Ryan Sweeney talks about Surly Goat, Verdugo Bar and the Belgium Beer Knight

Did you know there’s an age-old connection between goats and beer?  Ryan Sweeney, Los Angeles’ first Certified Cicerone and owner of Surly Goat in West Hollywood and Verdugo Bar in Glassell Park, teaches us about beer’s past and religious background. 

Tell us about the Surly Goat.

Surly Goat is a reference to Bock beer. It’s actually a mix between English pub tradition and German tradition. Bock means “strong beer,” means “billy goat” as well. So it’s a reference point, but I think that we really wanted to bring the history of beer back to people. Back in the turn of the century. Bock beer was a really normal, everyday kind of beer — everyone knew what that was; it was the first seasonal beer. There was a symbol of a billy goat, and a goat on all the pictures and advertisements, [this] was what Bock beer was. Basically it’s just a strong lager. It kind of got lost. People didn’t understand that the association between goat and beer is really strong and has been there for a long time. I think the whole point of having a bar like this is to educate people on beer, more than just the style of beer, but also the history of beer.

It’s been in our culture for so long and in everyone’s culture it’s the third most consumed liquid in the world — water, tea, then beer. People have been brewing beer for about 5,000 years that they know of, they know it’s been longer, but it can be traced back 5,000 years. Every culture has their own style of beer. Everyone knows what beer is. The fact that our culture has been dumbed down to like Spud’s MacKenzie and Blue Mountains and, you know, football ads, when something that has been so integral to the development of civilization, and we’ll get into that having to do with drinking water and how it was cleaner to drink wine or beer, and that’s why a lot of people were close to. I guess going a little bit farther, but [were close to] monasteries, people were close to monasteries because mostly monks brewed beer, it was safer to drink than water, so … sorry, I’m rambling now.

Please talk about the monasteries.

I’m sorry, there’s a lot of tangents because there’s a lot going on, and I know we started with Surly Goat and it’s getting into monasteries, but it’s all connected. Even places like Belgium and Germany, there’s a patron saint of beer. It’s funny, we were in the [reliquary] in Bruge, where they have the relics of the Catholic saints. And it’s funny, it’s like there’s Jesus, Mary, the Wise Men, and St. Arnold with his Mash Staff — the guy was brewing beer and hanging out with baby Jesus! But, it talks about this kind of history — even in religions. The associations that people have, that it’s this kind of religious — that it’s very special. That is the association with monasteries.

Since there is a patron saint it is very sacred. That’s so integral and so intertwined in more than just our culture. I mean, religion and all that. They would take the Mash Staff and monks would produce beer for the populace around, who could get beer there and it was usually free. It wasn’t what we think of beer now — it was just a little bit of alcohol, just enough to kill bacteria, and it was safe to drink. It was better to die of liver disease than dysentery. Liver disease at 70 or dysentery at 21.

So, it’s also a very communal thing then?

It is a very communal thing. It’s very interesting how much beer is in culture and history and people take it for granted and [that] it’s been dumbed down to something that’s unrecognizable from what it was. You think that these monks who sat there and were like, producing beer for people so they wouldn’t get dysentery, ever thought of bikini-clad girls at the Superbowl. That’s what beer had become. It would have been so bizarre and so foreign to them, so I kind of wanted to have a space. Verdugo is a great bar and it was a really good spot to educate people on beer. Surly Goat is more focused on beer and beer history. We want to teach people to respect beer a little bit more — it could be in a fun environment. I don’t want it to be stuffy or anything, but if you walk around and look at the pictures you see all the goats, and you start seeing that. If you just start with a theme that there’s a goat in every picture, and then you start asking why there’s a goat in every picture. You start understanding that “goat” means Bock beer, which is the association which ties into the whole history. You start asking other questions, like “Oh, wow, why are there these pictures from the 30s? Why are they from the turn of the century? Why did everyone know then what Bock beer was and now we have no idea?”

What was this bar before The Surly Goat and what is your concept?

I help curate the beer list at Boho in Hollywood. The owner of Boho happens to own a lot of places in L.A. After the recession a lot of his places got returned back to him. They failed, so he was just trying to get people in and this was one of his spaces. In the last two years, it’s been three … no, four different spots now. It was a place called Eye Candy that was a bar made for a TV show about gay club culture and building a gay club. That failed. They sold it to these guys that opened a place called Seven. They didn’t really remodel, they just took the same concept and went with it. That didn’t work out, so they sold it to a group that called it 24K, who basically painted the place gold and made it a hip-hop Armenian club, I didn’t know what it was. (Laughs)

It didn’t do well. They stripped out everything and there was nothing. When I first moved to L.A., I lived in this neighborhood, and I always wanted more of a “bar” bar. Just like a place you could go where there was no velvet rope, there were no airs and no one asked, “What are you wearing?” I just wanted a place where I could go and teach people about beer and have a nice, chill bar that’s not a dive bar. This seemed like a great location. It’s on Santa Monica and Fairfax, and it’s a cross-section of a couple different neighborhoods. There’s WeHo and then there’s the Orthodox Jews and Russian neighborhoods.

The concept is trying to bring a neighborhood bar back to an area that doesn’t have a lot of neighborhood bars. There’s a lot of “re-edjumacation” going on. (Laughs) I think a lot of it has to do with that a lot of people are used to having bottle service and velvet ropes, and this place has been that for so long that when people come in, they don’t understand. At The Surly Goat, you go to the bar, you get a drink and you sit down. We don’t serve food because we’re a bar. And it’s more about talking to people and interacting in a non-meat market, sleazy kind of way.

Hopefully there’s a lot of people who have a common interest with beer or trying something new and that’s kind of what we’re trying to foster. It’s not an easy road. I thought it was going to be a lot easier here. I feel like we get a good amount of attention from the right people, but I think that this area is driven by a lot of people that don’t live here, that come in on the weekends. I’m hoping I can keep the integrity of the bar going on. We’re in the building process.

Is this a place where people can come and learn about beer?

Yeah, yeah. It sounds silly, but this is a “safe environment” to learn about beer. I think a lot of people are wanting to learn and are interested in what’s going on with the beer, so I think it’s good.

Tell us about Verdugo Bar.

When we first opened, we just thought we could open. We had run bars before, but we didn’t really understand a lot of things.

Tell us about how you got into the bar business?

I had been managing restaurants here and there. I actually went to film school for undergrad. My first few jobs outside were kind of film-oriented jobs and I very quickly realized that that’s not what I wanted to do. (Laughs)  I remember taking an internship after school at VH1, and it was just like, “No … this is not what I wanted to do.”

So you started working with Match in North Hollywood four or five years ago and then that transitioned into your own thing with your partner Kyle Bilowitz, right?

Yes, we both got really frustrated with this situation where we had a lot of ideas on how to change the place but we weren’t allowed to implement them. Finally we were just going to go ask him one last time if he would let us make some decisions, if not, we were just going to find our own place. They didn’t want to give us any authoritative powers, so we decided to go do our own thing and we found Verdugo. I mean, we got Verdugo because it was what we could afford. I mean, that neighborhood was questionable at best. We knew that the liquor license was amazing. The bar came with the license and it was old. We knew there was potential there, but I mean, it was a gamble. It was in rough shape when we got that place. The neighborhood was the epicenter of evil in Glassell Park.

A good example. This guy came in the bar and we could see he just got released from prison, and he didn’t know we had taken over and redone the place. And he came in, he was like half-drunk by the time he walked in, and he was like, “Oh man, this place… it’s different. It has so much history in my family. My dad was stabbed here.” And we were like… “Ok?” (Laughs)

It was definitely a rough place, but we just kind of stuck to it and made it happen. When we first opened, we came in and did all the construction and rebuilt it and maybe two weeks in the Health Department shows in and they said, “Looks like you did a great job! By the way, where’s the old water heater?” And the old hot water heater was A) residential, B) too small, C) not attached to the wall… everything was illegal about it. So we had to put in a new hot water heater. And they’re like “Oh, did you get a permit for that?” So we’re like, “No,” and we had to go through this whole process.

We had to bring the standards of this old dive bar from the 30s, which has been neglected for at least 30 years, and bring it up to 2007 health code standards.

Yeah, that’s when I just had the biggest panic attack in my life. I was like, “What the hell did I get myself in to? We have a bar in the middle of like, who knows where the f–k, we can’t even open it, we have to retrofit it.” The irony of all this is that as they’re leaving, there are like taco stands across the street. So we’re like, “What about the taco stands across the street?” And they’re just like, “Oh yeah, there’s just not enough of us to watch over everyone.” Are you kidding me? So, after a lot of ridiculous things and hoop-jumping, we finally passed inspection, but to stay afloat we had to open speak-easy kind of style. When we opened was kind of up in the air. It would have been fall of 2007, but we were just opening on the weekends and stuff after that, and then we got our Health Department pass in March 2008. So it’s kind of hard to say when we “open” opened.

Talk a little bit about being a Cicerone, so a little mini-bio of your Cicerone history.

I had always been really big into beer, as long as I could remember, but I was never a brewer. I like to explain it like I’m more of a baseball card collector than a baseball player. I really enjoy learning about the beers and I think the history is really interesting and trying different beers. So I just became a really avid collector who happened to own a bar, and it was always a business write-off trying everything. I know about the BJCP (the Beer Judge Certification Program) but that didn’t really fall in line with what I was doing. I’m not a home-brewer, I don’t have the space to own a kettle,  I’m not making my own beer, I’m really more concerned with what other people are doing, kind of like a food critic. Collecting and knowing what I like and doing things. So I started hearing about a Cicerone program and that they were starting to nationalize it. It was more focused on a Sommelier style, where it was more about educating staff and proper service of beer and teaching people and … kind of baptizing people and being an apostle of beer. That seemed right up my alley, that’s kind of what I wanted to do. So I went online and took the beer server exam and passed that hungover, driving back from Palm Springs, and it was like, “I aced it.” It  was totally up my alley.

I decided I was going to take the Cicerone exam. It was more legitimate because at this point I was starting to get a little bit of attention because of Verdugo, about the beer, and people were coming in and asking me, and kind of – seeing me as someone that could answer the questions they were asking about beer, and, um, I knew for myself, to legitimize for myself and know that like — I’m not crazy, that I do know what I’m talking about. I wanted to take the test. I actually, when I took the test, I was at GABF (the Great American Beer Festival), and I took a review course beforehand with a bunch of other people who were going to take the exam and I felt like I didn’t know anything. I was just like, “Oh my god, what the f–k am I doing?” GABF is the  like the #1 beer festival and all my industry friends were there and everyone was partying. So I was just like, “I’m just going to know what I have to learn, and maybe I’ll take the test and fail, but I’ll know what I have to know for next time.” So I went out that night, I got completely hammered, just trashed, and woke up in the morning, and I don’t even think I’m going to do it. And my friends said, “Just go do it, you’re up already.” So I went, and I was so… when I took the written part I was really uneasy about it, but then I did the tasting portion. There’s twelve questions, and you have basically three rounds. One was they give you a beer and say, “Is this a good example of this style of beer?” Mine was German Hills Lager. You taste it and you say, “Hmm, no, it seems a little too oaty to me.” So I wrote that, and it wasn’t a German. It wasn’t a good example, there was something off. It turned out to be Public Enemy Pilsner, which is an American Style Pilsner, which would make sense since it’s a little bit more oaty. When I did that, the tasting portion there were three sections, but they could review that right there. At the end of the test, I didn’t feel comfortable. I wanted reschedule the test already. And the Master Cicerone said, “You know what, let me grade it before you’ve decided you’ve failed. Usually I don’t grade it this quickly but I’ll do it for you just to kind of see if you need to come for this test.” Maybe two weeks passed, and the guy called me and said, “You passed, I don’t know what you were worried about, you did fine.”

I didn’t know that I was the first Cicerone in Los Angeles. I mean, I knew that but I didn’t really know it. Which was cool because of that there was a lot more attention, like, “Oh wow, this guy owns a beer bar and he’s taken this test and he’s legitimized to himself and everyone, and hopefully other people will take the test too.” I hope that’s partially why other people are taking the test. I think it’s good for everyone in this industry to be on the same page and take it seriously, because if you have people that are just milking it for the trend it does a disservice for everyone else who’s really taking it seriously. You see more people taking [the Cicerone test], it’s great. Now, I’m studying to be a Master Cicerone, that’s the next part.

Tell us about Beer Knights.

Beer Knight is an order in Belgium. It’s hardcore. They closed down the middle of Brussels for the day. There are two ways you can be a Beer Knight. Either by right, where you’re born into a brewing family, or you’re a brewmaster and you get nodded in, or you’re an honorary, where you’re really spreading the word about Belgian beer to people. It’s an old order; it’s been around for a while. Last year, I went to the Belgian Beer Fest’s knighting ceremony. It’s in the oldest cathedral in the Grand Palace, which is the oldest area in Brussels. And it’s serious. Everyone’s all dressed up with all these huge medallions, and it’s part of this order and crazy beer festival where they have every Belgian beer you ever thought of. They have the proper glass at the beer festival for each one and they bring it on tray, I mean not like little picnic tables, like mobile bars. It’s insane. Like, Westvleteren, which is this sought-after, a lot of people say the most sought-after beer in the world. They have a stand there. You say, “I’d like a Westy 12, please,” and they pour it in the right glass and then you’re just like, this is unreal, because usually people have to smuggle this beer in and it’s sold on the black market, and here I am just ordering it.