Monday, 27 February 2012

Craft Beer In Hollywood.

I came, I saw, I drank their beer.

Although, in actual fact, I didn't drink a lot of their beer, and that became a surprising source of frustration.

The truth is that the craft beer scene in Los Angeles - whilst evolving nicely - makes it somewhat difficult for you to get your hands (and, more significantly, your taste buds) on American-brewed craft beer.

How weird is that

I certainly wasn't expecting it.

Sure, most of the craft beer bars in this part of the world tend to dazzle you with huge selections of taps at any one time, (imagine The Euston Tap on various banned steroids) but I was staggered by the tendency to avoid home-brewed US creations (in my opinion, the most exciting beers in the world at this moment in history) in favour of the European beers which inspired them. A modest portion of these ales hail from the UK, and include titles I was appalled to find being showcased in this new mecca of the craft beer world. Old Speckled Hen and Boddingtons were literally everywhere, as were my tears after a few days.

However, in spite of this apparent institutional reticence to get 'out and proud' about just how excellent their own products are, most other aspects of the scene in LA, particularly in Hollywood where I happened to be based, are extremely positive.

There are three venues I ended up frequenting more than others, and I'm going to say a few things about each, but the final of these mentions is also effectively an appeal, because whilst I was over there this fabulous and much loved joint was forced to close down for reasons beyond its own control and it may never be able to open its doors ever again.

First up, however, is BoHo, which sits in the fairly shocking setting of the H&H complex on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue (hence the acronymous name). The H&H is a self-knowingly mighty, ultra modern structure which would appear at first glance only to appeal to tourists or people who enjoy feeling a sense of their own comparative insignificance in relation to giant media-focussed corporations.

Sounds grim, right?

Well, the journey up to the second floor terrace - however harrowing - is worth it every time.

BoHo has an average of 25 working taps, a clearly constructed beer list with knowledgeable assistance freely available from the affable bar-staff, and a great 'taster rack' option (a fabulous concept not unique to this part of the world, but ubiquitous within it) where smaller measures of a selection of beers can be enjoyed before committing to a larger glass of your favourite among them. (Or simply ordering another rack!) BoHo even add the nice touch of serving each measure separately to ensure every one is tasted at optimum temperature.  

The décor is typically 'aiming at' a style based on a perception of 'European' reality, but that fails to make it tacky despite the fact that it absolutely should. The food - prepared with equal pride as the beer - is excellent, including the very best French-Fries I can ever recall indulging in. 

This is a first class venue, and the one to which I returned most often during my stay.

Second up is Stout - Burgers & Beers (more often known simply as 'Stout') which sits in a far more 'authentic' street setting along Cahuenga Boulevard in between Hollywood Boulevard and Selma Avenue. 

I found this place a little irritating every time I went, which was a big shame because so much about it is otherwise perfect and I really wanted to like it more. However, I'll deal with the positive aspects first because they really are very positive indeed.

I couldn't count the taps which jut out of every spare inch of the back wall of the curved bar area, but let's just say there are probably as many taps as there are states in the Union. (Okay, maybe a bit less, but there are plenty!)

Again, the foreign brews outnumbered the domestics, but the selection is large enough to keep you happy without Europeans having to 'go back home' during a session. (Isn't it odd how US and UK beers seem to be revered more by their opposite numbers than by themselves at the present time!) The bartenders are always responsive to a 'geek level' enquiry (partly as I sensed most punters at this place just want 'a beer' and are far more interested in those other items referred to in this venue's full name which, incidentally account for a greater overall chunk of the place's considerable local reputation.) 

The open air 'beach hut' feel to the joint is nice and the vibe among the punters is relaxed and unpretentious. 

My unassailable gripe was simply with the members staff who work on the 'room side' of the bar, who carry themselves around the place as though it were perfectly obvious that they are of far greater significance within the confines of this establishment than any visitor could ever be. I once saw one poor guy sat near me at the bar ask a passing waitress for a bowl of fries and, with a look of undisguised contempt, she informed him that any customer sat in his position needed to "speak with the bar tender about that". It's one of those places (actually pretty rare in LA, in my experience) where there is no attempt to hide the fact that certain people are only nice to you because of the possibility that you will eventually show your appreciation for such friendliness in the form of a tip. You can almost smell the sense of - "Why be nice to people sat at the bar when protocol dictates that the bartender will eventually be taking their money?"

Making things yet worse, was the staff's tendency to conduct their conversations with each other (about whatever was on the 'after-hours' agenda) across the room at whatever volume was necessary, even if it meant leaving menu-clutching punters open mouthed in the middle of placing their order whilst they waited for the chat to conclude. (Which, on one occasion I witnessed, was a moment that never actually came!...The waitress in question in this case continued a conversation with a colleague across the room - pad in hand with half of the customer's food order already written down - until the folks who were trying to complete that order eventually made a decision among themselves to get up and leave. A proactive measure which the waitress herself remained oblivious to until they were long departed.)

All of the beer at Stout left a great taste in my mouth.

Some of the staff at Stout left an ulcer in it.

This brings me nicely on to the third venue, a place where great beer, great food and great atmosphere was very much enhanced by concious and diligent employees. What this third venue has been let down by, however, is the small print in its own tenancy agreement.

The Blue Palms Brewhouse, situated (or at least it was until very recently) on Sunset Boulevard near Gower Avenue, quickly became a favourite with proper brew loving Los Angelinos, and it's sudden closure - on the very day after I first discovered it - is a cruel blow to the entire craft beer identity of the city. 

Totally unaware of the imminent downing of tools, I chose this place to watch the Superbowl (an event which I learned much about from a fellow punter - the generally malt-preferring Brian - who succeeded in revealing to me that American Football is actually pretty damn riveting once you know what the hell is going on!)

It was only after the game was nearing its conclusion that word began to pass through the bar that this was actually its last night of business for the foreseeable future. Details emerged that ownership of the larger 'parent' building next-door (a cinema) had changed hands, and that new owners had ideas of their own about best use of the site. New ideas which were unlikely to revolve around the serving and enjoying of immaculately kept craft beer.
The closest we could get to the truth that night was that the closure was "Temporary... hopefully!" (Three weeks later, there has been little subsequent change in that night's unsettling assessment, and fears of a permanent 'lights out' are growing ever stronger.)

This, then, was a really mixed night for me. The discovery of the (long hidden) joys of the NFL, and the simultaneous discovery of a genuinely outstanding bar, one which was about to be comprehensively undiscovered through no fault whatsoever of its own.

To mention a few things that made (make) the Palms special are the beer list itself  (a giant screen looming over the bar like an airport departure board and filled with more beers than you ever thought could coexist under one roof), the sheer quality of the beer which appears shortly after a choice from that screen has been made, the terrific staff members who assist you with that choice and bring the chosen beer to you, and the relaxed but comfortable feel of the place in which you sit back and drink it. 

Those marvellous staff members, by the way, deserve far better in my opinion than to be left in limbo like there appear to have been. 

As well as the enormous choice on the screen, there is a separate Bottled Beer menu (pictured below, among a few other shots of this venue), and the fiendish lure of this particular list was one which I manifestly failed to resist. (Those of you who know this website will have guessed that I didn't actually attempt to resist it at all. Not one little bit.) 

So, all in, the loss of The Blue Palms is one which should absolutely be prevented if at all possible. I can only think to suggest to beer lovers across the world - who view any closures of such places as a seriously bad thing - that they 'tweet' their support to the staff themselves via this link or give a shout out on their own website here, in the hope that a large enough show of support might tip the balance in their favour.

Overall, there are a fair number of other fine craft beer joints in the Hollywood area of LA (Mowhawk Bend also comes highly recommended), and although this city still lags behind many other US destinations in this regard, it is certainly way ahead in a great many others, and the sooner this famous town has as many such bars as it merits the better. In the meantime I'd say it needs to fight as hard as it can to keep the excellent ones it already has.

It would be a bad time for LA to start losing what has become some very healthy momentum. 


(Here's a badly shot visual flavour of The Blue Palms, including my bottle of Avery Brewing Co's anniversary brew 'Seventeen' - a very decent dry hopped black IPA. Oily, 'roasty', hopped with restraint, and with an alcohol content which must have been deviously concealed by Darth Avery himself, assuming such a malevolent figure exists.)

Yes, I know, the Avery has a big head. 

It was the Superbowl! 

It's hard to pour beer in that kind of atmosphere!