The area surrounding the mile-long stretch of Wilshire between Western and Vermont has changed a lot over the years. Prior to World War II, it was the center of posh life in Los Angeles. But by 1970, that luster had all but dissipated, as residents and businesses bled into the suburbs, leaving the grand hotels and luxurious apartments to molder.
That is until thousands of new immigrants from East Asia arrived to breathe new life into the dying district, transforming historic Wilshire Center into modern Koreatown.
Jimmy Han’s parents were among those immigrants. They arrived from Seoul during the Carter Administration, reinvented themselves as real estate entrepreneurs, and helped make Koreatown what it is today.
After graduating from college, Jimmy happily joined the family business. But as the recession began to affect the real estate market, Han thought about how he might marry his real estate resources with his passion for craft beer to create a new business opportunity. So when his tenant at 532 S Western Ave. moved out a few months ago, Han moved in, converting the defunct cafe into Beer Belly, a new craft beer bar and restaurant slated to open in early 2011.
Han and I discussed his plans over a round of Avery Brewing Company’s Old Jubilation Ale — an 8% ABV Winter Warmer — at Neil Kwon’s Biergarten. When Kwon, himself the son of Korean immigrants, opened Biergarten earlier this year, he took many by surprise; a Korean bar serving fusion cuisine was nothing new, but a Korean bar serving craft beer? And with a German theme? Now that was unexpected. Throughout most of its history, the Republic of Korea has been notoriously inhospitable to craft beer, favoring only a handful of industrially-produced national lagers — a fact reflected throughout Koreatown.
When I asked Han his thoughts on the recent rise of craft beer in Korea, he confessed he knew nothing about it. When Han last visited Korea, it was 1988. He was only 8 years old, and craft beer production was illegal. It wasn’t until 2002 that the country’s ban on craft beer production was finally lifted. But even today, craft beer producers in Korea are not allowed to bottle, can, or keg their beer; all drinking must take place at the brewery itself — a restriction that has fueled the recent proliferation of craft brewpubs in the nation’s capital.
Han wants to spread that new-found enthusiasm for craft beer locally. “I’m an L.A. boy,” he says. And his plan for Beer Belly reflects that. Unlike Biergarten, where the beer list focuses on German and Belgian brews, Beer Belly will be 100% local.
“My plan is to serve California beer,” Han said. “And maybe only beer from Southern California.”
With the richness of our local beer culture — a culture that continues to grow and mature — it won’t be surprising to see more L.A. craft beer bars start to follow Han’s lead.