Last month, I said my next column would be about a “craft-beer institution from the past that still has not been matched in this valley”—and it seems I lied. I will bring that to you soon, but I want to make sure I take the time necessary to do it well.
To make up for it, I’m writing about a place—and its beer festival earlier this month—which is vying to become the aforementioned institution’s long-awaited successor.
The Ace Hotel and Swim Club Palm Springs opened in 2009. The Ace folks renovated “a mid-century desert modern former Westward Ho with a Denny’s” into a hipster paradise. The hotel bar, the Amigo Room, includes many craft-beer taps. In the early years, the Ace and the Amigo had a great rag-tag staff of people who cared about craft beer and strove to put the best beers they could get on tap. From this, the Craft Beer Weekend emerged. As small as it has been in square footage, Craft Beer Weekend has consistently been one of the better beer festivals in the Coachella Valley.
The cherry on top? It’s in the dead of summer.
Will Sperling was recently hired as the food and beverage manager for the Ace Hotel from his former position as general manager at Mikkeller DTLA, a juggernaut of a craft-beer bar. It was subsequently announced that this year’s Craft Beer Weekend, which took place Aug. 3 and 4, would be two beer festivals on two consecutive weekend days, with a brewery list that would make even people who live in beer meccas turn their heads. When I saw the name De Garde Brewing on the list, I took notice, as it is perhaps my favorite sour-ale brewery in the country right now, and the beer is very hard to get hold of without trekking to the taproom in Tillamook, Ore. (yes, the place with the cheese). I reached out to Sperling to get his thoughts on the festival and the future of craft beer—not only at the Ace, but in the Coachella Valley overall.
“One of the main things I want to do is bring out a bunch of new breweries to the desert,” Sperling told me during an interview at the King’s Highway diner inside the Ace. “And it’s easy. I don’t know why people haven’t done it already. Los Angeles is right there.”
He listed additional breweries he wanted to bring out for the festival that just couldn’t make it, like Highland Park Brewery in L.A., and 3 Floyds Brewing in Indiana. To my knowledge, these two breweries’ beers have never been served here in the desert. He had to “settle” for the likes of Bottle Logic Brewing, Horus Aged Ales, Pizza Port Brewing and Mumford Brewing, among others. Many of these breweries had their head brewers pouring at the festival.
I met Jeff Bagby, former director of brewing operations at Pizza Port—and San Diego brewing royalty—at the festival pouring Bagby Beer Company’s true-to-style and gorgeous beers.
“Last year’s festival, there were 40 or so breweries here,” Sperling said. “This year, there were less than 30. … I’ve cut out all the filler—not necessarily bad beer, but I don’t want any beer that you can find in local grocery stores. It defeats the purpose of putting on a beer festival. I want to bring beer that no one has ever seen before. And the cool thing is that I’ve ordered multiple kegs for the event that will be on in the Amigo Room for a little while after the event, so people can come and enjoy them … in normal-sized glasses.” (The last part of that quote will be understood by people who read last month’s column.)
Sperling has the bona fides to back up what he says. Before opening Mikkeller DTLA, he headed Lantern Hall in Brooklyn; worked at the famed Gramercy Tavern in New York City; and managed The Craft Beer Company in London, on his home turf of England. What is interesting about this resumé is the timing: Every city he worked in was experiencing a huge upsurge in its local beer scene while he worked there.
I have a habit of asking people who move here from a major city—tongue in cheek, of course—why here? What would bring a boy from Kent in the southeast of England to our neck of the woods?
“I’ve been coming to the desert for a while,” Sperling said. “I used to come to the Ace, in fact, and hang out here if I just had a day off from L.A., and my wife and I could get away for the night. … We were looking to buy somewhere, and we couldn’t afford anything in Los Angeles. We had a little bit of money, and we wanted to invest in something—not necessarily somewhere we’re going to live forever, but something we could do that would give us a little back on an investment. So we bought this little cabin up in Twentynine Palms—an old, derelict cabin in the middle of nowhere, off a dirt road off a dirt road—and for the last two years, we’ve been fixing that up. It’s been a real joy. We go up there, and we don’t see any people.
“I knew a few people who worked here at the hotel, and I saw they had a position open to run the bar here. I thought, ‘Yeah, cool. Let’s get out of L.A. and try something different.’”
Craft-beer lovers will be reaping the benefits of his presence. I was while I was interviewing Will—drinking a pint of English-style pale ale from the unique Yorkshire Square Brewing out of Torrance.
In upcoming months, I’m going to be focusing on craft-beer culture, and how it is grown. You’ll be hearing more from Sperling and others regarding how we can raise the bar in the future. If you’re as interested in making this beautiful place we call home a better destination when it comes to beer … stay tuned.
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.