Clay Harding grew up surrounded by craft beer. His stepfather, Dennis Hartman, co-owned Crown City Brewery in Pasadena. However, Harding charted his own path, managing restaurants in The South before returning home to the San Gabriel Valley and ultimately partnering with Chuck Fata, Mike Fata, and Brian Sugita on 38 Degrees in Alhambra in 2009. He first stepped out from Behind The Taps on Food GPS in 2010. Since then, Harding co-founded the craft beer pop-up, CoLAlaboration, which is currently hibernating, and has become one of the leading beer tastemakers in Los Angeles. On February 14, we met at 38 Degrees and Harding shared hop-fueled insights.
Was it a given that you would work with beer for a living, or did you consider other career paths?
I was considering anything growing up. As a young boy, I had visions of going in the Navy, because I had so many folks in my family, for generations, that had been in all kinds of Armed Forces, especially the Navy. I looked up to them a lot, and up until about middle school, I’d say, “Yeah, Navy’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be great.” That’s about the time when I started working professionally in a kitchen, at 13.
Where was that?
Village Pizzeria in Sierra Madre…They’ve changed locations…That was my first professional restaurant job. Obviously I grew up from about the time I was 9, in a restaurant environment, at Crown City Brewery, and although I would play around there during events and sell pretzels and help servers with beer and such, I was very excited to go work by myself, even as a youngster. By the time I was in high school, it was just something I wanted to do. Not that I didn’t want to work for my step-father, Dennis Hartman, but it was just something I wanted to do myself, and I’ve worked in the restaurant industry ever since.
Who would you consider some of your primary mentors when it comes to craft beer?
Definitely, #1, Dennis Hartman, my dad, just because the introduction was the best ever. The excitement in his own restaurant and watching them brew beer and the people enjoy the whole environment of having food and bringing friends together. It was like a “Cheers” like atmosphere. That’s what I grew up with. That’s what I saw. That’s what beer meant to me before I could drink it, and by the time I was 16, I was bottling beer for Crown City Brewery in back, joining the brew team, and I probably snuck a couple more beers than I bottled in that time period. I wasn’t the best bottler.
Was your first taste of beer Crown City beer?
No. I think my first taste of beer was a Busch beer down at Lake Hartwell one summer.
What does a beer have to be if it’s going to end up on your taps at 38 Degrees?
#1, it’s got to be a very high quality beer. #2, it’s got to fit into some kind of profile of where it’s going to end up on my line-up… The most featured beers right now are fresh ales and hoppy ales and I take deep consideration that they have the priority to go on my list first…It’s all about quality. There’s nothing else to go off of. The only other thing is, I live and breathe in this beautiful community of craft beer people and they’re all around me all the time. We hang out all the time. These friends are definitely influential as far as how I’m going to receive beer. A lot of them are going to have beer in here.
You’ve become known for your beer flights. Not every bar does that. What are some keys to a great beer flight?
#1, the whole point was just to have a really cool introduction to experimenting with beer, and not being overwhelmed by a 200-bottle list or 38 different craft beers that are so many different styles that you might not even recognize the style. You might not recognize the brand name, but I wanted to do that from the day we opened.
We do a lot of style flights, whether I’m doing a stout flight, and that’s a great representation of what stouts are, or where they’ve gone to, or we’ll just stick to standard style flights, do American-style flights. Something that comes on to the menu a lot of times will be Clay’s Flight. Usually, across the board, is like a night out with me, where I start out with something really dry, maybe a classic Belgian saison, and move through a quick Brun and into an American hoppy ale, into a very bitter Imperial stout, to generalize the situation. I find that people order those all the time. And we rotate those flights as we rotate the draft list, because we have it and it’s so much fun for me.
What’s the most recent flight you came with and what was your approach?