Interview: Ryan Sweeney, a Leading Los Angeles Craft Beer Pro
Could you imagine brewing your own beer?
I have no interest. None. I remember going to Eagle Rock, saying I’d go for the brew day, and lifting up the grain. I was like, this is the most miserable job in the world. I don’t have the patience, and I’m more of a food critic than a chef. I like that side. People are always saying, “When are you going to start brewing beer?” No interest. I know what I’m good at, and I know where I find enjoyment, and I don’t see myself ever being a brewer. Would I help someone brew beer? Sure. I’d much rather drink theirs than actually brew mine. The way I also see it, in this industry, we need people doing all the different jobs. It doesn’t help if, “I love my job, now I also want to do your job.” No, I can do my job and you can do your job and we can complement each other. That works better than everyone trying to do everything.
As you have more and more responsibility, is it harder for you to learn?
No, I don’t think harder for me to learn. I have less time trying all the beers. Then again, I have more beers to try. I’m learning different aspects of this. Before I was a GM and glorified beer buyer and now I’ve transitioned to a bar owner. I’m the manager of all my GMs. Because of that, you’re learning a lot and you’re learning new aspects of the job and you’re making it up as you go. Is it all about beer, specifically? No, but you’re still learning.
You mentioned a trip to Kentucky to learn about bourbon and American whiskeys. So you’re digging deeper with other beverages?
Exactly, rather than just beer and focus on beer and loving beer, it’s more that I’m learning I love this culture and selling and alcohol in general. That reinforces getting my palate tuned to tasting cask strength liquor and bourbon only helps me for beer too. I can do everything, and that’s great. And learning more about liquor just broadens everything I know about bars and the liquor industry. Beer is obviously what I love, but it’s a segment in a bigger situation.
You’re known for having good beer, and people seek that out, but what’s more important, having good beer, or having a good environment to drink the beer?
They’re both important. I can’t say one is more important than the other. I’m not a big believer in ambiance and spending a bunch of money on ambiance, but I do believe that if you’re in some bright, all white cubicle, it’s not the right environment to drink. This is a social atmosphere, and that just feels sterile. I also feel like good beer brings the right people, that adds to the environment. It’s very connected. If you have great beer and very specialized beer, you’re going to get people who are looking for that beer. They’re going to have conversations with other people, which enhances the environment. So I think they’re kind of intertwined. I don’t think one’s more important than the other, but I’ll tell you, I’ll never do a huge, multi-million dollar buildout for anything. I don’t think it’s worth it. Ultimately we’re selling beer and selling liquor. I’m not selling ambiance.
Who are some of the other people in the craft beer community that you look to for advice, guidance or inspiration?
I have friends that I talk to a lot. Brian [Lenzo] at Blue Palms is someone I really like…Tomme Arthur, I talk to a lot…Those are people I definitely sit there and say, “What do you think about this kind of situation?” Clay [Harding] is another person where I’d say, “What’s going on with you? How do you deal with this situation?” Jeremy [Raub] at Eagle Rock, Ting [Su], that whole group at Eagle Rock, we have a lot of back forth.
With all the new breweries in L.A…I don’t know if motive is the right word…
Okay, I see where you’re going.
Craft beer has become kind of a trendy thing in Los Angeles and across the country…
I think what you’re getting at is, “What do you think, or how do you deal with people who don’t have the right intentions with craft beer,?” Or maybe they’re not the same ideas that I have. Is that kind of what you’re getting at?
You just asked the question I wish I had asked. Now you can answer the question.
Yes, we are seeing that, and there are people that are definitely taking advantage of it, but if you take a little time researching anything, because I’m one of those people who likes to know everything about everything – that’s why I’m going to Kentucky, that’s why I go to Belgium, that’s why I visit every brewery – I want to see how it’s done. It’s simple to start seeing the people, “This isn’t adding up completely.” And I just kind of do my best to stay a little bit away, and give a little distance. Not because they’re doing bad things, just because their views and my views aren’t the same, and this is something I’ve spent a lot of time working on, and I’m really passionate about the growth of craft beer and the craft beer community in Los Angeles as a whole…When I first got into this, so many people would say, “There’s this great void, the wasteland of Los Angeles,” and I don’t know why that was so offensive to me, but it was. I was dead set on making people feel that Los Angeles was very legitimate…In L.A., we’re hungry. We want more. The way I describe it, “We’re the sleeping giant.” We are so big and when we start getting motivated and moving in the right direction with craft beer, we’re going to be the most massive market…Now it’s great to see we’re a really respected market and L.A. is not considered a void. There are great beer bars. There are great breweries popping up, and it’s a market that moves a lot of beer. Breweries are spending time. They want to make sure they have a good presence in this market. So I spent all this time and am very passionate about making that, and then I see someone walk in and that’s not what they’re here for, I’m not telling them that they’re wrong, but I don’t feel the need to support them, because I don’t feel they’re supporting what I’m doing.
Have you seen an example when a new brewery has made beer that you enjoy but you disagree with their approach?
Would you not buy their beer as a result?
Typically not. This is a delicate conversation because I don’t want to piss anyone off. There are people I enjoy that we don’t see things eye to eye, and I won’t go as extreme as saying it’s like Republican vs. Democrat. I can be friends with people, but I don’t feel we’re doing the same thing, but I’m happy they’re doing their thing. Good for them.
How have your beer tastes changed over the years, in terms of styles and preferences?
When I first started, it was like beer geek all the way. Whatever was so rare, and no one could find, and only if it was the rarest of the rarest, and no one’s ever seen this beer before, those were the only beers that I enjoyed. Which wasn’t true. Now I love session beer. My first beer and my last beer any night is mostly a lager. I love good sessionable beer. If something’s special there, I’ll have maybe one or two, but I’m not filling my night with a bunch of 10% beers anymore. I just don’t need it. I’m more into nuanced beers and just well made beers. I like ones I haven’t had before because I definitely love the thrill of the chase, but 70%, 80% of my beers, whenever I go out, are going to be something I can session on and enjoy slowly. I don’t have to rush anything.
What if you were only given one more glass of beer?
If I had one more glass of beer, ever, in my life?! What would I have? That would be a very sad day when that happened. I have no idea. I don’t even know if I could condense it down. It’s not even a fair question to ask somebody. If I really had to have one more beer ever, I probably would get a really nice IPA or double IPA and would sit there and enjoy. For me, I like good lagers. They’re crisp, they’re nice, they’re clean, and you can drink a couple of them, but sometimes if I sit down and have three Plinys, I’m done. It’s rough, but you get more flavors out of those, and more flavors that I personally enjoy, but I think I would want a really nice, hoppy beer, not too alcoholic, so I could drink a big glass of it, but I hope that is not something that ever happens.