Bruin Brews


By Delan Bruce, Photos by Josh Telles

Published Jul 1, 2019 8:00 AM

From South El Monte to South Korea, Bruins are making beer their business. These five UCLA alumni are redefining the craft beer industry in Southern California and beyond.

Corissa Hernández stands at the entrance of Xelas in Boyle Heights.

You'll find people in the Bruin community with surprising ties to the beer world. For example, Bruin football kicker J.J. Molson is an eighth-generation descendant of the first John Molson, founder of the famous Montreal, Canada, brewery. Jack White ’90, founder of the billion-dollar enterprise that is Ballast Point Brewing Company, attended UCLA, where he and his roommate began homebrewing in their apartment. And Dan Kurzrock ’12 is co-founder of ReGrained, which takes the cereal-like byproduct of the brewing process and turns it into the company’s patented SuperGrain+ flour.

Against this backdrop of water, barley and hops, these five entrepreneurs’ up-and-coming beer businesses are making an impact on their local craft beer scenes and the communities that support them.

Soul of a Neighborhood

Hernández pours Cervecería de Colima Páramo.

Corissa Hernández M.Ed. ’06 has quietly been building a craft beer bar empire in Los Angeles, starting with Craft Beer Cellar Eagle Rock in 2015. The aptly named Empire Tavern in Burbank was next, followed by the 2018 opening of House of Xelas in Boyle Heights. House of Xelas is a dream project for Hernández, who calls the neighborhood her “heart and soul.” The name comes from chelas, the Mexican slang word for beer, but the “X” was incorporated to give it a modern, Nahuatl-inspired twist. Hernández says, “I’m a very proud child of immigrant parents. I learned hard work and drive. My parents worked a lot, so my grandmother was like a second mom. And growing up with her, I learned a lot of very beautiful traditions in Mexican culture.”

When Hernández’ grandparents left Mexico with their seven children, they came to the L.A. area and eventually found a welcoming community in Boyle Heights. So although Hernández herself was raised between La Puente and Chino Hills, she has always wanted to return and give back to her family’s spiritual home in the U.S. “I always said, ‘If I ever can open a business, I want it to be in Boyle Heights’ — something to give back as a thank you for the opportunity to start our family in the United States,” she says.

In juggling the three beer businesses, Hernández is quick to point to the members of her team who make her success possible — especially her husband and co-owner in all three enterprises, Gabriel Paredes. After four years as bar owners, Hernández says, the couple was confident and ready to make this venture that much more personal. With House of Xelas, Hernández and Paredes present artisanal beers from Mexican mom-and-pop breweries in a fun atmosphere. Says Hernández: “This community, unfortunately, has suffered from alcoholism, and I think that it’s really just big corporations being irresponsible — ‘Here is some really cheap beer; get drunk’ — whereas we’re presenting it in a different light: ‘Here’s some really cool, crafted beer that needs to be respected, but also appreciated.’”

House of Xelas, Hernández says, is who they are. “We combined the urban element with Mexican tradition, and I feel like it really validated the people in the neighborhood. Like, they walk in here and say, ‘This is me.’”

Where People Come Together

Knapp stands in front of Common Space’s mural by Priscilla Witte, featuring Joe Bruin.

Brent Knapp ’05 grew up watching things being built, accompanying his father to construction sites. Watching his father, he saw firsthand both the amount of work and the amount of independence that come with running one’s own business. While attending UCLA, Knapp worked for his dad during spring breaks and summers and became fascinated by “watching a project go from a dirt lot to a house or an apartment building that you hand [over] to a tenant or an owner.”

To break ground on his own entrepreneurial project, Common Space Brewery, Knapp searched for more than a year for the right site. He found it in the city of Hawthorne, where his father had grown up. After finishing construction and bringing in loads of shiny new brewing equipment, Knapp opened Common Space to the public on March 1, 2018. Hawthorne’s mayor presented Knapp and his partners with the key to the city at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, nearly three years after the first conversation they’d had about opening a brewery.

Knapp with hops in his hand.

Knapp remembers meeting up with old friend and UCLA fraternity brother Ryan Filippini ’06 in the summer of 2015, where they realized they had both become big fans of craft beer. In fact, Filippini was working in the industry at the time, selling brewing, winemaking and distilling equipment in Northern California. Seeing an opportunity in L.A.’s craft beer market, Filippini pitched the idea of opening a brewery to Knapp, who was working in finance. Knapp was interested right away. This venture could quench his longtime desire to open his own business and to build something from the ground up.

Knapp is excited about Common Space being part of a growing craft beer scene. Speaking about breweries in Hawthorne, Inglewood and El Segundo, he says there are “eight or nine in this area, and 11 in Torrance. Torrance has definitely blown up, and that’s its own scene. We’re part of a little bit different scene, this LAX corridor. But it’s come a long way.”

Knapp and Filippini’s initial conversations were focused on many of the things that Common Space would eventually deliver. They spoke of the need for a big outdoor space, akin to a Munich-style beer garden; the desire to be a destination where different people can come together; and the aspiration to use the business as a platform to make lives better. Knapp mentions philanthropic efforts in partnership with PATH (People Assisting The Homeless), Team Rubicon and the L.A. Food Bank as part of fulfilling the promise of the company’s motto: Great beer gives back. As fans of John Wooden, Filippini and Knapp often quote Coach when talking about the culture of Common Space: “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”

Three of Common Space’s trademark brews.

A Beer That Crossed a Border

Bryan Do at the brewery in Seoul.

Bryan Do’s business card reads “Chief Beer Taster, The Hand and Malt Brewing Company.” As you’d imagine, many are envious of his title. He’s also the founder of the company, which was chosen the best craft brewery in South Korea three years running, from 2014 to 2017.

Chief Beer Taster isn’t the only fun job Do has had since graduating from UCLA in 1997 and subsequently moving to South Korea. He’s been an anchor for South Korea’s only English news station, a game show host for a popular quiz show for high school students and a key man for nearly a decade in Microsoft Korea’s consumer division — he launched Xbox in the country.

It was after a UCLA rowing meet that Do had his first memorable encounter with craft beer at a pub. That planted the seed for a homebrewing hobby he took with him to South Korea, where he became part of the homebrewing community before eventually deciding to make it a business in 2013. “I decided to quit Microsoft and sold a bunch of my shares, cashed in my chips and started a brewery,” he says.

As rules governing beer sales in South Korea relaxed in 2014, Hand and Malt was allowed to distribute outside their brewpub and around the entire country. Growing quickly over the next three accolade-laden years, Do realized the business needed investment to build an even bigger brewery. In stepped Anheuser-Busch. A partnership was solidified in 2018, and as a result, a new Hand and Malt brewery is launching soon. Before that, a taproom in central Seoul will arrive on the scene. Collaborations with California breweries Stone Brewing Company and Ballast Point Brewing Company have also come to fruition, in the form of a dessert ale with Stone and, more recently, a five-tea ale with Ballast Point.

In both cases, Do and his head brewers brought Korean ingredients (80 pounds of dried persimmons for the dessert ale) and flavors to the California breweries. Experimentation with Korean flavors has been important to Hand and Malt’s success. Some creative infusions of local Korean ingredients have included sour beer made from kimchi, perilla leaves used instead of hops and traditional Korean corn syrup used in place of Belgian Candi sugar. In terms of popularity, Hand and Malt’s mocha stout, award-winning session IPA and ciders sell best.

But one of Do’s proudest moments in brewing came with the idea of a Unity beer. Do wanted to make the beer for his father, who fled from his home in North Korea during the war and has never been able to return. Although laws passed recently forbid South Korean businesses from using ingredients from north of the border, Do found a clever loophole to create a beer that truly unites North and South. Mount Paektu straddles the Chinese–North Korean border, so Hand and Malt brought in water from the Chinese side of the mountain to circumvent the law. The Unity beer was a huge success, selling out the day it launched. Do saw his father cry for the first time, tasting the beer his son had made for him.

At the Center of a Community

In 2007, Dave Holop J.D. ’11 moved from New York to Los Angeles and got his first taste of the nascent craft beer scene in the city. Holop began patronizing Father’s Office in Santa Monica, and he learned more there as his love for craft beer grew. Then a friend of Holop’s at UCLA Law took a semester-long internship in Washington, D.C., and left his homebrewing kit to Holop — who then became more and more involved in his hobby and the world of beer.

Holop pours a beer from the tap at Brouwerij West in San Pedro.

At a 2013 L.A. Beer Week event in Westwood, Holop came across Brouwerij West (brouwerij is the Dutch word for brewery, and it’s pronounced more or less the same as the English word) for the first time and met the company’s founder and his current business partner, Brian Mercer. Holop admired what Mercer was doing with Brouwerij West and told him, “Hey, if you ever need any legal or financial advice, I used to work in finance before law school, so let me know.”

At the time, Mercer didn’t have his own brewery; he was using space at other breweries to make his product. As he grew more involved in helping Mercer find a home for Brouwerij West, Holop transitioned to part-time work at the law firm before eventually leaving to work full-time with Mercer on their joint project in 2015.

The two opened Brouwerij West in Mercer’s hometown of San Pedro the following year, in a former Port of Los Angeles warehouse built by the U.S. Navy during World War II. Their 26,000 square feet includes a sizable tasting room and a 17,000-square-foot outdoor courtyard and beer garden that can serve as a sort of community center.

Before being contacted about the port warehouse location’s availability, Holop had never been to San Pedro. But establishing the brewery in the port city looks like a gamble that’s paying off. Holop says, “The community here has been great. The people who live here have been our patrons, and the local officials have all been really great. San Pedro is a little off the map in terms of the neighborhoods people think of in L.A., [but] it’s got its own unique history and a tight-knit community. It’s an old port town. It’s been cool.”

Holop overseeing the brewing process.

Hard-core craft beer fans, as well as families, have flocked to Brouwerij West to see what Holop and Mercer have to offer in their tasting room. The brewery was built on Belgian-style ales — hence the name — but now its bestsellers are a mix, reflecting the diverse tastes of the beer drinkers the brewery attracts. There’s Dog Ate My Homework, a blackberry saison; Popfuji, a refreshing unfiltered pilsner; and IPAs such as Picnic Lightning and Supercollider.

Despite a crowded market, with around 9,000 craft breweries nationwide — 1,000 of those in California — Holop speaks about the way those in the local craft beer industry help one another. “It’s amazing how willing people in the community are to share information and work together. It’s gotten much larger, but even so, everyone is pretty friendly. And everyone’s kind of competing against the big guys to some degree, so it’s like we’re all on one team.”

The Right Chemistry

Benitez in the cold room.

Diego Benitez M.B.A. ’19 started Progress Brewing in 2013 with fellow chemist and UCLA alum Kevin Ogilby ’11 in the small San Gabriel Valley city of South El Monte. Six years later, Benitez is still trying to learn all he can to better his business. He just graduated in June from UCLA Anderson.

Benitez says, “The knowledge and experience that I’ve gained going through the M.B.A. program has given me not only the quantitative skills, but also the management frameworks to — instead of basing decision-making on what I would call instinct — justify why one decision’s better than another.”

But even before Benitez embarked on his M.B.A. journey, his instincts were pretty well honed. His parents were entrepreneurs, as were both sets of grandparents, so the talk that swirled around him at the dinner table during his childhood was about solving the problems encountered running a business day to day. Sometimes solutions to those problems involve becoming a contractor so you can make your own repairs, as Benitez has.

Benitez’s parents ran a construction window façade business, working on lots of buildings in several Mexican cities and a few in the U.S., usually in places with high corrosion. Benitez’s father is a chemical engineer who developed a method to help aluminum prevent corrosion in buildings. Benitez himself knew since the age of 10 that pure chemistry was his calling. Born in Mexico City, he spent time there before traveling through Europe—usually around Catalunya, Spain, where his father’s family is from, or Treviso, Italy, home to his mother’s family. His cosmopolitan background shows: Benitez speaks seven languages fluently.

Benitez mentions working on an opportunity to brew beer in Spain. But, in fact, he started out focused more on wine, even completing a winemaking certificate program at UC Davis. In the end, he figured the amount of capital needed and the risk involved in opening a wine bar were both much higher than with opening a brewery.

Benitez’s previous endeavors include Amicrobe, Inc., a medical device and pharmaceutical company he co-founded, and Bruin Biometrics, which he co-founded in 2009 with his financial mentor and fellow Bruin Michael Flesch ’70, J.D. ’73.

So how did he end up in brewing? Benitez remembers having a hard time finding the Belgian beers he loved in Los Angeles. So he started homebrewing the styles he wanted to drink. Watching craft beer take off in San Diego gave Benitez and Ogilby the impetus to start putting their chemistry skills to work on their own brewing business.

Progress Brewing caters to a group largely ignored by the craft beer industry — the Hispanic market. Benitez says, “You won’t find the trendiest milkshake beer, but we’ve made our blonde ale maybe close to 100 times, so we’ve learned how to make it better. And we’ve learned from our customers, also, because maybe the people on one side of Los Angeles don’t appreciate things exactly the same as those in South El Monte, the people whom we serve.”



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