Los Angeles is a city of diversity, and this reflects a lot in what we eat here, but even more so in what we drink. LA is also a city of dreamers, of folks that punch in every day at gigs to pay the bills, but spend every other waking minute pursuing their passions, their reasons for waking up in the morning and putting on a tie and combing their hair. Some folks are fortunate enough to be able to have multiple passions in their life, and an even smaller slice of those folks who consider beer-making or teaching as those passions. Then, we have Henry Nguyen, who, while pursuing his goal of becoming a university professor, discovered that he really digs beer too, and decided, “Hey, why not do both for a living?”
Henry, you have an interesting story for someone who owns and operates a brewery. You are actually a professor of Theological studies at a local University here in LA and in your free time, you run this full scale brewery in Torrance. How did this unlikely combination of passions come to be?
These days, it is more like I do the teaching in my free time. A few years back, I was in Scotland doing my PHD in New Testament and while in Scotland, we drank a lot of beer. Someone in the program introduced me to Belgian beer and it was like a light went on for me, and I proceeded to start drinking a lot of that. I had tried Belgian beer before, but never experienced it with the intentionality and depth that we did while in Scotland. This was back when in the states, your options for Belgian beers were somewhat limited, so this opened up an entire new world of beers for me. I wrapped up my PHD program and headed back to the states to look for a full time teaching job and the economy was not ideal, lots of schools closing, not a lot hiring, so I wound up with a few part time jobs at various schools in the LA area. All this time, I was doing a lot of homebrewing on the side, but I noticed that even more than before, I was becoming a real sucker for detail. From there I experimented with different methods of chilling, started reading textbooks, took some courses and really started to get serious about the process of making beer. Meanwhile, the economy wasn’t getting much better, so at one point my wife and I basically accepted that there weren’t any full time teaching jobs out there and started tossing the idea around of starting a business. After over a year of thinking and writing a business plan, then another year and a half of securing a space, getting all the permits and construction completed, we had ourselves a brewery.
Was the city of Torrance helpful in getting you up and running?
Yes, they have been. Also, because of the city’s zoning regulations, breweries are listed as a permitted use in a manufacturing area, which is usually not the case elsewhere. This helped us avoid the hearings and process that a lot of breweries in other cities have to go through in order to secure a space for brewing.
How long have you officially been open?
We brewed our first batch February 12th, and with the tasting room it has been officially open for only six weeks. Reception so far has been good, but as with any new business, some days are busier than others, but so far it has been a lot of fun.
The LA Beer scene over the past year and a half has really been taking off, especially here in the South Bay. What do you see in the future for the LA beer scene? Do you think that we can ever be able to create something similar to North County San Diego here?
I definitely think we will see more of a beer scene here in LA, as far as how it compares to San Diego, it would be nice to see LA find its own thing and not care about what is going on in other cities. Maybe we can develop our very own style, or emphasize a certain aspect of beer that no city has touched on before. Either way, it is very exciting what is going on now and we are looking forward to seeing what happens next.
Most Southern California breweries do the Pale Ale/ IPA focused approach to beer. Monkish does more of a traditional Belgian approach to what you do, and you use a lot of unconventional ingredients, elder flowers, rose hips, etc to flavor some of the beers. How did you ultimately come to decide on pursuing a more Belgian course of action?
I really admire and identify with the Belgian philosophy on brewing, how it is more about creativity, experience, and innovation as well as their interest in making beers that are digestible, that are meant to go well with food. I love food. My wife and I go out to eat as much as possible and love experiencing different flavor profiles, and I want to make beers that work well with different flavor profiles. Sometimes I will be making a beer and add an ingredient or spice because I think it will compliment a certain taste or bring the beer in a certain direction. Other times, I will imagine the beer first, then throughout the brewing process add ingredients based on what I think will bring it further towards the idea that I have in my head. Our Feminist beer was created with that approach. A while back I watched “The Stoning of Saraya M”, a movie about a woman who was accused of adultery who has the town turn on her and stone her to death. This is a true story, it happened just a few years ago. With my Theological background and interest in women’s studies, the film stirred something in me, and around that time I was also trying to come up with a new beer recipe. I realized that I wanted to make a beer that was strong, yet had a pink tinge, a very feminine touch to it, so what we ended up with is a Belgian Trippel with a lot of Hibiscus in it.
You currently have five beers on draft here in the tasting room. Can you tell me a little bit about them? Do you have a flagship beer or two yet?
We aren’t too interested in doing a flagship beer, but we do know that our Oblate is selling very well for our local accounts. We are considering making this our staple beer, but we’ll see what happens. Our current beers on tap are the Oblate, a traditional style Belgian Blonde Ale but made with elderflowers, the Crux, a Belgian single that is more of a traditional monk’s meal beer, Rosa’s Hips, a dubbel brewed with rose hips and The Feminist, a tripel that we made with a bunch of hibiscus. We’ve also made a red table ale that we are trying out.
I’ve seen your beers around town. Where are they pouring Monkish in the area?
We’re at Naja’s, Hot’s Kitchen, Select Beer Store and a few other places in the South Bay area.
What beers inspire you as a brewer? What are some of your favorites?
I really love the Belgians and the sours. If I were to walk into a bottle shop now, I’d probably pick up something from Jolly Pumpkin, they make a great lineup of styles. I love the Belgian Strongs and will never turn down a Flanders Red ale.
If you ever find yourself in the South Bay area, I highly recommend stopping by the Monkish tasting room and doing a flight. You can check them out on Facebook or Twitter, as well as their own site. If you are a fan of the Belgian style of brewing, or just curious about the growing LA beer scene, you’ll be glad you stopped by.