As California suffers its worst drought in living memory, the streets of downtown Los Angeles are suddenly awash with beer. Thanks to a fistful of new breweries cropping up within a bottle cap flick of the LA River, fermentation tanks may soon outnumber coffee roasters in the Arts District. All that beer has to go somewhere, and much of it is streaming west into the Financial District where bars are blooming from renovated Beaux-Arts facades.
Barrel Down, a 40-tap, self-styled American beer hall is the most ambitious and promising new watering hole in a very thirsty neighborhood. The lofty blond interior opens through tall glass accordion doors onto a sidewalk patio. It’s a day drinker’s dream, but nabbing a stool around the time of day that nearby skyscrapers release their cubicle hostages often proves a luckless endeavor.
Barrel Down’s 40 taps crisscross the country: You’ll find rarities like the punchy Wolf Creek Surfin’ Monks Tripel IPA or a summery witbier like RavenBeer Annabel Lee alongside more familiar names.
With the bar’s solid core list and 20 taps on rotation, general manager Andy Comegys and bar manager Jason Hamilton can afford to spotlight breweries with a deep bench. Hamilton pours me a hazy, oak-aged Rumble IPA from Great Divide. “Everyone knows the Yeti, so we brought this in,” he says. When the Rumble keg blows, there’s a barrel of Firestone Walker Stickee Monkee waiting patiently in the basement, he tells me.
The long slate bar and Pullman booths are a blur of patrons tossing back nuggets of pilsnerbattered cauliflower popcorn and plate-swapping fried chicken sandwiches for drunken mussels steeped in lemon juice and sour ale. The already solid menu will continue to expand to include more beer-infused dishes like AleSmith Nut Brown fish ‘n’ chips. Comegys explains, “The majority of our staff are beer fans, so the food and beer programs go hand in hand.” If picking a brew to match your eggplant and ricotta veggie melt causes brain lock, a Cicerone-certified beer server will rush to your aid with pairing suggestions.
Just two months into its run, Barrel Down has hatched an aggressive plan that includes tap takeovers, brewer’s dinners and reverse beer pairings (a quasi-omakase dinner wherein the customer picks a beer and the chef pairs it with a course). But Comegys’ and Hamilton’s most ambitious project involves transforming the cozy loft overlooking the bar into a classroom for Barrel Down Brew Days, a kind of Homebrew U. The monthly classes will take students through the brewing process from sanitation to kegging, culminating in a tasting of the finished product. Homebrewers can create beers on-site from scratch using Barrel Down’s gear, and guest brewers will drop in to divulge tricks of the trade.
While Hamilton envisions food and homebrew pairings in the bar down the line, he and Comegys are focused on building a community where homebrewers can learn from the pros and exchange ideas among themselves. “We’ve designed the space to be comfortable, like going over to your buddy’s basement,” he says. Hamilton is confident that LA’s beer scene will soon rival the colossus to the south.
“You can’t throw a stone without hitting a brew tank in San Diego,” he says. “With five breweries scheduled to open downtown, I think we’re on the same track.” Comegys agrees, “The landscape is going to be completely different in a couple years and it’s great to be a part of it.” If Barrel Down’s early success is a predictor, we may soon see banners unfurling from downtown lofts that read: If You Lived Here, You’d Be Homebrewing By Now.