Interview: LA Ale Works founders John Rockwell + Kip Barnes
Orange County native John Rockwell and Seattle-ite Kristofor “Kip” Barnes knew each other from their days in the USC Trojan Marching Band, when Barnes played trombone and Rockwell rocked the trumpet. Now the friends and homebrewers have their first beer in tanks, and they’re on the verge of building a permanent Los Angeles Ale Works facility, possibly in Culver City. We interviewed Rockwell and Barnes over beers at Far Bar on May 29, and they explained their connection to craft beer.
How did the two of you meet and become business partners?
Barnes: We were both in the Trojan marching band at USC, and John’s actually one year older than me. We met through our wives. We were all in the marching band. John homebrewed. He’s been homebrewing for a really long time. His step-father taught him how to brew. We basically all knew each other from band and graduated in different years but continued hanging out with each other. John goes on a yearly camping trip. He brought his homebrew to the camping trip. He had just taught one of our other friends how to brew, and that was what hooked me on to wanting to make homebrew. Collectively now, I think we’ve been homebrewing for a dozen years.
Would you sell beer to UCLA grads?
Barnes: Of course.
Rockwell: It’s funny. We were all indoctrinated by the marching band to obviously be anti-UCLA and all that kind of stuff.
Rockwell: Some of my best friends since graduating have been UCLA grads. There was a UCLA grad in my wedding. My co-workers from UCLA tend to be some of the coolest.
Barnes: We’ve grown, we’ve matured. During football season, during that game, there’s animosity, but everywhere else, it’s all good.
What are you doing over at SONY now?
Barnes: I work a business analyst for the digital media group. They have these big asset management systems where they have dailies and all the different film assets, and people can log in and look at them securely.
You said you’ve been working as an energy consultant.
Rockwell: Yeah, an energy consulting company. It’s a three-year-old start-up. After I graduated from SC, I worked in commercial real estate. That’s what my degree was. It was a typical desk, cubicle job. I was homebrewing on the side and getting really tired of the cubicle rat race and was homebrewing more and more and formulating the idea for the brewery, but wasn’t willing to take that leap. This is a comfy real estate job and couldn’t quit this career. Silver lining, the real estate crash of ’07 completely obliterated my company, so everyone got laid off and it was a nice awakening because it forced me to pursue that passion and I got a job at this start-up with an old co-worker who founded the energy consultant company.
Barnes: That was about the time we drafted our first business plan.
Rockwell: Yeah. This was ’09. So we’ve been doing day jobs and beer at night ever since.
What was the first beer that each of you brewed, and how did it turn out?
Barnes: I brewed a blonde and it was from a kit. I bought it from Homebrewers Outpost, and it turned out okay. It wasn’t terrible. I’ve heard a lot of people brewing their first beers with Mr. Beer. I didn’t use Mr. Beer, I used the full brewers’ kit. It turned out alright. It wasn’t the best beer. It had a little bit of umami to it, a little bit too much, because I didn’t have temperature control. Because at the time I didn’t even know what that was. I got really into reading everything I possibly could, and I think the second beer I brewed was all-grain, so I went straight into it from that point.
Rockwell: It would be nice if that umami flavor was the start of your love of all things Japan, but it wasn’t really…My first beer was called Lawnmower Lager, and it was awful. Lagers are supposed to be fermented at 50-ish degrees and I did not have a kegerator. I just had my mom’s garage. It was terrible.
What’s the criteria for a beer at LA Aleworks?
Rockwell: Good. We have kind of a diverse flagship line-up. We’re transitioning into the beer that’s coming out this summer. It’s a roggen beer. It’s a German-Bavarian style and it’s kind of like a cousin of German Hefeweizens. It uses the same Hefeweizen yeast, so it has a lot of banana and clove flavor, but instead of wheat, which Hefeweizens are brewed with, it’s with rye.
Barnes: It’s fermented at a colder temperature to bring out the clove flavors instead of banana.
Rockwell: And we give it a little twist. We throw in a little more roast rye than is traditional, maybe on the high end of the range that is traditional, so it gets some of those roasty, chocolatey flavors going on.
Barnes: It’s kind of like a caramel corn almost.
Rockwell: It’s approachable, but interesting enough for beer geeks to go back to.
What else is in the initial line-up?
Rockwell: We have a saison that was kind of Kip’s baby.
Barnes: That’s probably the beer I brewed the most aside from the rye. That was the beer that I brewed for our wedding, and I tried to brew something that would be really complex for people that want to go into the beer side of it, but also just wanted drinkable, easy and approachable for all the people in my family that don’t like beer. They don’t try it, they just don’t like beer. They say that, but it was a huge hit. Everybody liked it, and people that don’t like beer, they were drinking it. It’s still my favorite style. That’s a saison. It’s brewed with kumquats. It’s got a lot of Munich malt in it, Belgian Pilsner and lots of spices in it. I put Indian sugar in it. It’s really good. We won a lot of awards for it. It’s one of those beers that I love giving to people, but at the same time, I want to keep it all myself, so I kind of hard it. But I hardly ever get to drink it because I’m always giving it to people, which is fun. That’s what we want to do.
How do you go about naming your beers?
Barnes: We always start off with a homebrew name that’s a little too ridiculous for the mainstream, and inappropriate, it seems like. The saison’s name was actually, I call it Equinox, because that’s when we got married. It’s gone through iterations of being wedding saison, but now it’s called lièvre. It means hare. It’s kind of the same theme as the Equinox. The hairs get really frisky. It’s springtime and they’re all excited. The hare, like Easter, that’s one of the symbols of Easter.
How do you divide your duties?
Barnes: Because it’s just us right now, we wear a lot of hats, but primarily I’m focused on the brewing side and the development of the brand, with my dad, who’s the brand guy. John is on the business side, but we’re both doing both jobs. John makes amazing beer. His favorite style right now is Kolsch, so he’s made some pretty crazy Kolsches.
Rockwell: Have you guys had much in the Kolsch arena?
Rockwell: I love them.
Barnes: He gets a little intense about it.
What’s the name of your Kolsch?
Rockwell: I haven’t brewed the same exact one over and over again, so they’ve been slightly different names…Ryesing Sun. It was Japan themed. It was a play on words. R-Y-E.
Barnes: To go back to the question about the names, we’re kind of trying to stick to French and German. It’s not really decided we’re going to stay specifically that way, we just want them to be nice names that distinguish what the style is. The other beer that we have is called Dampf Machine, which means Steam Engine in German. It’s a California common style of beer, so that’s kind of paying homage to the steam beer of California. That’s got a really cool label on it. It’s got these really big steampunk-ish riffs.
Rockwell: With that and our logo we have sort of kind of soft steampunk theme permeating the whole brand.
So Inland Empire Brewing is where you’re operating out of now?