Three years ago, Twitter was exploding, the economy was imploding and pop-ups were changing the way we ate. But now, several billion tweets, five Kogi trucks and one Great Recession later, the pop-up revolution is about to go liquid. This spring, four of L.A.’s most prominent craft beer advocates will launch a new cooperative enterprise, aptly dubbed ColLAboration, that will introduce a series of outdoor pop-up beer garden events that, if successful, could draft thousands into the local craft beer movement.
Tony Yanow, owner of Tony’s Darts Away and the soon-to-open Mohawk Bend, came up with the idea for ColLAboration last November after the successful conclusion of L.A.’s first Vegan Beer Festival, which he co-organized with Nic Adler, the owner of the world-famous Roxy, and quarrygirl, L.A.’s favorite vegan blogger. For the new pop-up series, Yanow is partnering with his friends and fellow bar owners Ryan Sweeney (Verdugo Bar, the Surly Goat), Brian Lenzo (Blue Palms Brewhouse) and Clay Harding (38° Ale House & Grill).
The group’s temporary beer gardens will feature a variety of rare and complex brews, including some barrel-aged beers from Russian River Brewing Company and the Lost Abbey, in a relaxed free-flowing atmosphere with communal seating, and food delivery provided by a handful of local restaurants. It all begins on Saturday, April 9, when the group debuts its concept at the corner of Magnolia and Parish in Burbank, just steps from Tony’s Darts Away, in celebration of the bar’s first anniversary. The remaining events will take place this summer in undisclosed Sunset Strip parking lots and various other locations throughout the city.
ColLAboration comes on the heels of what many may consider to be L.A.’s craft beer revolution, and it’s being hosted by some of the key players in the local movement.
But it wasn’t so long ago that Los Angeles was, so far as most everyone else in the country was concerned, a desert on the craft beer landscape. Circa 2008, relatively few Angelenos knew what the term even meant. Wine and spirits were the respectable libations of the day. Beer smacked of the working-class, and the words “beer bar” conjured the image of a dingy hovel populated with socially-awkward men and surly expats in perpetual need of a cold one. But then the recession hit, prompting some people to take another look — and another taste — until they saw it for what it was: a luxury they could afford to drink.
While the recession released craft beer from fine-beverage purgatory, Verdugo Bar began to attract a young, hip, sophisticated clientele with its modern vibe. Owners Ryan Sweeney and Brandon Bradford’s radical craft beer agenda provided them with a much-needed alternative to the inauthentic watering holes that had long dominated the bar scene in L.A. Suddenly, before anyone quite realized it, craft beer was cool.
It was no surprise that later that year, another craft beer bar arrived on the scene: Blue Palms Brewhouse. Brian Lenzo’s Hollywood beer-centric bar and restaurant is a different kind of establishment from Verdugo Bar, yet a highly competitive one, nonetheless. But instead of confronting each other as adversaries, Sweeney and Lenzo quickly became friends.
By the end of 2010, with L.A.’s craft beer revolution in full swing, Sweeney and Lenzo were no longer alone. The number of craft beer establishments in the metropolitan area multiplied, with gastropubs and beer bars opening regularly throughout the city. Sweeney and Bradford rode the wave, opening another bar called the Surly Goat in West Hollywood, and Lenzo made plans for a second Blue Palms Brewhouse location Downtown.
Standing out among the new arrivals were Tony Yanow, whose vegan-friendly beer bar was rated by DRAFT Magazine and RateBeer.com recently as among the best in the nation, and Clay Harding, whose 38° Ale House & Grill had carried the revolution to Alhambra. Impressed by Yanow and Harding’s passionate efforts, Sweeney and Lenzo extended them a warm welcome, and the four began looking for a way to work together. As they saw it, L.A.’s craft beer movement, despite — or perhaps because of — its phenomenal success, was at a critical juncture: It could transform Los Angeles into a shining light of vibrant beer culture, or it could be hijacked by profit-driven trend traffickers who’d sap its lifeblood and run it blithely into the ground.
When the four craft beer advocates met to discuss ways they might work together, Yanow, inspired by the growth of social-media-driven pop-up dining events, and frustrated by the general inability of beer festivals to reach a broader audience, presented the group with an idea: Together they could form a joint enterprise that, unlike most beer festivals, which run like charity events, would operate like a mobile catering company, organizing a series of outdoor beer garden events that would pop up at various locations throughout the summer.
The other guys at the table were floored. In one fell swoop, Yanow’s idea seemed to eliminate the cost and efficacy problems associated with craft beer festivals. No longer would the communal craft beer experience be relegated to frenzied, high-priced drunk-fests dominated by jostling mobs of over-insulated beer geeks struggling to get their money’s worth. With Yanow’s concept, which they collectively christened ColLAboration, they could finally bring craft beer out of the conference room, out of the convention center, out of the bar, and onto the streets.
“It isn’t a festival. It’s a place to have a beer, relax, and enjoy,” Yanow explained. “All you have to do is buy a [$10] glass, or bring an old one, and get in for free.”
“We’re bringing craft beer to the masses, outside, in a communal environment,” Sweeney said. “[ColLAboration] will showcase what a communal beer experience is, and what it should be, more than sitting in a bar ever could. Beer is best served in that kind of environment.”
Harding agreed: “It will attract everyone. No one’s going to feel like they don’t belong in that style of bar. They’ll be attracted because of the level of professionalism and service, not because of the actual location.”
After the initial event, ColLAboration will take a brief hiatus to assess its performance and to ready itself for a four-week craft beer invasion of the Sunset Strip in July. Like the first event in April, the four July events will pop up in the early afternoon and break down in the evening.
“To be on the Sunset Strip, it’s like we’ve finally made it, in a way,” Sweeney said. “It’s just such an iconic area.”
The decision to do the Sunset Strip is due in large part to the involvement of Nic Adler, owner of the Roxy. “He’s the one who came to us,” Yanow said.
“The Vegan Beer Festival was a turning point for [the Roxy],” Adler said. “Before that, we dabbled in [craft beer], but we weren’t believers. We were looking at brands, but not actually tasting them for ourselves. The beer festival actually made us taste the beers.”
Since November, Adler has moved to incorporate craft beer into the Roxy’s regular beer lineup. And at On the Rox, the intimate bar and music venue above the Roxy Theatre, craft beer is now the only thing on tap.
But for Adler, the moves to bring craft beer to the Roxy, and reach out to ColLAboration, weren’t isolated decisions. Three years ago, he had a social-media-inspired epiphany that caused him to rethink the way his business engaged with the community, dealt with competitors and treated its customers. And after he started to successfully remake the Roxy’s image, he went to work on the rest of the Strip, leading a movement to restore a sense of community to the iconic corridor.
“The Strip was about walking when I was a kid,” he said. “Everything was about walking, talking and community. Somewhere along the line, we lost touch with that. And now we’re starting to get it back.”
ColLAboration events will be spread out throughout the summer, popping-up at different outdoor locations and engaging with local businesses.
Yanow ultimately sees the events on the Strip as an opportunity to open the craft beer movement to more people.
“To me, that’s what it’s all about.”