"We're thugs, you know?"
Alex "Rhino" Rebollo tells me this as he stares into my eyes, trying to assess if I am down to be part of his private craft beer group Beer Thugs. It's 3 PM on a Saturday and we are hovering over a tin bucket filled with ice and Southern Tier's "Crème Brûlée" Imperial Milk Stout, a growler of Stone Brewing's "Rosecrans Special" sour beer made with rose hips, and more than a dozen other rare beers from all around the world that some craft beer snobs would kill to sip.
I try to hold my ground in the garage-turned-bar and not show any weakness as I look back at Rhino.
All the while, Madness's "One Step Beyond" is thumping loudly in the background and more of the group's big, tatted members start to show up. Each one brings a bevy of more swoon-worthy beers that you've only fantasized about while reading reviews on Beer Advocate. They all stare me down as the tin bucket begins to overflow with frosty cans, bottles, and keg-style growlers.
Rhino smiles. His tattoo of a laurel wreath by the side of his eye—where cholos normally have a teardrop to show that they have killed somebody—wrinkles a bit. He pours me a few ounces of Sixpoint's "Hi-Res" 10.5-percent ABV triple IPA and the viscous, dark red liquid fills my tasting glass. We clink our glasses so hard that I'm positive the thin glass is going to shatter. The rest of the dozen or so members—all Latino men, save for one woman—welcome me to my first Beer Thugs bottleshare.
"Cheers. You are now a beer thug."
A Beer Thugs bottleshare is a social event that happens around once a month, where the rarer the beer that you bring, the more respect you gain. It follows a tradition of showcasing prized items and sharing them with the rest of the community, not unlike the many Latino lowrider car clubs and Raider fan groups that also inhabit the southland. The thought process is something along the lines of: If you can afford to spend $50 on craft beer and share it with me and everyone else, more power to you! I will be happy for you and am down to do whatever for you.
There is plenty of food to snack on while you drink hundreds of ounces worth of rare craft beer, too. Today, members Brian Kelso and Carlos Valdepeña are hosting the meetup in their house in Rosemead, California. The menu includes things like locally made tortilla chips fried with lard from Los Toros Mexican Meat Market and also locally made thin Italian sausages from Claro's Italian Market nearby.
Beer Thugs is just one of the mostly Latino private craft beer groups that exist in Southern California, which are using their passion for craft beer to find their bicultural identity while also extending their personal networks.
"It's not just about the camaraderie—it's about craft beer," Kelso tells me when I ask him what attracted him to Beer Thugs in the first place. He joined the group about a year ago after running into Rhino at the newish Progress Brewing, just a bottle's throw away in South El Monte. It serves as the weekly meeting place for Beer Thugs and many other Latinos who used to drink craft beer in the privacy of their own sprawling backyards in the San Gabriel Valley. Valdepeña then introduces me to some of the members and calls them out by their preferred beer styles. "He likes Belgians, he likes IPAs, he likes stouts, and so on, and so on. It's all about finding your flavor."
Beer Thugs was founded by Rhino, an old Oi! skinhead with tattoos on almost every inch of his skin, including one that says, "Cheers to the arrogance"—a slogan from Stone Brewing that he has made into a mantra for his live-fast-die-young punk rock lifestyle. It was handwritten by Greg Koch, Stone's founder, who is an old friend of his. (Rhino remains to be the only person that Koch follows on his Instagram account.) He is what many would consider an OG when it comes to craft beer scene in Los Angeles. In addition to also being a contract brewer, developing recipes for local breweries like Ohana Brewing Company and Rev Brewing, he is also a beer writer for the one of the first Latino-focused craft beer blogs in the US, Beers in Paradise.
According to Rhino, he started Beer Thugs because he "had fallen out of place" from Hop Heads, a larger craft beer club. The group has existed for five years and now has members in central California, the East Coast, and as far away as Tokyo. Most of the members are old punks, potheads, and skinheads. Beer Thugs is just one of the mostly Latino private craft beer groups that exist in Southern California, which are using their passion for craft beer to find their bicultural identity while also extending their personal networks. IPA NATION is another one of these beer clubs. Their members usually span all ages, and they welcome women to be active members.
It usually takes a current member to vouch for you and bring you into the inner circle. In my case, it was Julio Trejo of In the Suds, another early Latino beer blogger who has known Rhino for a few years and also was inducted to the group during this same meeting. Despite the Beer Thugs' intimidating looks, Rhino assures me that they are not a gang. "We're all just a bunch of friends," he tells me. He says that it is an open club and that anyone can join, "as long as you get along with everyone." They try to refrain from having beef with any other craft beer groups, too.
As the afternoon progresses, the pours get more generous and everyone's conversations—specifically debating the flavor profiles of craft beers—progressively gets louder.
Valdepeña turns to me and says, "We're all really just a bunch of fucking beer snobs."