Building A Better Beer Bar

Beer Bar

Cold Beer Now is no longer good enough at leading craft beer bars.

There isn’t a magical formula that will ensure the success of a beer bar, but there are certainly several factors that can help the cause. If somebody built a beer bar from scratch in 2010, these are my recommendations, other than obvious moves, like scoring a killer location with a parade of foot traffic and red-hot bar staff. While the following references are primarily related to Los Angeles, the sentiments are universal.



Rotating beers should be a given at this point. A bar’s willingness to swap out their taps on a regular basis signals a level of commitment, interest and effort that more beer drinkers should expect and demand. If you’re not changing, you’re not improving. Also, beer is often a seasonal product, and that fact should be acknowledged on taps.


If you’re in a bar and find a punishigly sour beer like Ommegang Rouge in a pint glass, your stomach’s in for a long night. If a bartender serves you a pint of something like BrewDog Tokyo, an Imperial stout that packs 18% ABV, it might seem like an early Christmas present, but that’s irresponsible, especially in a driving city like Los Angeles. Just as important is pairing each beer with the appropriate vessel, which is no different from what sommeliers do with wine. Serving each beer in the right glass will present the beer’s aroma, carbonation and head in the ways that the brewery intended. Click Here for a Primer.


You don’t want a row of taps armed with eight barleywines, six double IPAs and five sours. Those aggressive beers will please beer geeks but turn off beginners. Instead, feature a variety of styles to avoid alienating customers. Of course there are good beers and bad beers within each category, but that’s another story.


Not every bar has a certified cicerone, beer’s equivalent to a sommelier. In Los Angeles, only Library Alehouse (Tom Kelley) and Verdugo Bar/The Surly Goat (Ryan Sweeney) have one handy. However, several other bars have dedicated beer pros on staff, and their expertise tends to filter down to other interested staffers. This ensures that if customers have questions, they’ll actually receive thoughtful, informative responses. Knowing what they’re pouring means you’ll be able to learn what you’re drinking, if you want to know.



Having knowledgeable staffs is a good start, but some bars have taken education to the next level, featuring structured programs.

For example, Tony’s Darts Away, Tony Yanow’s eco-friendly, beer-focused Burbank bar, introduced Tuesdays at Tony’s in July, with a different beer experience every week. In general, the 1st Tuesday of each month is a “Wildcard.” The 2nd Tuesday is “Flight Night,” with a local beer aficionado leading guests through a flight of beers. 3rd Tuesday is “Beer Education Night,’ with a different home brewer, sales rep, professional brewer or bar owner providing a themed lesson. 4th Tuesday is “Brewery Night,” with a different brewery bringing at least four of their kegs.

Although it’s not a beer bar, Eagle Rock Brewery does have a tasting room and some of the city’s most knowledgeable beer minds, led by co-founder Jeremy Raub. They have a near-monthly Beer Education Series focusing on themes like malts, IPAs and yeast and featuring qualified highly guest speakers.

In March, Blue Palms Brewhouse hosted a Flemish Sour Blending Seminar with Brouwerij Bockor brewmaster Sam Quartier. He was in town from Belgium to educate attendees about brewing and blending West Flemish sour beer. This unique tasting was a testament to the strength of the L.A. beer scene, but other large cities could support an event so specialized.

Not many people are actually going to brew their own beer, but that option is always available, and certain beer pros are here to help. For example, City Sip LA beer guru Alex Macy hosts a Home Brew Classes, and has even taken his class to Glendale City College. Skipp Shelley of the Maltose Falcons homebrew club has developed a similar series at The Surly Goat.


Amazing events that help to promote beer culture are commonplace during blockbuster blowouts like L.A. Beer Week and San Diego Beer Week, but it shouldn’t take a beer week to enjoy special events.

In the past year alone, dozens of brewmasters and brewery owners have visited L.A. bars for tastings and dinners, surfacing to interact with their most dedicated beer drinkers. Great examples include BrewDog Managing Director James Watt’s visit to The Surly Goat in March, when he poured rare beers like Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck. More recently, Library Alehouse featured a five-course beer-pairing dinner with Allagash Brewing owner Rob Tod and Supper Liberation Front chef Joshua Gil. Library Alehouse regularly hosts different beer-related events, including a Belgian Beer Dinner hosted by Larry James of Wine Warehouse and and a tasting of nine different single-hop beers from Mikkeller.

Themed beer festivals are also more commonplace. Lucky Baldwin’s regularly hosts a Belgian Beer Fest in Pasadena and Sierra Madre, and Naja’s Place gets customers into a hop frenzy at their annual IPA Fest.

You’ll also find some truly unique offerings. Every month, Verdugo Bar hosts a different Mobile Mash Up, featuring multiple food trucks swapping ingredients to cook dishes you won’t find anywhere else. In June, they teamed with Eagle Rock Brewery, as Frysmith, Lomo Arigato, Mandoline Grill, Dainty Cakes LA and The Buttermilk Truck cooked with their beer.



Pouring beers that very few other bars can get is a badge of honor. If you see Pliny the Younger on tap, that’s a telltale sign that you’re drinking in a serious beer bar. However, having an exclusive beer that no other bar can get is even cooler in some ways. For example, when The Surly Goat first opened, they poured EagleGoat Bock from Eagle Rock Brewery, which was only available at the West Hollywood bar. That isn’t currently available, but the Goat still features Speakeasy Public Enemy Pils, an exclusive pre-Prohibition Pilsner from the San Francisco brewery. At Elixir in San Francisco, H. Joseph Ehrmann pours Elixir Snake Oil IPA, brewed by Sudwerk in Davis.


At one point last year, it was possible to walk into Blue Palms Brewhouse and find a bottle of Isabelle Proximus – the rare 2007 sour brewed by Tomme Arthur, Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione, Allagash founder Rob Tod, Russian River owner Vinnie Cilurzo and Avery Brewing founder Adam Avery. At that moment, that was an experience that was probably only possible at Lost Abbey/Port Brewing. That’s pretty f’ing cool. In San Diego, at Toronado, a blackboard lists bottles like Hair of the Dog Cherry Adam From the Wood, and earlier this year, it was possible to visit The Surly Goat and buy a bottle of Black Tuesday, a powerhouse stout from The Bruery, at a fraction of the online cost, which in some cases topped $250. Give people bottles they can’t just buy at BevMo.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

I sense this article has been read by many in LA since sept of 2010 🙂 Great points, and very agreeable.

Thanks, Cambria. Your opinion means a lot.

Very well thought out, researched and written, Josh. I completely agree on the components discussed and points conveyed. Sean makes very valid notes as well, and the “audio-visual” component is indeed important to many of us who have pure quality-seeking interests, independent of perpetuating any irrelevant and inappropriate sensory distortion. The long-awaited arrival (arriving?) of local craft beer culture is being embraced and enjoyed by many of us. Now that our community’s trend-ticket number has been called, we are seeing the predictable sprouting of incompletely planned and incoherently executed establishments which hope to capitalize on this high-velocity vehicle with their quasi-craft beer lists and all the collateral flatterings that temporarily arrive with affiliation to this proud, historical, international community. A few years back, it was the “Eastern serenity” motif where failing enterprises would re-invent themselves with a pack of tea-lights and an oversized Buddha Statue at the doorway. Fortunately, if there’s any community that can sense illegitimacy in vision and commitment, we craft beer enthusiasts certainly tend to sniff out similar spoilage at the sub-atomic level. When all is said and done, we didn’t return to the places where the “Chi/Qi” wasn’t actually flowing, and the informed, self-advocating consumers will not offer loyalty to where the “Golden Nectar of the Gods” isn’t properly flowing either. Self-regulation is a majestic machine, and thought advancement and organization through articles like this lube those gears well. It’s a fortunate and exciting time for craft beer in LA, and your piece offers a solid snapshot of where we are, and what we take under consideration in moving forward. Sincere thanks to FoodGPS for serving us well with quality coverage and features, as well as steering as an awareness hub for SoCal craft beer culture. Cheers!

Gev and Sean, thanks for contributing to this discussion. One thing that I like about the craft beer community is that bar owners avoid things like pretentious design. Of course some bars are more pleasant to be at than others, which goes to things like lighting, music and the clientele.

All great points. I will only add two points that speak to me. Light and noise. I would like more of the former so that I can see what I am drinking and less of the latter so that I can talk about what I have in front of me.

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