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ALTAR SOCIETY BREWING AND COFFEE CO: BRINGING A NEW SOCIETY TO THE OLDEST BUILDING IN DOWNTOWN LB

By John Grossi

Photos by Monique Kuhlman



“So what’s it like?” You’re probably wondering.


After all, this is a massive, historic investment into the oldest and one of the biggest hospitality spaces in the city. Located on “Historic Pine Ave,” it’s a street that, for most locals, conjures up both fond reminiscence for “what was” and frustrated opinions as to “what should be.” Local viewpoints also largely overlap in a shared disappointment regarding “what has been” for the last few decades.


So here’s my answer… It’s a… “place to be.” 


“What’s that mean?” You’re probably wondering…


MY EXPERIENCE

I took Anaheim to Alamitos to 3rd Street and got Downtown for my 11am meeting in about 15 minutes. My first favorable impression of Altar Society Brewing Company is their proximity to the low-cost (and sometimes free) parking structure on 3rd Street between “The Promenade” and Pine Ave.


In fact, even though Altar Society’s official front door faces Pine Ave, their back door functions as a secondary, and perhaps more frequently used, entrance. This door, across the street from the parking structure and just a few steps down the alley, is closer both to The Promenade and newly built condominiums. Following a sandwich board outside this “secondary front door,” I walked in – and was immediately surprised.


Forgive the beer drinker in me, but I forgot that the “Brewing Co” in Altar Society’s name stands for coffee AND beer.


A coffeehouse! What a delightful twist. This is—no joke—one of the biggest and most spacious coffee houses in Long Beach. A place to meet, chat, do work, tackle homework… it reminded me of a modern version of the Borders Bookstore coffeehouse… had the store survived long enough to modernize. My point is, it’s comfortable. Whether you’re there for coffee, company, or concentration, Altar Society has a seat for you.


With their own proprietary espresso blend and coffee line, the quality of coffee is excellent. The Altar Society coffeehouse opens at 7am daily and is an excellent spot for work meetings, catching up with friends, or silent internet use on the house Wi-Fi.


I grabbed a coffee and kept walking through Altar Society Brewing. It’s worth mentioning a second time just for emphasis. This coffeehouse is one of the biggest in town… and it’s not even the tip of the iceberg at Altar Society.


Past the coffeehouse, the kitchen/pizzeria is on the right and the bar on the left. Beyond the bar on the left, rising from the basement all the way up toward the high ceilings, enormous beer brewing tanks flank the south wall. Keep walking and the brewpub opens into a large hall with open, communal seating. TVs surround the main hall and the windows open up to Pine Avenue.


I was ready to meet with the two (crazy?) visionaries who opened this place. They gave me a few slices of fresh, delicious, New York style thin crust pizza with a taster of four beers. Then, as we sat around a rectangular communal high top, here’s what I learned… 



THE BUILDING

… is the oldest continuously standing building in Long Beach. Constructed in 1903 by Free Masons to serve as their lodge on Pine Ave, the structure is massively impressive, incorporating 30,000 square feet with its three stories and basement. The ceilings are high, with pillars spanning all four levels, and the open concept exposes both original wood and modern reinforcement beams. The brick walls are 17 inches thick and have seen a lot more than you or I ever will.


Built to last?? Oh yeah. Almost all of Long Beach was destroyed in the massive 1933 earthquake, but the Masonic Temple stood tall. Masons were known to build with impeccable integrity. Other than retrofitting the building to current earthquake and ADA standards, few architectural improvements have ever been necessary.


The main floor is a BIG restaurant space. But that’s just part of the square footage. The second floor, originally the official meeting grounds for Masons, has been reworked to function as a premiere event space. It’s big and can easily host a large wedding ceremony, cocktail hour, and reception. On non-wedding days, Altar Society rents out the space to other events and even throws events of their own.


The 3rd floor is smaller, but still a big space… it can be rented out for a more intimate (100 persons or less) event or party. Both the second and third floor are accessible from a private door facing Pine Ave that does not require your party to enter the public brewpub.


Below the main restaurant, a large basement serves as the stock area for the venue. This is also where the beer brewing happens. However, as mentioned, the brewing tanks rise up and can be seen from the main floor. Likewise, the entire brewery section is exposed and can be seen from the main dining hall.





THE BACKGROUND

Since the Masons vacated the lodge in the 1960s, parts of the massive building were leased out over the course of decades, but nothing really stuck. The most successful venture was the “Loft on Pine” wedding venue that keenly realized the potential of the 2nd floor space for big events.


In 2015, the building was bought by a property owner named Courtney Dubar. Significantly, the commercial real estate agent Jon Sweeney was a long-time friend of Dubar’s property asset manager Chris Evans. Both Long Beach residents aspired to own a brewery.


The two entrepreneurs understood, at both an investment level and creative level, how the building at 230 Pine Ave was being underutilized and undervalued. While the Loft on Pine was seeing success using the 2nd floor of the building, its lease was soon ending and the opportunity to unify and utilize all 30,000 square feet with a unique brewpub concept became Jon’s and Chris’s goal and obsession. 


To make a long story short, nine years later, the two long-time locals convinced the property owner to join them in bringing a one-of-a-kind concept to a historic building, in a location everyone knows. Now their hope is to make sure everyone goes.



WHY A BREWPUB?

Jon and Chris loved the idea of brewing their own beer, but also recognized from a commercial real estate standpoint, that breweries alone were no longer a big enough draw (like they were during the brewery boom around 2010) for such a large space. Their idea was no longer a simple brewery, but rather a “brewpub” where house-made craft beer was integral but not necessarily the “only show.” The place would function unlike anything Downtown Long Beach had seen before… a true gathering place for any walk of life and any time of day.


Another way of saying that is… no matter what you drink—coffee, tea, soda, beer, wine, craft cocktails—Altar Society has you covered.


The food menu is simple but perfect. Pastries and select breakfast items are available each morning in the coffeehouse. Pizza is the anchor of lunch and dinner and is available in-house or to go, by the slice or by the pie. 


Fresh, inventive toppings and combos are being made all day, every day. The kitchen also serves a variety of sub sandwiches, salads, and pub-inspired appetizers. The kind of eats that wash down good with a cold beer.



THE NAME

Altar Society Brewing and Coffee Co. The name leans into the feel of this masonic building and how could it not? The aura of the building is unavoidable and indeed, the mystique is half of the draw. In the early 1900s, when this lodge was built, The Masons were as big and powerful a group as they were secretive. No doubt many of our Long Beach forefathers gathered in these halls to ritualize, fraternize, scheme, argue, and laugh. No doubt the 17-inch-thick walls will soak up those very same moments from current and future generations.


Everything Jon and Chris have created in this space pays homage to the historic, masonic roots of the building. From their “1903 Seltzer” to the “Eye of Providence” Hazy IPA; their “Secret Society” rewards program and adherence to geometric shapes in the logo and around the restaurant. Their goal is to honor the past and preserve history while simultaneously enticing new generations to share in it. Yes, the “Altar” in the name nods toward the wedding venue upstairs, but also to the fact that an altar already existed on site, and ceremonies were a part of this building since its inception.



A PLACE TO BE

I sat and talked to owners Jon and Chris for about two hours. We ate pizza, sampled beer, shared stories and life updates, and mostly I listened to the passion they have for this project and dream they’ve been chasing for over a decade. Both hailed from East Long Beach, but understand from a commercial real estate perspective, the shift that has happened downtown. Not to say DTLB has reached its peak, but the vibe is better than it’s been in a long-time and trending upwards.


As 3rd generation Long Beacher Jon Sweeney says, “All I want is for my friends and neighbors on the East Side to come check out Downtown Long Beach this summer and see how fun it can be. Go to a few places on The Promenade and make us one of your stops.”


Business partner Chris is excited about how much they have to offer. “We are close to finishing a side patio with TVs perfect for viewing sports or throwing private parties and we are working on a front parklet as well.” Also in the works is a potential speakeasy... but you didn’t hear it from us!  


Chris emphasizes the Altar Society concept as an escape from the club-like vibe some associate with Downtown. “When you’re in here you don’t really feel like you’re in Downtown Long Beach. This building feels historic, and welcoming, and safe, and open, and friendly.”


Indeed. As we talked I sort of forgot where I was in Long Beach and focused more on where I was in this huge old building.


When our meeting ended, I decided I was ready for one more beer before I headed home. I moseyed over to the corner booth table (near the true “front” of the space on Pine Ave) with a pint of their “Three Pillars” pilsner and gazed out over the open footprint.


That’s where it hit me. This isn’t a restaurant and it’s not a coffeehouse, it’s not a brewery, and it’s not a venue… it’s all of that and more.


It’s a place to be “you.”


It’s almost like entering a full-on micro-society, entirely self-functional, and always full of life. On one side, a brewer is working to concoct fresh brews, while a bartender pours them into glasses for the public just 15 feet away from where they’re made. On the other side, a cook is in her kitchen crafting pizzas and other food to order. People in the back are drinking coffee, conducting important business and meetings. Upstairs at any given time, there may be weddings, funerals, parties, celebrations, workshops, and other hallmarks of life. Society is happening all over the 30,000 square feet. If you feel like it, go grab a pizza and a beer from the counter. If not, just take a seat and someone will bring food and libations to you.


When you enter Altar Society, you’re entering a sacred place; a spot where the hustle and bustle of your life and the city outside don’t dare to penetrate these 17-inch thick walls. Move freely about the hall, enjoy, and be yourself. Just as its architects envisioned; both freedom and community are the central focus of the building.


When the many walks of life that make up our diverse city of Long Beach converge within these walls, society only functions better. Indeed, when you’re sharing drinks, thoughts, food, and conversation with both friends and strangers in this communal hall, it’s easy to remember why the building was constructed over 120 years ago.


Back then, only for its members, but now… for all of Long Beach — This building was always meant to serve as “The Place To Be.”

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