In the pocket of Los Angeles that encompasses Chinatown and Lincoln Heights and surrounds the LA River, a fermentation hub is brewing. In the last four years, a handful of small-batch alcohol producers who make wine, beer, and cider have set up shop in the area. Lured by a combination of the recent renovation of the Los Angeles State Historic Park, welcoming zoning laws, affordable rents, and a bit of little-known history, businesses like Angeleno Wine Co., Homage Brewing, and 101 Cider House are working in tandem to bring locally made beverages to Angelenos. Moreover, these businesses hope to be a boon to the city’s food and craft drink culture and to thoughtfully engage with the existing communities around them.
Highland Park Brewery opened the doors to its Chinatown brewery in 2018, the same year that Angeleno Wine Co. began making wine a few blocks away. Then came 101 Cider House in 2019, followed by post-pandemic openings from Homage Brewing and Benny Boy Brewing, the latter just across the North Main Street bridge in Lincoln Heights. Their combined efforts represent a revival of sorts. Long before Northern California’s wine country was established, Los Angeles was the epicenter of winemaking in California, with hundreds of producers growing and fermenting grapes across the county by the mid-1800s. A high concentration of these vineyards were located down by the LA River. The area is also home to San Antonio Winery — the oldest operating winery in LA — where the Riboli family has been producing wine since 1917.
By the early 20th century, the winemaking industry was wiped out by the combined factors of a deadly grapevine disease, urbanization, and prohibition. San Antonio Winery persevered thanks to its strong relationship with the Catholic church, which granted permission to make sacramental wine. “This area [was] always meant to be occupied by young, aspiring alcohol producers,” says Amy Luftig Viste, an owner of Angeleno Wine Co. This history is one of several reasons that attracted Luftig Viste and her partner, Jasper Dickson, to the area. The duo was pleasantly surprised to learn that three of the streets that surround Angeleno Wine Co. — Mesnagers, Naud, and Wilhardt — were named after vineyard owners that once operated there. Although the area’s brewery culture doesn’t have as deeply rooted a history as wine, the former Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery, now home to the Brewery Artist Lofts complex, is only a four-minute walk from San Antonio Winery in Lincoln Heights.
In the intervening years, the warehouses where these beverage companies sit have been home to a variety of industrial businesses — or left vacant. 101 Cider House inhabits a building that was constructed in 1910 and originally housed a manufacturer of electrical components. (Most recently, it was a seafood importing company called Daily Seafood.) The company United Roofing was the former tenant of Benny Boy Brewing’s campus. Homage Brewing’s warehouse, on the other hand, sat vacant for many years. And before Angeleno Wine Co. moved in to occupy 2,400 square feet of a warehouse shared with other businesses, the building was rented out to party promoters for all-night raves. The public housing development William Mead Homes is the closest residential complex nearby, a little under a mile’s distance from Angeleno Wine Co.
On a more practical level, this area that borders Chinatown, and where David Chang opened Majordomo in 2018, has zoning that enables industrial businesses like alcohol manufacturers to operate. “They basically came up with this urban innovation designation so that people could build a new community that was like the Arts District, but with a massive park and on the river,” says Mark McTavish, the owner of 101 Cider House. A city land use plan — the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan (CASP) — was adopted in 2013 to incentivize business and residential growth in the area. One of its key features is permitting the kind of heavy industrial zoning that fermentation operations are required to obtain and that otherwise only exists in the Arts District and part of Glendale.
This predetermined zoning is crucial for up-and-coming alcohol producers who don’t have as much money in the bank as some of the more established breweries in the Arts District. “There wasn’t as much red tape to open,” says Matthew Garcia, owner and head brewer at Homage Brewing. Garcia looked toward the area when he needed space to expand his business beyond its modest first location in Pomona. “You have these breweries coming in here that don’t have as much backing, but are really working from the ground up organically to build their brand and make their products,” he says. On top of that, rent prices for industrial spaces are half the price within the CASP boundaries compared to those in the Arts District. It’d cost $10,000 to $20,000 to get zoning approved if these businesses opened in neighborhoods without lifted regulations.
As is the case with any neighborhood in which development takes place, gentrification is a factor to consider. McTavish says he’s been focused on community outreach since he moved into what’s now 101 Cider House in 2018, and that his brewery has become a meeting place for key stakeholders in the neighborhood, including LA State Historic Park city officials and folks from the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA). Garcia, who is Mexican American, is intent on creating an inclusive environment at Homage Brewing, which includes building a diverse staff and hiring people from the immediate and surrounding neighborhoods. He and his team are also working on implementing a program that teaches the necessary skills and knowledge to those looking to enter the brewing space.
While the Chinatown portion of the CASP is less residential in its makeup, Chelsey Rosetter and Ben Farber of Benny Boy Brewing are doing their part in Lincoln Heights to engage with and support the community. Forty percent of their staff live in the neighborhood, and the couple has partnered with a number of local businesses and pop-ups, like Correa’s Market & Mariscos, who makes its michelada mix, and Four Ground Co. for merchandise production. They also developed a Lincoln Heights lager specifically for the neighborhood, which is $1 off for locals visiting the taproom. Rosetter says it’s their “top priority to make sure the community feels like Benny Boy is their space.”
Luftig Viste and Dickson say that the bulk of their clientele lives in the neighborhoods that immediately surround them — Lincoln Heights, Chinatown, Downtown, and Cypress Park — and that the two of them have also been living in these areas for more than a decade. “Any wine business worth its salt should be about inclusion and education and helping people realize how fun wine is. It’s not some highfalutin thing only made for rich people or connoisseurs, it is a simple agricultural product that’s sole purpose is enjoyment and joy,” says Dickson.
Now that these breweries, cideries, and wineries are settling in, some of the owners have been talking among themselves about giving the area a proper name. After Rosetter and Farber signed the lease for their brewery and cidery last year, they went to see Luftig Viste and Dickson at Angeleno Wine Co. to talk about how the area’s growing roster of small-batch alcohol producers could work together to build community and bring business in. At the time, the couple was already making sour beers in barrels they got from their neighbors at San Antonio Winery. During this conversation, the name “Fermentation District” came up, and it stuck. McTavish, on the other hand, favors the name “River Station” after the train station that once stood within the Los Angeles State Historic Park in the late 1800s. He already built a website as a way to start cementing a brand.
For McTavish and his peers, nicknaming the area, which has been developed primarily into an industrial zone, is an opportunity to reclaim its history. “There have been so many instances where we have been told stories from our customers about growing up in Lincoln Heights with grapevines in their backyards that were planted there when the community was predominantly Italian immigrants and everyone made a little wine at home,” Dickson says.
Foot traffic in the Fermentation District is building up, too. With Dodger Stadium nearby, fans have been filling the breweries and tasting rooms for pre- and post-game drinks. And the park is playing host to concerts, including global music festival Primavera Sound’s first Los Angeles event in September. The proximity of the breweries and wineries makes it easy for visitors to crawl from one to another, and the Chinatown Metro Gold Line Station is close, which means the area is accessible by public transportation. “We jokingly call it the Spring Street sprint: Get a drink at Cider 101, a glass of wine at Angeleno, and then go down to Homage and Highland Park breweries,” says Dickson.
Benny Boy specializes in unfiltered cider made from California apples and classic Belgian- and German-style beers. It also has regular food pop-up programming with operators like Brandoni Pepperoni and Cena Vegan, and events including live music and sketch nights. 101 Cider House makes more sour, probiotic-forward ciders in flavors like Cactus Rose and Gunpowder Guava, and opened a taproom in August called Siesta Day Club + Juice Bar where it serves fresh-pressed juices starting at 9 a.m. Compared to San Antonio’s massive production and vineyards it owns across the state, Angeleno Wine Co. makes wine using natural methods and local grapes, which it pours at its tasting room. Homage Brewing, meanwhile, focuses on low-acidity, balanced beers in the Belgian lambic style as opposed to Highland Park Brewery’s hoppy beers and crisp lagers. At the former, there are DJ nights and a Mexican-leaning food menu from the chef Jasmine Ramirez; at the latter, guests can find brewery staples like bratwurst and Tater Tots.
The businesses also collaborate with one another to challenge themselves creatively and stoke excitement in the community. Homage Brewing and Highland Park Brewery are about to release a Masumoto peach beer that borrows from both of their brewing approaches and celebrates a shared love for the Fresno-grown stone fruits. In the past, 101 Cider House has used pumice left over from Angeleno Wine Co.’s winemaking to add texture and character to its cider. And Benny Boy Brewing and Angeleno Wine Co. hope to produce co-ferments together soon. “The more we band together, it’s better for everybody,” says Farber.
The potential for the Fermentation District to bubble up is there. Yet business owners see even more possibility with an extra dose of meaningful urban development. For example, LA River Revitalization efforts could further connect bike paths, making it quicker for people to get across the bridges that connect Chinatown to Lincoln Heights. With that, pedicabs could drop people off at various sites. Or there could even be a shuttle that each Fermentation District business chips in for and that stops at each location. “The beauty of being non-competitive is that connectivity that’s delivered to people through an entirely social experience,” McTavish says. “People want to bounce around and check things out.”