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Malibu’s got sun-drenched beaches, and West Hollywood’s got the cool kids. But Echo Park? This transitional L.A. ’hood is gaining a rep for serious beer.

By Mike Schulte

Echo Park has a long history of playing the vanguard. It was the proto-Hollywood of the silent film era and an early hotbed of political radicalism. The neighborhood of breakneck hills and lofty stairways is a music incubator, a magnet for artists and a mousetrap for hipsters. When the Dodgers brought professional baseball to the West Coast, they infamously carved a new home out of the old Latino neighborhood.

When it comes to indie music and asymmetrical haircuts, Echo Park is the tip of the spear. But in craft beer circles, it’s often the butt of the joke. A couple versions of iTunes ago, you’d be lucky to spot a Craftsman or Eagle Rock tap mushrooming among the Bass and Bud handles at old-line joints like The Short Stop on the mile-long nightlife stretch of Sunset Boulevard. Beer geeking in Echo Park was about as rewarding as reef snorkeling in the L.A. River.

Los Angeles has long withered in the shade of robust beer cultures in San Diego and Northern California, but with the late 2011 openings of craft beer basilica Mohawk Bend and the expertly curated bottle shop and tasting room Sunset Beer Co., Echo Park’s days as an ironic, PBR-swilling backwater have given way to a ripening craft beer scene.

The tide began turning in mid-2008, when dimly lit craft beer hideout Verdugo Bar officially opened in Glassell Park on the far bank of the L.A. River. Envious and thirsty, Echo Park hopheads were not long in the lurch; Eastside prime mover Mitchell Frank crossed the street from his popular Echo nightclub and transformed a dusty Ranchero bar called El Prado into a darkly sexy craft beer bar called El Prado. If El Prado were a girl, she would be a slinky, almond-eyed brunette, and there are plenty of those at the bar on any given night—along with a few Belgians and Germans, and usually a Telegraph tap and almost always a Green Flash one. It’s not uncommon to see patrons carting in armloads of vinyl to spin on the turntable behind the bar. Equally familiar is the sight of V-necked local dudes bolstering their courage with a 10.5%-ABV St. Bernardus Abt 12 before hitting on the Etsy-sexy bartender, who is likely to smile politely and suggest they downshift to a 7.9% North Coast Le Merle.

Around the time El Prado began pouring, lifelong beer fanatic Tony Yanow (who had already earned praise for Burbank beer bastion Tony’s Darts Away) decided to open a second craft hub in Echo Park. Frustrated by the lack of artisanal haunts in the neighborhood, Yanow leased an abandoned 100-year-old vaudeville theater on a desolate stretch of Sunset and began evicting the rats and pigeons that had claimed the long-shuttered eyesore. His plan was to occupy the front third of the cavernous space as a cozy pub serving pizza and salads. When Mohawk Bend finally opened, locals discovered a sweeping 250-seat thirst emporium and two-kitchen, vegan-friendly restaurant with a 72-tap wall that seems to follow the curvature of the earth toward the fireplace in the towering atrium. “It was a case of scope creep,” the lanky Yanow admits with a grin.

That expanded scope allows Yanow and his beer director Paige Reilly to indulge their curatorial vision to a degree not possible at Tony’s Darts Away. Sixty-five of Mohawk’s rotating taps are reserved for California beers, including Yanow’s own Point The Way IPA, flagship of his Atwater-based Golden Road Brewing. The well-balanced, hoppy ale was designed by brewmaster Jon Carpenter (late of Dogfish Head) with L.A.’s sprawl in mind, clocking in at a sessionable 5.2% ABV. Mohawk also showcases one out-of-state brewery per month with a launch event and social media promotion. Yanow and Reilly clearly believe that Echo Park is ready to skip a few grades in its beer education. Explains Reilly: “We want it to be normal for people to walk into a bar and see 70 taps of beer.”

Down the road at Sunset Beer Co., manager/beer curator Alex Macy sits down in the tasting area of his clubby shop—a kind of art gallery-meets-taproom. Macy, who began his career in the wine business, thinks that a troubled economy has contributed to the rising tide of craft beer, offering, “Fancy wine is often out of reach and beer isn’t. Five dollars for a pint or $15 for a glass of wine?” Macy, whose shop runs six taps and stocks 300 beers with the goal of expanding to 1,000, also points to an aging demographic of locals who have outgrown 2-a.m. whiskey shots with strangers, but still want a place to explore high-quality suds among friends. He adds that the density and character of the neighborhood have made it fertile ground for a craft beer movement to take root. “In L.A., it’s hard to hit five beer bars because it’s a 30-minute drive to get anywhere. In this area, everything’s pretty close.”

The neighborhood is soaking up its full-immersion craft baptism. In fact, it’s doing laps. Mohawk Bend is on a wait by 8 o’clock every night and blows through 120 kegs a week. Reilly says they often send waiting patrons across the street to City Sip, an oenophile hang where Macy once ran the beer program. Crowds routinely spill onto Sunset from Lot 1 Cafe, a tiny food and craft beer storefront that hosts local bands. The most ruthless indicator of change might be that favorite local dive The Gold Room—infamous for its four-dollar PBR and tequila shot special—has added beers like Arrogant Bastard and Racer 5 to its cooler. Up and down the block, taco trucks and danger dog carts soak up the overflow, and it’s Wednesday night.

The enthusiasm is sloshing over the edges of the neighborhood as well. 1642 Beer and Wine has brought a mellow, sophisticated vibe to the hazy border of Echo Park and Filipinotown. The space had been a notoriously rough dive called Lupita’s. Against the advice of friends and the protests of many locals, Elizabeth Fischbach transformed the troublesome dump with the lime green walls and nude murals into a relaxed craft beer and wine hall, filled with exposed brick and flickering candlelight. California brews like Stone Vertical Epic and Black Market Rye IPA peacefully coexist with the boutique wine list. On some nights, jazz combos or old-timey bands set up in a dimly lit corner and entertain patrons happy to escape the rollicking bar scene just up the street.

When I ask Yanow why Echo Park has suddenly embraced craft beer, he doesn’t hesitate. “If you do it right, this stuff sells itself,” he says. “We pour the best beer in the world in the perfect glassware and present it for six bucks. This is a luxury that everybody can afford.”

While Macy’s focus at Sunset Beer is currently on Californian and Belgian brews, he hasn’t forgotten Echo Park’s taste for classic workingman’s beer. “We’re going to have a nostalgia shelf,” he tells me. “We already have Old Milwaukee. I tried to order Olympia, but they were out.” At first, it seems that he might be kidding. After a pause, he adds in a reassuring tone, “But we’re not going to have PBR.”

WHERE TO DRINK: Tour Echo Park’s craft-beer hot spots.

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