Wednesday, 21 October 2009 17:21

Beer choice hangs over Oktoberfest

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Daily Breeze - By Nick Green Staff Writer
DISPUTE: Local brewer in lease feud with Alpine Village loses the festival contract to an import.

Thousands of partygoers will begin to descend on Alpine Village near Torrance on Saturday for what's billed as the county's largest and longest Oktoberfest.

But this year they won't be drinking the signature beer of the six-week-long event - Alpine Village Oktoberfest - even though it's freshly brewed just steps from the annual orgy of drinking, stein holding contests and oom-pah-pah music.

And visitors won't see brewmaster Michael Bowe step up to the stage in lederhosen as he customarily does to give a short speech about the strict German beer purity law.

That's because this year, the management of Alpine Village, a German-themed collection of stores and restaurants that has been a South Bay landmark for decades, decided to switch to a different beer - Spaten, a German import.

"That's a crushing blow," said Bowe, who has owned Angel City Brewing Co. since October 2004, although the microbrewery itself dates back to 1988, making it the county's oldest such business.

"That's a $150,000 loss of business," he added. "It's a sad story. I actually grossed them almost a million dollars last year, so on the face of it it's a bad business decision."

Naturally, Alpine Village General Manager Gerald King, a gruff octogenarian who has managed the property for less than a year, doesn't see it that way.

"We've made a business decision and that's it," King said.

"Spaten is one of the best-known beers, it's one of the favorite beers in Europe - we're importing it directly from Munich," King added. "We've been featuring it in our restaurant for some time now and people love it."

King added - and Bowe confirmed - that Angel City Brewing was given an opportunity to bid on the contract for the event and simply didn't win it.

Nevertheless, Bowe feels more than a little slighted and sees the loss of the contract as the latest salvo in a landlord-tenant dispute between Alpine Village and his brewery.

"They just want to get rid of me," Bowe contended. "I think their intent is to starve me out here. They're not selling my beer at the inn; they took me out of the store."

King denied that the decision had anything to do with the lease dispute, which he declined to discuss for legal reasons.

Nevertheless, the beer brouhaha is just the latest twist in a slowly-unfolding soap opera that has embroiled Alpine Village and its low-profile board of directors in the last year.

Last summer, the board punted longtime manager Hans Rotter and his wife, Teri, who had apparently embarked on an ill-conceived redevelopment plan that included performing some work without the appropriate county permits.

New managers were installed - relatives of the Rotters - but they, too, left last December after a disagreement with King, Bowe said.

Since then, improvements have been made to the long- deteriorating collection of businesses that sit next to a Harbor (110) Freeway off-ramp, including a large new beer tent for Oktoberfest.

Bowe has been served by an eviction order, but the two sides are still negotiating - or at least were until recently - and Alpine Village's attorney had dismissed the tactics as merely typical hardball lease negotiations.

Bowe contends that if Alpine Village management wants him out, his lease terms call for relocation expenses and other costs.

In any event, his trademarked, award-winning beer will no longer be served at Oktoberfest, leaving 500 kegs of the stuff - or more than 52,000 frothy pints - stuck in large tanks in his brewery.

Because of the turmoil, last year's event was thrown into doubt.

But it was held as scheduled, although it began inside the German-themed restaurant rather than the outdoor beer tent, which wasn't yet ready to open.

The festival once supported more than a dozen nonprofit groups, which encouraged people associated with them to attend.

But last year's event listed just three such organizations. This year none is listed on Alpine Village's Web site - although some portions haven't been updated in years anyway. And the price of admission was increased $3 on Fridays and Saturdays.

Bowe said despite the strife, he stuck by Alpine Village and is disappointed that didn't "engender the affection" from management he had hoped for.

Now he's pinning his hopes on a groundswell of public support for his beer.

"Not only were we helping to grow Oktoberfest, but people want our beer," Bowe said. "We outsold Budweiser and Becks 15-to-1. Budweiser is cheaper than my beer, but they sell 15 times more of it so what makes them more money, Budweiser or my beer?"
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