Interview: Ryan Sweeney, a Leading Los Angeles Craft Beer Pro
Los Angeles has finally becoming a force in the craft beer movement, and one of the leading arbiters is undoubtedly Ryan Sweeney. The Palo Alto native has a pair of academic parents and majored in Film Studies at Pitzer before moving to L.A. proper. He was managing Match in North Hollywood before partnering on Verdugo Bar with Brandon Bradford, Kyle Bilowitz and Cherith Spicer in Glassell Park. Since that 2007 launch, Sweeney has become a certified Cicerone and now oversees the craft beer programs for four more L.A. establishments: The Surly Goat, Little Bear, The Blind Donkey and The Phoenix. On January 30, we met on the Verdugo Bar patio to discuss his hop-fueled perspectives.
Breweries must pitch you all the time. What are you looking for? What does a beer have to be if it’s going to end up on your taps?
When I first started, we wanted anything, and we were pretty much taking whatever they threw at us. Now I have breweries where I have relationships that I’ve done a lot of business with. They’ve proved themselves over time. The beers sell well. I feel like they’re beer’s good and I’m willing to take more chances with them than with people I don’t know or I’m not sure it’s going to be good.
You’re willing to take a chance?
Yeah, I’m willing to take chances because we have a history. Every once in awhile a brewery has a bad beer, but overall their reputation will slide right over that. A lot of beers right now, you don’t have the opportunity to try it first. You’ve got to go with your gut. If the beer’s terrible the first time, and the beer doesn’t sell well, or there’s something wrong with it, it makes me a little more hesitant to take it the next time. I’ll give it another shot, but if it still is bad, then you’re just starting to lose any way for me to bring it on again.
I always want to help out new people. I always want to give them a shot. It used to be support local, and now it’s support good local…With new breweries, there’s a grace period when they get their stuff together and you support them, and then after that, if they don’t get it together, you hope that they do.
Do new breweries ask for feedback, typically?
Sometimes they do, but even if they don’t, I tend to give feedback. And I try to be as constructive as possible. Nobody wants to be offended. This is an art to a lot of people, but it’s my job to pick out good beer and help correct. If things aren’t going in the right direction, I sit there and talk to customers, and if I can help someone along, that’s my job. That’s kind of looking at the greater good of Los Angeles beer culture that we’re all trying to grow. We need beer from breweries here, and just pretending that stuff is good just to be nice everyone isn’t helping the greater good. We’ve got to be able to say to people, “Hey, this isn’t that good.” Or, “You’re having problem with this.” Or, “I didn’t like your beer so much.” You also try to find the positives of every situation. And if you can’t find positives, you probably shouldn’t be buying that beer.
You say a lot of these brewers view their beer as art. Do you view craft beer as art?
I do. I think it’s an expression. That’s what I think was exciting to me. It’s like a chef’s take on something. I’m also a purist. I’m not so into beer cocktails. That’s not what it was supposed to be like, but to me, it’s really exciting to see a brewery I’ve heard or read about, see their take on a certain IPA.
Can beer ever be used in culinary ways?
Sure. I’m not opposed to cooking with it. I’m not opposed to pairing with it, and there are beer cocktails, but I’m personally not a big beer cocktail person, just because I want to try the beer as it is. But I don’t think that it shouldn’t be used like that, or people can’t do it, it’s just I want to try the beer how the brewer made it.
You’re now overseeing five beer programs around Los Angeles.
Five beer programs, some less than others. The Surly Goat and Verdugo, I watch everything, I make every decision…Little Bear, I give direction, I have parameters, but I really let Andrew [Kelley] do a lot of it. I kind of say, “This is what I want to see.” Or, “I want to see more of this brewery. I want to see more of this style. I want to balance out the menu.” Andrew makes most of the decisions on what beer he’s going to bring in. I have five beer programs, and ultimately, yes, I will make the decision, but it varies on how much control I am putting into it.
What are the biggest challenges of having five programs?
Remembering what’s on where. I get confused. A lot of times, I’m certain I have a beer, but it’s at the wrong location. It happens all the time, so I have to keep really good notes. The other thing is, I’m meticulous about my blow list and my inventory, and making sure the staff takes care of it the way that I do. That’s my number one pet peeve, when people don’t update the beer, so I know what’s there. In this way, I’m a control freak. I need to know that at any point, I can pull up my phone and look at my Dropbox and know exactly what beer I have…And you do get lackadaisical and you get overwhelmed. I’m doing all sorts of things and sometimes you forget to pay attention to the balance of the menu. That’s what is the first thing that starts slipping. The balance of the menu gets too heavy on too many brands from one brewery or too many IPAs and every once in awhile it goes too far and I have to reset my blow list.
As craft beer culture becomes more widespread in Los Angeles, is it becoming easier or harder to hire good people?
It really depends. There are some really talented people out there that know their beer, they know what they’re talking about, and they can articulate well. And then there are some people that think that they can, and I would rather start from scratch than try and fix a lot of wrongs. The problem right now with hiring people is, there is no set way of doing things across the board, and everyone who’s been in one beer program does things differently. “Our cutoff to smaller glasses is this.” Or, “We pour this by the pint.” There are people with more craft beer knowledge, which is great, but with that comes some baggage sometimes, where they don’t want to listen to how you’re implementing it…Ultimately, the good outweighs the bad. I love the fact that more people are savvy to beer, and there are more people that have a foundation to work with and understand what we’re talking about. I don’t have to be explaining from base, like, “This is a lager and this is an ale.”
You were an early adapter to the Cicerone program.
Do you feel like the mission of the Cicerone program is working, that it’s catching on?
There are pluses and minuses. When we first started doing it, there were a lot of bars that had a lot of beer, but no one there understood what the beers were. For me, [Cicerone] was a way for people to identify that the people at these places don’t just have access to good beer, but there’s someone there who knows what these beers are and can talk about it…Just because you have a Cicerone doesn’t mean that you know more than everyone else. There are a lot of people out here who don’t have Cicerones that know a ton of beer, and know probably more than me…It’s a good thing, I just don’t like how some people use it like they have some title attached to their name. It’s just that you like beer.
The program probably needs, to some extent, the prestige factor, just to gain traction.
True, it does need that to gain traction, and I’m not saying that’s wrong And you should be giving the people credit that have gone through the work and have gotten that title. You should definitely acknowledge that and they should be respected in that that they know what they’re talking about, but…just because you’re a Cicerone doesn’t validate everything you say. It says that you are knowledgeable and you know what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t say that if you like something, that it’s right. Beer ultimately is about a person’s taste.
Could you imagine brewing your own beer?