Unity. Now more than ever. LA brewers have been getting together and brewing a collaboration beer called “Unity” for years. The beer is meant to express the deep sense of artistry, innovation, and passion for brewing great beer that all of these small, independently owned breweries share. But moreover, it is meant to confirm the camaraderie and commitment to community that small brewers hold as ideals and moral principles.
With AB InBev’s recent dagger-to-the-heart acquisition of beer-universally admired Wicked Weed, the polarization between small independent breweries and “Big Beer” has been exacerbated to the point where it has endangered the very term “craft beer.” Craft used to be as simple as “how good is the beer in the glass.” But using their insidious, now borderline nefarious tactics, Big Beer has obfuscated the meaning and for all intents and purposes, stolen the word.
The LA Brewers Guild has become increasingly vocal about the need for beer bars, bottle shops, restaurants and, most important, beer fans to start taking a stand. LABG’s Executive Director, Frances Michelle Lopez has a thoughtful and motivating editorial on page five of this issue which celebrates the nine-year mark of LA Beer Week. “Franny” is a force of nature and, simply put, one of the most respected leaders on the LA beer scene. I sat down with her to learn how that came to be the case.
Drennon: You are the first ever Executive Director of the Los Angeles Brewers Guild. That’s a pretty cool position. How did you get the job?
Lopez: I was very fortunate to have been approached by members of the LABG board back in 2015 about a possible opportunity to become their first Executive Director. I had been employed by a brewery for the last 4 years but was ready for a change. I was a very active Guild member and handled a lot of the event coordination and marketing for the Guild so it was only a natural progression for me to sign on full-time. The timing couldn’t have been any better. It was not even a full month after my last day at my former job, and that company sold to Big Beer so subsequently was no longer qualified to be part of the organization.
When and/or how did you first get into the craft beer scene?
I’ve been involved in the craft beer scene for nearly a decade. I started off covering food and wine (then beer) events for various publications then signed on with The Full Pint around 2011 as a regular writer and associate editor. I got my first real industry break at Golden Road where I was the social media manager for over three years then immediately moved on to the Los Angeles County Brewers Guild in late 2015.
Love Danny and Jonny, our brothers in beer at The Full Pint. And love that you became Franny Fullpint! You wrote for The Full Pint for six years. How did you see the world of beer evolve over that span?
The industry is constantly in flux. We are in a very unique time right now where we are growing very quickly but we also have a lot more to lose. Opening a brewery is already high-risk as it is but the climate of mergers & acquisitions, fickle consumers, and an undereducated market is a challenge. Contrary to popular belief, the average craft beer drinker isn’t an educated beer geek and so we are seeing brands really have to work hard to get that consumer loyalty and that brand buy-in. On the positive side, there is something in the air these days that has really pulled the industry together. We are rallying and trying our best to be unified in a greater vision for our community. We are also seeing a lot more women in leadership positions in the industry which is definitely a great thing.
That is an awesome thing. I know you have done a lot of public relations and marketing work. Tell us about the highlights from that part of your career.
My “marketing” experience started out at a very young age. I used to create websites and merch to promote local bands when I was a teenager. Eventually I ended up “managing” local bands; helping them book tours then ultimately helping to run an all-ages music venue in Arizona. The parallels between the music and beer industry are uncanny and it’s the grassroots, authentic brand building that has been one of the most valuable lessons I learned early on in my career. While I do sometimes miss going to concerts every night or promoting new artists, I’ve gotten my hands dirty with producing guild events and advocating for our local independent brewers so it’s been pretty fulfilling.
I know we all love the camaraderie you find among craft brewers, breweries and fans as well. Do you see that changing now that California is over 800 breweries and the greater LA area is over 100?
I’m not going to lie. Sometimes we are caught in very challenging circumstances and it really is up to the brewery and the beer fans to be personally mindful about nurturing our beer scene. With that said, I truly feel that the general consensus amongst our California brewing community is one of solidarity. Sure, each brewery is a business and they must do what is best for themselves, but we are in a crucial educational period where we are also looking at the bigger picture of why it’s so important to band together. I often make the joke that sometimes it’s the consumers that are more competitive (or shitty) in our industry than the brewers themselves. The hype train has brought some people in that don’t get the whole community aspect of our industry and it’s disappointing. I’m not saying that it’s bad to wait in a line at a beer release, take photos of your haul, or to trade beers with friends – but for god’s sake, drink the fucking beer and don’t be an asshole. Is that so much to ask?
Right? I remember the first time I went up to Kern River Brewing for a Citra release years ago and I couldn’t believe how many people had waited in line over night to get their six bottles and then didn’t even sit down to have a fresh pour on draft at the pub! It was shocking.
Exactly! If I was a brewer witnessing that, I would personally feel disheartened.
What message do you think is most important for the Guild to communicate to beer drinkers?
It doesn’t matter how amazing the brewery or the beer is. If you don’t support your local small and independent breweries they will not survive this hyper-competitive market that is being manipulated by large international entities. Don’t take your local taprooms for granted and ask your favorite bars to serve local independent beer!
Aside from the threat posed by big beer buying some of our favorite craft breweries (Ballast Point, Wicked Weed), are you concerned about small breweries opening and making mediocre beer?
Absolutely. This is something that happens in any city, big or small, and in any beer community that is established or just starting. The important thing to remember as a consumer is that some businesses may need a bit of time to figure it out but sometimes they never do. On the industry side, it’s important to remember that tearing each other down won’t make the beer better – having an honest dialogue with your colleagues is the first step in helping improve quality. Our Guild is in a very good place right now because we have a fair share of experienced brewers who have helped paved the way for L.A. Not only are they great brewers but they are also generous – willing to answer questions and collaborate with their peers. This open-sourced mentality is part of why I love my job. Not everyone will succeed and some people never change or seek advice, but at least we’ve got some sort of support-system and good faith there.
Do you see any end in sight for the explosion of craft breweries both locally, statewide and nationally?
We are still in that upward climb. New breweries open every day and it’s almost difficult to keep track of who is in-planning. In Los Angeles County in particular, I think there is still a lot of room for this to continue. The county map is starting to fill out but we still have large territories untouched by growth. California has exceeded 800 breweries but we still have thousands of wineries – there is still opportunity and I would assume that this is the case nationwide. The challenge though is building for sustainability. While we will continue to grow, I expect we will see more closures with every passing year.
You are the main orchestrator of LA Beer Week and the annual festival. What are your biggest challenges in setting up a ten-day celebration of local breweries and such a big festival?
My biggest challenge in producing L.A. Beer Week and really any of our other Guild events is that I am the only employee that the Guild has and I am spread pretty thin for part of the year. No one ever wants to feel like they’re not doing something 100% so in addition to the planning and orchestrating, all my other Guild duties don’t stop so I’m often working 60-80 hour weeks from March to July. We’re a double whammy of limited resources; we’re a nonprofit AND we’re in the craft brewing industry. I’m hoping that we’ll grow into an organization that has more support so that we can make some seasonal hires and invest more into our events. But in the meanwhile, I’m a one-stop shop for event planning, vendor coordinating, marketing, PR, etc. I’m super thankful for the volunteers we get for beer week and to the small group of freelancers who help me keep my sanity the month of June. If you see Nicole Luque anywhere, buy her a beer.
Consider it done. Who are the people in the beer world who inspire you to do what you do?
I have been incredibly blessed to have been able to meet and work with some of the best people in the industry. I owe countless people for my success and I constantly rely on many people to help me learn as much as I can. Going outside of our L.A. bubble though, I have to say that getting the chance to work alongside Tom McCormick at the California Craft Brewers Association has been an incredible learning process for me. Tom has endless knowledge and has made himself accessible to me while our organization grows and matures. On the marketing side, I have always been a huge fan of Joe Whitney, the marketing director at Sierra Nevada. His approach to the community, building that loyalty, and finding that balance of innovating and laying the foundation of a legacy brand is something that I strive for when thinking about how the Guild wants to engage with the consumer. On the local side, L.A. is fortunate to have some pretty powerful proponents for craft. My Guild president Laurie Porter of Smog City Brewing is the heart of our organization; she is genuine, involved, and has this truly cares about the well-being of our members. I’ve been a fan-girl for Cyrena Nouzille of Ladyface Ale Companie since the moment I met her at L.A. Beer Week in 2010. As a board member of the Brewers Association, Cyrena has her finger on the pulse of the industry as a whole and has been a solid sounding board and mentor.
Now that we got your take on beer…let’s learn more about you. Where did you grow up and what were you into?
I’m an L.A. girl through and through. I was born up in the Bay Area but spent the majority of my life in Los Angeles. Left for college but came back about 8 years ago. I was (and still am) the only girl in my group of best friends. I was more into climbing trees and going to punk rock shows than learning how to put on makeup. I care about things deeply despite sort of being a cynic so don’t ask me for my opinion unless you know you can handle it. Life’s too short to sugar-coat things or lie.
How did that shape you into the person you are today which, by the way, is one of the most respected and beloved figures in a very tight-knit craft community here in the second largest city in the country?
Having been raised by a single mom, I learned early on how to be nimble and resourceful and I took those skills with me when I got into the music industry and until today. Personality-wise, I think my no-bullshit attitude resonates with brewers and business-owners alike. We’re all busy and there is no time to waste. But I am all mush in the center so as long as we see eye to eye and respect each other, I will love you and support you as best as I can.
I know you are a musician and one of my favorite fascinations is just how many of our brewers are also talented musicians. What do you see as the nexus there?
Brewers, like musicians, are part creative expression and part technical proficiency. The correlation between the two is uncanny and when you really take the time to get to know someone, it’s as clear as day. It might also help that music can help relieve stress or get aggression out. Ha!
What are your other passions other than breweries and great beer?
Are you building me a Match.com profile? I kid, I kid. I’m big into vinyl, comic books, coffee shops, and taking photos of my dog. In other words, I’m a Millenial – but a really productive one.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
In 10 years, I’ll be 40! I’m really hoping that being active in the beer industry is in the cards for me then. Oh, and owning property. The latter is probably more far-fetched though because I’m a Millenial living in Los Angeles who works for a craft brewing nonprofit. (she sighs)
If you could have dinner with any three people, living or long gone, who and why?
Charles Bukowski so he can insult me and my choice of beer, Guy Picciotto from Fugazi because I’ve been in love with him since I was 13, and Anthony Bourdain for all the obvious reasons. I’d even drink shitty beer for that last one.
What one word or phrase would best describe you?
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