October 03, 2017

Photo Essay: A 1950s Time Capsule in LA's Oldest Operating Brewery

There are so many places that catch my eye as I'm driving through Southern California—and I wonder, "How do I get in there?"

Usually, I do a little research, send a few emails, and then wait. I've been in LA long enough to know how patience can pay off when it comes to getting into the places that have piqued my curiosity.

Fortunately, with only a couple of days to spare, I found out about an open house event happening on my birthday at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in the Valley off the 405.

It was the perfect way to celebrate the afternoon (after having monkeyed around in the morning at an animal sanctuary)—and not just because I've been taking brewery tours since 2005 on a business trip to Milwaukee.

It wasn't even just because it was the site of the former Busch Gardens amusement park, which  operated from 1966 to 1979 and included free beer, exotic bird shows, and a brewery tour via monorail.

And although the LA location of Anheuser-Busch has been continuously in operation since 1954, it's conducted no public tours since it closed Busch Gardens in 1979 to make way for a brewery expansion.

But even still, that didn't completely make getting into the Anheuser-Busch facility such a birthday treat—but I wouldn't figure out the remaining reason until my own, long-awaited tour was well underway.

With all of the craft breweries that have opened up in the Southland over the last half-dozen years, it can be easy to forget that LA has been a major market for big-time, corporate beer—and that Budweiser is more deeply woven into the fabric of LA history than, say, Golden Road, the "local" craft brewery it bought in 2015.

It uses tap water from the LADWP, which it filters via reverse osmosis and UV light in its own on-site filtration plant.

It recycles its spent grains at local dairy farms by turning malt into food for milk cows (a practice the company has been doing since the turn of the last century).

So, why doesn't Budweiser taste like Golden Road? Well, some of it has to do with the malted barley—or the fact that Bud contains more than one grain. That is, it also contains rice.

As well, it's "beechwood aged," a process that doesn't give it a barrel-aged flavor but rather increases the surface area for contact between the yeast and beer. Beechwood doesn't lend any flavor or aroma to the beer—rather, it creates a smoother finish and takes the skunkiness out of it.

Some folks might say that that makes a Bud taste bland. Budweiser's brewmasters would call that "crisp," "delicate," or, at worst, "mild."

Even though the recipe for Budweiser is the same throughout the entire world—and the goal is to make a bottle in Germany taste the same as one in Glendale—the local brewmasters come together for a tasting ritual every day at 3 p.m.

Sometimes they taste the water, other times the grain, and still others the finished beer. It's more for quality control than anything else, and it's probably superfluous, but these brewers take their jobs—and the company-wide legacy—really seriously.

They swirl their plastic cups, hold them up to the light to examine their golden contents, nose the beer first, and take a sip and then another sip. It's not exactly what you see the average guy doing at a Dodgers game.

On our tour, our guide was rattling off the various facts and figures that you get at a brewery tour when she asked us, "What's the biggest industry in LA?" It was a trick question, because the real answer is manufacturing (and then shipping), but what she meant was entertainment.

It was her way of segueing into the topic of which films and TV shows had been filmed there—from the recent remakes of Star Trek and Get Smart to various crime dramas that need long, industrial-looking hallways and rooms that look like laboratories.

And then she dropped the bomb—the thing that absolutely made my birthday.

It was a tidbit of information that unexpectedly brought me right back to Milwaukee—but not the Miller brewery I'd toured over a decade ago.

Because when I walked into its cavernous bottling plant...

...past forklifts and punch-opated time clocks... turns out that I'd stepped through a portal that led me to the Shotz Brewery...

...and was standing in the shadows of television's most famous bottle-capping brewery girls of post-war Americana, Laverne & Shirley.

As American Graffiti was released in 1973 and Grease in 1978, and Happy Days aired from 1974 to '84, my childhood was shaped by 1950s culture as much as by the 1970s and '80s.

Maybe even more so, as I always felt I was born at the wrong time.

But the good thing about living in LA is that you can straddle the lines between generations and between geographies. You can drive 30 minutes to 1950s Milwaukee, without aid of a time machine.

Time and space bend and ripple here—seemingly more than elsewhere, where they're happening as well, but imperceptibly so.

In LA, you just have to recognize a wormhole when you see it.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Golden Road Brewing Tour
Photo Essay: Angel City Brewery & The Legacy of Bridge-Building

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