Ready to Pour

With a big warehouse to fill even bigger plans, the largest craft brewery in Los Angeles is getting ready to open their doors and tap their kegs in San Pedro.

“If you build it, they will come”

The most famous line from the 1989 classic American baseball film, Field of Dreams, is often misquoted. The prophetic whisper that Kevin Costner actually hears in the Iowan cornfields says, “If you build it, he will come,” a reference to the main character’s father, not “If you build it, they will come.” However, the popular philosophy behind the reference is still an idea often touted during the pursuit of one’s dreams. In the case of Brian Mercer and Dave Holop, partners in Brouwerij West (pronounced “brewery”), it was a philosophy they embraced during their relentless efforts to transform Port Warehouse No. 9 into the permanent address for their craft brewery.

Meet Mercer, a former photographer and a long-time local of San Pedro (he attended Leland elementary school with Councilman Joe Buscaino and is married to John Olguin’s niece) and you’ll meet a man who first became inspired by syrup. Yes, syrup not beer. Well, at first anyway. With a vision of repurposing the World War II-era warehouse located at 22nd St. and Miner, Mercer’s dream was brewing.

While visiting breweries on a trip to Belgium during 2006, Mercer discovered the secret of Belgium Dark Candi Syrup, the same secret responsible for the complexity of Belgian style beers.“The syrup was void of molasses yet dark with caramelization,” Mercer said. “I was desperate to get this flavor.” This dark syrup that was used by Trapist monks to create smooth, rich, and malty beers was the first taste of Mercer’s success. After procuring the secret ingredient, Mercer began marketing and distributing his product to American craft brewers. The syrup hit big among brewers, allowing them to create rich and authentic flavor profiles. The grocery store titan, Whole Foods Market, was even interested in carrying the product as an alternative sweetener. Inspired by fellow beer enthusiasts and craft brewers, Mercer started home brewing in his free time. Deciding to shelve a sweet deal with Whole Foods Market to focus on his own perfect pour, Mercer’s pastime of making Belgian-style ales soon became his profession. Nearly three years later in 2009 and without his own brewery, the stalwart home brewer launched his own brand, Brouwerij West.

As a gypsy brewer, Mercer was forced to bottle his beers at different production facilities around Northern California. Driving back and forth from San Jose, Mercer would lose time and money in the expensive pilgrimage for more pints. Mercer continued to create classic Belgian beers using base malts and imported noble hops, but brewing time constraints made production difficult and limited his ability to experiment with different flavor profiles. However, with Mercer’s high-quality brew and the craft beer market on the rise, the small-scale production was still largely profitable.

With bottles as unique on the outside as the contents inside, names like “Dog Ate my Homework”, an ale made famous for its blackberry flavors, or “Brilliant but Lazy”, the soured saison (a semi-dry farmhouse style ale), Brouwerij West was gaining respect and popularity among beer influencers and other brew-masters. Mastering the art of craft beer, Mercer also worked with 30 different artists to design bold and colorful labels avoiding the mass-marketed look and feel of other brands. With an inimitable lineup of acclaimed beers and an art-driven label, Brouwerij West was now being poured in 30 different states and six countries.

Brouwerij West’s unique labels bring arts and crafts together.

Then in 2012, Mercer met Holop at a Brouwerij West tasting event on the west side and the two quickly became friends. Holop, a UCLA Law graduate and former attorney, first became interested in beer while holding on to a friend’s home brew kit during a semester abroad and was excited to meet Mercer, the man behind the brew. As their friendship grew, Mercer brought on Holop as the second employee and partner as Director of Finance and Operation. Responsible for budgeting, financial planning, and overseeing legal issues, Holop was eager to lend his expertise to the growing operation

Warehouse of Dreams

With bottle productions increasing, Mercer and Holop knew the brewery needed a home with sufficient space for local and national distribution. Ready to lease a space with Holop in Belmont Shores, Mercer received a fortuitous phone call from Rachel Sindelar Waugh, Executive Director of CRAFTED. Waugh heard through the grapevine (in this case a real wine bar) from Michael Koth, owner of Off the Vine on 6th St, that some local brewers were looking for space. Spearheading the efforts of CRAFTED co-founders and the visionaries behind a large art gallery facility known as Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, Wayne Blank and Howard Robinson, Waugh was seeking a new anchor tenant for their warehouse neighbor. Despite previous failed plans to expand the arts mecca of CRAFTED to both warehouses in the complex, Waugh was confident that a brewery would be the right addition to activate the abandoned space.

“I called him up and said ‘I hear you’re thinking of building in Long Beach but I have this great warehouse for a brewery’,” excitedly recalls Waugh regarding the coincidence. Less than an hour later, Mercer arrived with a bottle of his famous brew and his black and white spotted Great Dane, Cloudy, to check out the space. Mercer fell in love with the building and the rest was San Pedro history. Well, sort of. Mercer and Holop loved the idea of having headquarters near the harbor, but Holop had legitimate concerns about moving into the port town. “San Pedro has its challenges”. If you go into an area where people have been successful there’s less risk, compared to an area that maybe isn’t as successful, you have to be committed”, admits Holop, who was responsible for finding willing investors. Holop had a point. The United States has more craft breweries than ever before totaling over 3,000 representing a $6.5 billion dollar industry, with California boasting 554 craft breweries alone (more than any other state in the nation) and with the explosion of formidable craft breweries in El Segundo and Torrance, Mercer and Holop could have chosen anywhere else.

“I believe in the site and I believe in the area and we want to be a part of the community,” smiles Holop. Two years later, Mercer and Holop remain committed to the project. Bringing on the award-winning Los Angeles based architect firm, Oonagh Ryan & Associates (ORA), led by Irish-born architect, Oonagh Ryan, Mercer and Holop wanted to keep the space functional and preserve the building’s historic appeal. Wanting to celebrate the building’s original design, Ryan and Mercer, shared the same vision for the neglected 27,000 sq. foot space. However, with no original plans and limited utilities, the project quickly became more challenging than anticipated.

Under Construction

“No gas and limited amperage changed the plans from what we wanted to do vs. what we are able to do”, explains Holop while motioning to the blue prints, which include a tasting room, event space, a restaurant, café, and market space. Although initial plans for Brouwerij West involve the culinary talent of Michelin-trained Chef Brendan Collins, Mercer and Holop have decided to postpone full-scale restaurant operations for Phase II or development when the taproom is open and thriving. With the flexible plans created by Ryan, Mercer and Holop can easily expand in the future.

“We took our time designing it because we looked at a lot of different options and optimized the space for their operations and future growth,” Ryan explained about the opening delays.

“We had to laser the whole building and then start from scratch.” Ryan said, admitting some of the warehouse’s obstacles since breaking ground. “With a building like that, with those structural codes, we’ve treated it like a circus tent, so we can’t hang or attach anything. However, it’s been worth it to preserve the building.” Keeping the building design clean, Ryan uses what she calls a “light design approach” focusing on three elements: wood, glass, and concrete.

“We wanted to keep the building natural. It’s a wood temple,” says Mercer while admiring the exposed rows of tresses in the sprawling warehouse. Standing around mounds of dirt from trenches while directing the construction crew, Mercer, points out the most crucial part of the almost completed project, the plumbing. Since any brewery is essentially a complicated plumbing project designed to move large volumes of liquid, Mercer and Ryan had to be meticulous during the planning and development. Now, with concrete ready to be poured and their brewing system arriving next month, Brouwerij West is finally in the home stretch.

Mercer chose pine paneling for the exterior of Port Warehouse No.9 to cut costs.

Brewing Energy Efficiency

In addition to preserving San Pedro’s past, Mercer and Holop look to the future with sustainable plans for the brewery by going 100% solar powered. The entire roof of the warehouse will be covered in solar panels generating enough power for the brewery, roughly the equivalent to power 160 homes for one year. Combining technology to reduce water waste and minimize energy consumption, Mercer wants his 15,000-barrel facility to be green.

“The beer industry wastes a lot of water,” explains Mercer describing the brewing system plans which use 120 year-old mashing methods to extract more flavor. The brewing equipment is designed around the Meura micro-mash filter that increases flavor stability while balancing malt sweetness with the hop bitterness. This unique technology engineered by the Belgians uses 30% less water than a traditional brew house. Mindful of the seriousness of California’s drought, Mercer explained that it only takes 4 liters of water to make 1 liter of their beer, compared to the usual 7 to 1 ratio. “It’s not as bad as almonds or cows,” Mercer laughed. Located only 100 feet from the breakwater in the harbor, Mercer and Holop have even looked into desalination as a water source. Becoming the “greenest” craft brewery in Southern California, Mercer and Holop are hopeful that more breweries will adapt more environmentally conscious techniques.

Economic Impact on San Pedro

Brouwerij West will also be the largest brewery in Los Angeles attracting thirsty tourists from all over the area. Acting as an economic catalyst for San Pedro, nearby businesses eagerly await the opening. “The west basin area should be one of the premier spots for people to get away to,” said Mark Pisano, partner at 22nd St Landing and long-time resident of San Pedro, located across 22nd St. “You have a beautiful marina and the addition of a brewery is going to be good. Nothing has happened in 3 years, so it’s exciting!”

Official community support has also been widespread with the LA15th and Councilman Joe Buscaino stating, “The opening of BrouwerijWest at CRAFTED at the Port of Los Angeles later this summer is another positive step in the revitalization of the LA Waterfront…it has tremendous potential to draw hundreds of thousands visitors to the Waterfront and spur more restaurants and other businesses to invest in San Pedro.”

Although there are many united efforts fighting for the economic revival of San Pedro, some skeptics still ask, “If we build it, will they come?” San Pedro’s struggling retail corridors off 6th st. or the long-awaited redevelopment of the port are no secret. However, in the case of Brouwerij West everyone wants to open the brewery’s doors. So, the real question should be “When it’s built, are we ready for all who will come?”

The San Pedro Chamber of Commerce is ready for ribbon-cutting ceremonies and firmly believes in the project. President and CEO of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce, Elaine Swanson, said, “Brouwerij West will enhance the overall synergy and redevelopment of our community and supports economic revitalization of downtown San Pedro as well as the waterfront.” Acting on their promise to drive tourism, The San Pedro Chamber of Commerce is teaming up with Brouwerij West and CRAFTED to host the new and reinvented “Taste of San Pedro” festival this coming August.

To ensure continued growth, Waugh from CRAFTED has also filed a Master Conditional Use Permit (MCUP) intended to provide zoning approval for Brouwerij West, outdoor entertainment, and other alcohol-related uses on the property. These plans would allow for a future wine shop or numerous eateries in one shared space, similar to the successful Grand Central Market downtown Los Angeles. Mercer, Holop and Waugh would also like to host more events including a summer concert series attracting more crowds from the area. Despite nearby resident concerns about noise issues with a follow-up zoning hearing scheduled in June, the MCUP would limit live outdoor entertainment to avoid disturbances. “Brouwerij West is the next finish line for LA Waterfront Development and is important to the port,” adds Waugh who is excited about increasing overall visibility for San Pedro.

“We really want to build a community here providing great food and beer in a beautiful location,” Mercer said. Despite unforeseen setbacks delaying their opening several times, Mercer and Holop are committed to the cause and here to stay in San Pedro. A 33-year signed lease is proof enough. With neighborhood-focused opening events, Mercer and Holop look forward to meeting locals while tapping their beers for the first time in their new harbor home. “We want people to enjoy the space as much as we do when we open,” smiles Holop.

This article was originally featured in San Pedro Today, June 2015.

(Brouwerij West is scheduled to open during Summer 2015. For more information, follow them on instagram @brouwerijwest)

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