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By SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter Woodland Hills may be known for the high-rise and campus-style offices clustered in Warner Center, but when Alex Puchner surveyed the area, he saw something else beer drinkers. Puchner, vice president of brewing for Chicago Beer & Pizza, operators of BJ’s, is in charge of opening the company’s first San Fernando Valley brew pub, a combination microbrewery and restaurant. What he needed was a location with a ready market of folks who like to hoist one, and he thinks he found it in Warner Center. “I’ve known for many years how many very knowledgeable beer makers and beer drinkers there are in this area, and it’s definitely a market that’s been on my mind for some time,” Puchner said. Microbreweries, or craft breweries as they are called in the trade, have been almost ubiquitous throughout the ’90s. There currently are about 240 such operations in the state, most with restaurants attached, up from just 44 in 1990, according to the California Small Brewers Association, a Sacramento-based trade association. But there also have been many failures, especially in Los Angeles. Brew pubs are expensive to open and operate, and they do best in communities with a large population of young consumers, typically college students, who are willing to go out night after night to party. “You have to be very careful of location,” said Ed Engoron, president and chief executive of Perspectives/The Consulting Group, an international food and hospitality consultant in Century City. Woodland Hills may not have a large university nearby, but it has something Puchner is betting will help boost the pub’s sales the Maltose Falcons, a club of home brewing enthusiasts with more than 100 members. Puchner himself was an active member for years, making a monthly trip to meetings from his Hermosa Beach home, before he turned beer brewing into a profession. Now he is betting that members of the Maltose Falcons will become BJ’s regulars, helping to fill the 13,000-square-foot restaurant that is set to open on April 10. The Woodland Hills eatery will be Chicago Pizza’s 29th restaurant. The publicly held, Mission Viejo company with annual sales of more than $30 million operates in five states. It expects to open in Valencia later this year as part of an expansion plan that calls for four to six new restaurants annually for the next few years. The Woodland Hills location will be the company’s largest. Puchner estimates construction costs at about $1 million and brewing equipment at about $200,000. The restaurant will be distinguished by a silo that holds 25,000 pounds of barley, located next to the restaurant patio. Inside, the brewery separated from the restaurant by a glass wall will produce 30 barrels of beer a week (there are 31 gallons to a barrel). It will serve a selection of 12 house beers; six brews sold in all its locations ranging from BJ’s Blonde, a pale beer, to Tatonka Stout, a dark, strongly flavored brew; and a number of specially brewed beers, seasonal offerings or concoctions mixed up to suit the brewer’s fancy. “We have creative freedom to brew different styles and come up with a new recipe,” said Puchner. “There are literally hundreds of beer styles. We probably have still 100 styles we have yet to brew.” There is a lot of potential profit, Puchner said. “It costs about 30 cents to make a pint of beer that we sell for $3,” although that does not include the fixed costs of operating. At most of BJ’s brew pubs, the suds represent about 25 percent of total sales. Besides good beer, brew pubs need good food. And they require the kind of atmosphere that will appeal to a population that can best be described as party animals. “The brew pubs we’ve found that are most successful are gathering places, and they have a number of things in common a broader, more exotic menu than hamburgers, and a party atmosphere every night when you walk in,” said Engoron. “People are in there celebrating something. It could be celebrating that today is Tuesday, but there’s a reason to celebrate.” In some Bay Area neighborhoods, brew pubs have become the local watering hole. But the Los Angeles sprawl has thwarted many efforts. “There’s the old story about there’s no downtown,” said Bob Judd, director of the Small Brewers Association. “But now that’s changing.” Los Angeles now has brew pubs in places like Westwood and Manhattan Beach, but Woodland Hills is neither a beach town nor a college community. “It’s a more mature audience,” Engoron said. Puchner is encouraged by the number of locals who have expressed interest in the venture. “We feel very good about this location. Every day I’m here (setting up the restaurant), pedestrians and people who work in the area stop by to ask when we’re opening and what we’re all about.” At the same time, BJ’s is planning two regular event promotions to help brew up interest in the restaurant. The company will hold tours of the brewery each month that include the chance to taste each of BJ’s house beers along with some appetizers. “We found that there are a lot of beer drinkers who are eager to learn more about beer, and the different styles and develop a palate for the different flavors, but there is a lack of published information,” Puchner said. “Part of our job is to schedule tastings and help educate our customers about beer.”

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