to try it straight up with a sidecar of woodruff syrup that I added after the first few sips. The woodruff takes the edge off the tartness while contributing a mild herbal character. As I’ve mentioned before, this style was one of the first beers I ever tried and it brought me back to that sunny summer in Deutschland when I was 17.


Mike was a fantastic tour guide.  When I told him I was looking to sample the best new beers that LA had to offer, he mentioned Eagle Rock Brewery. I had to admit that this brewery hadn’t been on my radar, but when we arrived at their tasting room, I could tell that it was the type of place that I’d enjoy. Several tables and benches throughout with a bar serving beer brewed only 100 feet from the taps. I tried a sampler of four beers including a roasty English Dark Mild and a perfumy Witbier that was light on both orange peel and spice. That evening we caught the midnight screening of what has become know as “the worst movie ever made,” Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.  If you’ve never experience this gem I highly recommend seeing it. The viewing didn’t make for an early night, but this was a vacation after all and I was going to make the best of every minute.


Another late night found us in late afternoon at Tony’s Dart Away in North Hollywood, another beer venture by Tony Yanow. This California beer centric home of draught-only, full-pour pints provides food and drinks at the bar and board games and beer books along the walls. I was told that it can get pretty busy during the evening, but on this early Saturday afternoon we found ourselves amongst a smallish crowd at the bar. We ordered a round of root beer-braised pulled-pork sandwiches as well as a couple pints of Golden Road’s Hefeweizen.


The rest of my time spent in LA was filled with an equal amount of good times and good beer.  Katie, Mike and I spent Sunday afternoon in the backyard of Mike’s Van Nuys apartment grilling up burgers In-N-Out style and chatting. The burgers were accompanies by a mix 12-pack of New Belgium beers: Dig Pale Ale, 1554 Black Ale and of course Fat Tire, each one of these Colorado beers a new taste treat for this New Englander. Later in the evening we caught a show at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and enjoyed a couple Ranger IPAs from that New Belgium 12-pack as we watched.

After the show, while cruising around Hollywood, I was somewhat disappointed that I hadn’t been able to find any Russian River beer, in particular Pliny the Elder. I had tried it a number of years ago at Monk’s CafĂ© in Philadelphia on a vacation with Amanda, but I was eager to drink it in its native land.  We had just missed the tapping at Tony’s the day before and I was unsuccessful in my search for any bottles. I figured it was a lost cause but I had one more place to try before giving up the hunt so Mike and I parked the car just off Hollywood Boulevard and strolled the Walk-of-Fame until we came to The Blue Palms Brewhouse.

It was nearing last call and I thought for sure that I’d end up drinking a Stone something-or-other, especially this late on a Sunday night. As we walked in, I glanced up at the large screen that was projecting the current tap list, and there it was!  I couldn’t believe it! This nearly empty pub on a late Sunday night was serving Pliny the Elder. I’m sure you California-types don’t get as excited, but I was rather stoked. “Pour me your freshest pint of Pliny my good man,” I thought, “right away sir,” I imagined. With the frothing glass down on the bar and my bill settled, I sat down with Mike at a high-top table in the corner. Golden with just the slightest of haze, Pliny the Elder is the epitome of a hop-forward Double IPA.  Where some versions tend to leave a bit of sweetness from the malt to balance, Pliny the Elder packs in the hops for a citrusy, piney, resinous bitterness that dries in the finish and lingers for the rest of the evening.


This account is nowhere near exhaustive, there were many beers snuck in between, almost too numerous to mention. I’m always impressed that each time I visit Los Angeles I find something new and interesting and I’m not just talking about the beer. The culture of Los Angeles is variety, as evident in its people and neighborhoods as in its beer. My very sincere thanks to Mr. Michael Tocci and Ms. Katie Curley for their hospitality and their skill in driving me around some of the most hazardous highways in the country, your metering skills are sharply honed, I’m sure it won’t be too long before I return.

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