Before John Rockwell ’04 and Kristofor “Kip” Barnes ’05 made beer together as Los Angeles Ale Works, they made music together in the Trojan Marching Band.
With a friendship developed on practice fields and over years of bus rides, they stayed close after graduation. As Rockwell got into commercial real estate, Barnes taught English in Japan, where he discovered sake and began a romance with fermented beverages. When Barnes returned to the United States, Rockwell, an avid home brewer, enticed Barnes to give the hobby a try. Soon the duo’s creative drive and ambition led them to develop their own recipes, enter contests and win medals with brews ranging from classic styles to more experimental ideas.
When the real estate market stalled in 2009, the idea of starting a brewery—the pipe dream of about every home brewer who’s boiled wort— began to occupy Rockwell’s thoughts. And Barnes, now practically obsessed with brewing himself, cajoled Rockwell to start the company. They’ve worked together methodically to grow the concept for their brand.
“As a trombone player,” says Barnes, who attended the USC School of Cinematic Arts on a band grant, “you can’t make good music without the other instruments surrounding you.”
The pair poured this spirit of collaboration into their beer. While holding down day jobs—Barnes in post-production information technology and Rockwell as project manager at a consulting firm—the pair collaborated on the business plan and brewed beer at home every chance they got.
Nearly every Saturday, Rockwell would arrive at Barnes’ backyard in the early morning hours to refne their recipes and techniques. Years of research, practice and planning culminated in a successful 2013 Kickstarter campaign to raise the capital to make beer on a commercial scale.
Without a brewing facility of their own, Los Angeles Ale Works brews everything from steam beer—a California original—to Bavarian-style roggenbier using rented space and equipment at Ohana Brewing Co.’s facility near downtown Los Angeles. The money raised with Kickstarter bought the equipment needed to co-exist in Ohana’s brewery while the pair pursues a brewery of their own.
They brew in small batches, and about three dozen bars in Los Angeles County offer the beers on draft periodically.
Rockwell says USC Marshall School of Business gave him “a solid business foundation” and the tools to become an entrepreneur, but it was the school’s community that he’s found most valuable.
“Last year,” he says, “I was able to go back to meet a professor of entrepreneurship during his ofce hours for fundraising advice.”
Craft beer is growing at a prodigious rate in Los Angeles, but the partners are wary of too much growth too fast. They envision a destination brewery in Los Angeles that captures its neighborhood’s feel. Barnes adds, “We’re very focused on community. [We want] to get big while staying small.”
What does getting big mean to the Los Angeles Ale Works founders? Rockwell explains their simple metric: “When our beer is pouring at Traddies, we’ll know we’ve made it.”