The best place to have a pint in Los Angeles is in a garage.
Tourists may flock to the Sunset Strip, the newly super-gentrified downtown, or the perpetually gentrifying Hollywood, but if you really want to have a great beer in an even greater atmosphere, there’s only one place to look: MacLeod Ale.
Look carefully. MacLeod is shoehorned into a totally industrial neighborhood in Van Nuys, sandwiched between a body shop and another body shop on a block with 12 more body shops (we counted). Can’t find it? MacLeod’s website cheerily tells you to “Look for the lime-green bike rack!”
Once you find it, you’ve found a place that’s so down-home, you’d swear you just warped out of L.A. to some alternate universe that’s a lot like the 1880s but with fewer spitoons. MacLeod sports a bare concrete floor, a plain concrete bar top, and stools straight out of an eighth-grade shop class. It’s also the micro-est of micro-breweries, specializing in cask-conditioned ales served at 54 degrees. And they’ll give you a discount if you come in wearing a kilt, or with your dog, or with a pig. Really.
MacLeod is the brainchild of Jennifer Febre Boase. Her unlikely road to becoming the unofficial brewmistress of Van Nuys started a few years ago when she and her husband decided to learn some new musical instruments. She took up the bagpipes and really loved it. He took up the cello and really loved … his cello teacher. Those two split, but Jennifer quickly found Alastair Boase and remarried.
Jennifer saw the change as a chance to reinvent herself and set up a new status quo. The pipers she knew were all beer lovers—stereotypes have to come from somewhere, right?—and Jen started touring local microbreweries with her pipe band. She drank, she learned, and she rolled the dice, selling her house and cashing in her IRA early, penalties be damned. And since Alastair’s grandfather was named Roland MacLeod, well … everything fit. MacLeod Ale was born. And she wouldn’t change a thing.
“Initially, I just thought about starting a company that could make money,” Jen laughs. “I really didn’t think about the community-building aspect. I was just thinking about myself. But as I’ve seen this community grow, it’s dawned on me that we’ve really got something here, and that’s really exciting.”
MacLeod has become a crazy-eclectic neighborhood gathering spot. On a random Wednesday night at 6:30, 35 customers fill the taproom. Then again, it’s the monthly stop for the Yarnover truck. Ladies come by to buy yarn, knit, and have an ale.
Bartender Nicole Geletka approves. “What I didn’t know is that women who knit like to drink,” she says. “So maybe that’s a hobby for me.”
A yarn truck is just the tip of the iceberg for MacLeod. Alastair flexes his brain cells on promotions, and comes up with some interesting ones. The Burns Supper salutes famed Scottish poet Robert Burns (with haggis, of course) on his birthday, and MacLeod celebrates the end of prohibition on Dec. 5, giving its customers period costumes and “We Want Beer” picket signs, and encouraging them to march down the street (and come back eventually, too). But the crown jewel of MacLeod promos is the simple “Buy a Friend a Beer” board.
Customers can pre-buy a beer for someone, and the staff writes the name on a chalkboard. The board is periodically shared on social media, and if you see your name, hey—free beer waiting for you.
The board has taken on an amazing communal spirit. People have bough beers for “any teacher,” “Guy with a Duff tattoo,” and “Willie the forklift driver.” Just before Veterans’ Day, the board was littered with squares that simply said “Veteran.” Harrison Ford was on the board, now gone (presumably, he claimed his beer). Nury Martinez, who represents Van Nuys on L.A.’s City Council, has been on the board. “She’s come in a few times,” Jen says matter-of-factly.
And Martinez has company. Cindy Montanez, who’s running against Martinez, recently scheduled a meet-and-greet at MacLeod on Feb. 13. We’ll let you know how the election goes on March 3.
But politics aside, the big star at MacLeod is Rosie, a micro-pig owned by a local resident who pops in from time to time. The pig drives business. “Rosie is so popular. If I put on Instagram that Rosie’s here, people come in immediately,” Jen says. “She doesn’t bother anyone. She likes to stay among the peanut shells.”
By 8 p.m., the Wednesday-night knitting crowd is up to about 50 people. One of them is Grant Paulis, a 30-year-old camera operator from Van Nuys. Paulis hit the MacLeod taproom on the day it opened in 2014, and came back every day – “I had perfect citizenship!” he proudly proclaims – for two months until he finally had to go out of town for a bachelor party and missed a day.
But that’s nothing. His twin brother, Sean, made it 90 days straight from the opening. Then, as Grant Paulis explains, “his girlfriend finally got mad, and she would no longer accept any explanation of why he had to go to the brewery every day.”
Paulis knows his beer. He loves MacLeod’s offerings, but hates a beerier-than-thou attitude. He tried to bring his dad into the world o’brews, but a tap-pulling snob at another brewery shot him down.
“My dad said ‘I like amber lagers. You have anything like that?’ And the guy told him ‘Amber is not a style of beer, it’s a color.’ He was that total craft-beer guy,” Paulis says. “But you get none of that here. You get, ‘Hey, would you like a pint?’ That’s the way it should be.”
Boase knows regulars like Paulis are getting MacLeod off the ground, with both bent elbows and word-of-mouth. Craft beer may be booming everywhere, but a startup is still a startup, and upfront costs can be staggering.
“You can’t survive without a taproom initially,” Boase says. “It takes a while to build retail. We’re just getting there now.” MacLeod is providing about 14 barrels a week, approximately 450 gallons, to 22 bars in the L.A. area, and just secured a distributor that will expand their reach from San Diego to Santa Barbara. That’s good news for Boase. She’d love to be a bigger microbrewery, but never lose her roots.
“I like the idea of doing something right here at home, boosting Van Nuys,” she says. “We’re thumbing our nose at Hollywood. They can have the hipsters. We’re happy with the forklift drivers.”
Paulis agrees. “Anyone who’s ever pulled a tap here is very personable. I’ve hung out with most of them off the clock, whether it’s at another bar, or at my house for ‘extra innings,’” he says. “There aren’t TVs, so you have to talk to people, and I think we’ve forgot as a society that that’s how you make new friends. I’ve made lots of friends here. I know most of the regulars by name. It’s a comfortable, homey place. It’s like my own personal ‘Cheers.’”
MacLeod Ale is located at 14741 Calvert St. in tragically unhip Van Nuys. Look for the lime-green bike rack!