The Session: 6 Questions with Los Angeles Ale Works’ Kristofor “Kip” Barnes
Much like Cal State and University of California campuses, when a major brand is associated with your city, you expect anything they produce to be of high quality. That’s a lot to live up to if you’re a brewery and you name yourself Los Angeles Ale Works, but luckily the beer makers, who are actually located in Hawthorne, can consider themselves proud standard-bearers for the City of Angels.
Kristofor “Kip” Barnes, LAAW’s founder, brewmaster, and managing partner, is the man behind the brewery. Hopped LA chatted with Kip to learn more about how LAAW came to be, his favorite beers to brew, and what the coronavirus pandemic has meant for brewing in Los Angeles.
Emily Krauser: How did you get started in beer and then come to be in the industry professionally?
Kristofor “Kip” Barnes: I got into the industry through a lot of twists and turns, starting on the homebrewing side back in 2009. I brewed regularly with a college friend of mine, and we put together a fledgling business plan which took us through a proof of concept phase requiring contract brewing. Simultaneously, I got into local beer writing using my now-defunct website Bierkast and became involved in the Los Angles beer media group L.A. Beer Bloggers. In 2013, my business partner and I ran a successful Kickstarter, netting us a 15bbl fermenter, keg washer, kegs, and some other equipment that we housed at Ohana Brewing in downtown Los Angeles. Ohana allowed us to tenant and contract brew with them, and we successfully produced a number of core beer concepts while searching for investment funds. At that time, breweries were still considered extremely risky. They still are, but there really wasn’t a lot of accessible investment capital for our project [back then]. Through a couple more turns, I found my current business partner, Andrew Fowler, also a homebrewer who had a ton of experience in construction management. He and I went on to acquire capital through an awesome team of individual investors, including friends and family. We found our ideal building and current home in Hawthorne in early 2016 and officially opened our doors in early 2017.
EK: Is there one beer in particular that you think epitomizes the LAAW philosophy?
KB: One of our figurehead beers is Lunar Kitten. It’s a West Coast IPA featuring Simcoe hops and a cat in a spacesuit on the front of the can. I think this beer does a great job of showing how we like to make fun beers with fun names but can keep it traditional if we want to. Jumping off of that idea, we’ve got beers like Pig Ninja, Scrappalicious, Karma Kolsch, Martian Occupation, Buttress of Windsor, Orange Tabby Lager, Midnight Frisbee, Olivera Blanc, LA Phil 100, and Full Thrust. We serve a wide variety of styles to please many palettes, but we take each beer we make very seriously. The goal is to make a great beer that represents the style well in our own way while having fun.
EK: What makes being a brewery founder in Los Angeles so special compared to other cities?
KB: Los Angeles is an interesting beer city. It was way behind other beer cities in the U.S., especially in California. That means everyone in the last 10 to 11 years has got to experience the creation of something truly special, which has not only borrowed successes from other beer industries but has also built upon them substantially. We have an incredibly diverse city. Going to our brewery is going to be a way different experience than visiting a similar-sized brewery in DTLA or Torrance or Van Nuys. Neighborhoods get to have their own breweries they can be proud of, which is really what it’s all about: creating a vibrant community of different people that all like drinking beer. We get industry professionals from Space X, service people, locals from our neighborhood, beer geeks, and everyone in-between. I like that I can come to work knowing we’re going to do something cool and potentially fun, although the amount of work and stress I experience on a daily basis is still shocking, to say the least. Anyone that thinks running a brewery is easy really doesn’t know what they are talking about. However, it’s that challenge and stress addiction that drives us all to do our best. I’m not just brewing one beer over and over again, though we do have beers we brew a lot of. I feel like my creative juices are supported, managed, and not stifled.
EK: I know you make a lot of different styles, but do you have a favorite go-to beer?
KB: I love variety, which is one of the main reasons I love making and drinking beer so much. Today’s beer industry gives us access to everything from traditional old-world styles to hype-driven liquid flavor clashes. I love trying new beer, so my go-to is usually the latest beer we’ve made, canned, kegged, or someone else has given me. I’m an equal opportunist when it comes to tasting and drinking beer. I may not always like what I’m drinking, but I love the ritual of trying it and talking about it with others, with pretentiousness being left at the door. Right now, I’m drinking a juicy IPA called Scrappalicious. It’s a beer named after our brewery cat, Scrappy, who is featured on our can. It has lots of tropical fruit, a mid-level ABV, and it comes in a pretty package. When the summer heats this place up, you may find me drinking our popular beer slushies topped with tajin!
EK: What is the process behind deciding what beers you want to make next for the LAAW calendar and has that calendar had to shift due to the Safer at Home orders?
KB: I remember hearing about the virus in December but had no idea that it was going to lead to what we’re all experiencing now. This new normal has completely derailed the world as we know it, and we’ve been forced to shift gears to an intense level. We had regimented growth plans, specific brands we wanted to focus on, new equipment arriving, and are still in the middle of building out our new tasting room in Culver City. Luckily, we strive to be nimble and are largely successful at this. Our new mission? Can everything! We had a ton of beer in kegs and in tanks, and only a few of these beers were going into cans. My partner and I rushed to get labels done and prepared to can beers we had no intention of canning. Everything gets canned now, so if it doesn’t have a label, we make one, then we see what happens.
In terms of recipe formulation, we have an evolving list of beers we like to make. We make what people want: we make beer with fruit, we make beer in barrels, and we make beers that we find exciting or fun. Outside of the traditional styles, our juicy beers have gone through the most evolution. From the get-go, we were uninterested in making juicy beers with the typical Conan, Vermont, and London yeast strains, so we pushed our customers to wrap their heads around a rustic Saison yeast that harnessed an extreme fruit-forward flavor and a bone dryness. It was hard at first, but people came to love it. Additionally, on our second anniversary in 2019, we released our first Norwegian-style juicy beer called Night Beams. We’ve been experimenting with Kveik yeast ever since, and it’s dominating our hazy/juicy offerings. I only see these beers getting better as time goes on. I’m always excited to try it out of a can as it comes spinning off the line.
EK: What has been your proudest moment at LAAW during these weird, shifting times?
KB: I’m really proud of my entire team and our friends for stepping up to help. We’ve all had to figure out how to deal with life inside and outside of work while balancing mounting uncertainty and mental stress. Seeing everyone helping each other with the little things is very comforting, and checking up on each other to make sure we’re doing okay is huge. Also, I’m proud that we were able to pivot to all cans all the time so quickly. Not that it hasn’t been hard for everyone, but the struggle hasn’t been as bad as I think some people are experiencing. My partner, Andrew, was able to increase our can sales at a record pace. I’m also really proud of the collaboration we were able to release with Zane Lamprey, his travel apparel company Adv3nture, and the cat rescue organization WrennRescues. We had this huge party planned that was going to include pet adoptions, comedy, the can release, and celebrating our furry friends that need to find good homes. COVID-19 struck and the event had to be canceled. Everyone was bummed, but we all figured it out and the beer sold out in record time. Now we just need to figure out when we’re brewing the next batch and when that party is going to happen.