On the recommendation from a friend, my son and my son-in-law accompanied me to the new La Jara Brewing Company in Norwalk and the instant I walked into the place I liked the atmosphere and was further impressed with the variety of the craft beers La Jara had to offer.

Derek Johnstone, his business partner Jason Sullivan and Derek’s father, Randy, are the entrepreneurs behind La Jara Brewing Co., a backyard hobby turned business venture that hopes to bring locally crafted brews to a community thirsty for new businesses.

The main entrance is a commercial roll-up door that lifts to reveal a full bar and lounge area, the wall where taps pour cold beer straight out of the freezer, glass panes that allow visitors to view the brewing process while they eat and drink and a designated manufacturing floor leading to another opening for shipping.

Sullivan and Johnstone met as students at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower in the 1990s and became lifelong friends. Together, along with Derek’s father, they had a dream of opening a brewery, and in April of this year they opened the doors to La Jara Brewery.

“Our brewhouse can produce 10 BBL at a time and we have five fermenters that allow us to ferment 1550 gallons of beer at any one time," said Derek, who has been brewing beer at home for 10 years and acts as co-owner and one half of the company’s master brewing team. 

The brewing room needed to have the concrete completely repaved to support the fermenters at their full weight. The large steel tanks serve as the new home for his award winning beers, a major upgrade from the tall pots they used initially. 

“We’re not a bar, we’re a brewery and we’re family based.” he said. “We were inspired by Sierra Nevada and their family owned and run brewery. We want to establish a family atmosphere and we want the communities of Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs and La Mirada and other local cities to embrace us.”

Rudolph ‘Randy’ Johnstone (left), Derek Johnstone (right), and Jason Sullivan (middle) stand in front of their new fermenters at La Jara Brewing Co. Photo: Derek Johnstone

The brewery building was once owned by a member of the family and the attractive murals on the walls were painted by a family friend, Danny. The company’s emblem of La Jara translates in Spanish to a Rock Rose flower. Before having their own building, the partners had to use home equipment or ask other breweries to use their fermenters for bigger production.

La Jara is located at the edge of an industrial park at 13423 Excelsior Drive near the intersection of Carmenita Road and the 5 Freeway in Norwalk, an optimal location for their business, offering not only freeway access, but little to no competition in the area. Recently, many cites have been re-purposing their industrial areas with new visions.

“We are oversized on purpose so we have room to grow,” said Sullivan on possibly expanding to a barrel aging process. They even capitalized on some leftover granite from the previous owners, adding it to their table and bar designs.

The partners brought their designs and plans to Norwalk City Hall and in October of 2019 celebrated the approval of a permit allowing them to construct a tasting room at their brewery. “This was a huge milestone and it allowed us to proceed with our project as we have been envisioning: Locally inspired beers brewed with regionally sourced ingredients served as fresh as can be. We looked at other locations, but the city of Norwalk was cooperative, liked our business plan and worked with us and that’s why we chose this location,” said Johnstone, 46.

Currently, La Jara offers a variety of lagers, wheats, stouts, pale ales and more. Each of their craft beers are brewed on the premises and each bears a name that has a local story behind it. For instance, Hustle Bus, is the name of Norwalk Transit System in the 1980s. DIPS is an acronym for the business that formally operated in the building that La Jara occupies, the Carmenita Rye IPA -6.7% named after adjacent Carmenita Road and Five Points refers to the main intersection in Norwalk.

Thus far, the feedback from the community has been extremely favorable.

“It’s really cool that it’s family-owned,” said Alex Velarde, 30, a Physician Assistant from Whittier. “It’s a great location, because we don’t have a brewery anywhere in this area. They have a good selection of craft beers and I’m an IPA fan and they offer several options. I follow them on Instagram and they post daily on special and new beers that they will be offering.”

Johnstone said one of his favorite parts of running a business is conversing with the customers, “I serve the customers what they want, but I take the opportunity to share recommendations to introduce them to other types of beer,” he said. “They seemed to like it and the feedback we have gotten has been great. It’s the part of the job I really enjoy.”

The customers also like the variety of beers La Jara offers as well as the service and the environment, “La Jara has a great atmosphere, friendly staff and delicious beers,” said Rick Avalos, 32, a Fiber Technician from La Mirada. “I went with my fiancée and we each bought a flight. My favorite was the Belgian Dubbel ale called Stunt Dubbel.”

La Mirada resident Mike Saragosa agreed with Avalos, “The brewery was very clean and the entire staff was friendly,” said Saragosa, 61, a Journeyman Lineman for Southern California Edison. “I took my wife, my son, his wife and their baby and we all liked it. There were other families in there and it was very comfortable and we enjoyed the pizza. The beer was cold and they had a good beer selection and I liked the Blonde Ale.”

Johnstone said he and Sullivan were destined to be brewers, “Brewing had been a hobby for me; Jason and I have been home brewing for 13 years and the ‘brewing bug bit us’,” Johnstone said. “Our first batches weren’t so good, but we improved. We joined Brew clubs and met regularly with other brew masters and that was a huge help. The club held various competitions and we won several. It helped us develop our style.”

Sullivan, a former manager of field tech reps for Unison, and Johnstone, a video game developer, left their previous careers in 2016 and with their families 100% support dedicated their efforts completely on opening a brewery.

La Jara can accommodate 125 patrons and is cleverly furnished with designed marble tables, comfortable chairs and a cozy outside patio. La Jara doesn’t have a kitchen but hosts different food pop-ups including Watson's Pizza, Janer Family BBQ and many more. The brewery sells hats, T-shirts, glasses, and customers can take-out freshly poured and sealed canned beers on site. 

La Jara advertises mainly on social media on Facebook and Instagram and hosts numerous special events throughout the year. 

Additional contributors Daniel Suarez Jr., Vincent Medina, Tony Aiello.