CULVER CITY, CA – Adam Guttentag and Bryan Baird met in the 1980s while playing rugby and attending Williams College in Western Massachusetts together. Guttentag traveled to Japan right after college to teach English for a year … which turned into five years. Baird studied in Japan and fully intended on moving there after finishing his graduate studies.
The two friends’ love of the country continues to this day, as does their relationship. Baird brews his beer in Japan, and in 2017, Guttentag helped open the only taproom Baird Brewing has in the United States in Southern California.
First, a little history: Baird started his brewing journey in the American Brewers Guild Education and Training three-month brewing science and engineering program in California in 1997, followed by an apprenticeship in Seattle. Upon returning to Japan, he started brewing on his own with equipment he cobbled together himself which could only hold 30 liters.
“Studying craft beer in the U.S. led me to the broad outlines of my brewing philosophy, which include minimal processing, non-filtration and natural carbonation through secondary fermentation in package, exclusive use of whole flower hops, etc.,” Baird said. “Living in Japan led me to prize balance above all else in the formulation and brewing of beer. ‘Less is more’ is a mantra I learned from the Japanese cultural aesthetic.”
Craft beer, or ji-biiru, was still a relatively new booming business in Japan at that time, but the struggle then was the same as it is now – standing out in a market often saturated with subpar beers. Baird Brewing Company was incorporated in 2000 and was granted its brewing license in 2001. Its first market was in its Numazu Fish Market Taproom. Expansions followed in 2003 and 2006, and Baird Brewing began exporting to the U.S. in 2008.
But, as of 2016, craft beer was still only about 1 percent of the Japanese market, as compared to America’s more than 15 percent. That difference in market share was one of the reasons Baird wanted to bring more of his brew back to the U.S. He felt the quality of his beer would make ripples across the Pacific Ocean.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Baird said, “With each and every Baird Beer we seek to craft a full-flavored beer of character. We define character simply: Character is the interplay of balance and complexity. Industrial beer tends to be well balanced (i.e., it can be drunk in quantity without inducing palate fatigue) but fully lacking in complexity (i.e., the flavor is one-dimensional and you pretty much know everything about the beer upon the first sip).”
Harajuku Taproom LA opened in October 2017, with Guttentag serving as a managing member and operating partner. He said having the taproom in California was monumental, as it is the only place in the U.S. where a customer can try all of Baird Brewing’s available beers on tap.
“This place is very similar to the taprooms in Japan,” Guttentag said. “I have always been a big supporter of Bryan, and over the years he’s opened five taproom/restaurants. There is a different food concept at each, with food designed specifically to complement the beer.”
Baird said his goals in opening the Culver City taproom were two-fold: one is to sell more beer in the U.S. and the other is to introduce craft beer-loving Americans to authentic Japanese izakaya pub culture. “Doing this in the U.S. (and Los Angeles specifically) was a matter of already exporting to the U.S and having the right person (Adam Guttentag) to partner with,” Baird said.
“I think it’s a neat concept to pair the beer with something other than pizza or burgers,” Guttentag added in regards to the izakaya small plate dining format.
Guttentag and Baird had been talking about working together for years. Guttentag was employed by a yoga studio company before he decided he was ready for something different. He and Baird had been watching the Los Angeles craft beer scene, waiting for the perfect time to make a move. They picked their spot on Sepulveda Boulevard because they felt it was an underserved neighborhood when it came to family-friendly places to eat and drink.
Looking at the long row of taps behind the bar at Harajuku Taproom LA can be a little daunting, with almost two dozen varieties to try. Eleven beers are available year-round, including Wheat King Wit, Numazu Lager, Wabi-Sabi Japan Pale Ale (made with wasabi and green tea with an IBU of 45), Shimaguni Stout, Kurofune Porter and several variations of IPAs. Add to those another seven seasonal beers such as Saison Sayuri in spring, Cool Breeze Pils in summer, Yabai Yabai Strong Scotch Ale in autumn and Dark Sky Imperial Stout in winter.
Baird Brewing has 12 monthly releases as well, including Ganko Oyaji Barley Wine in February, Four Sister Spring Bock in May, Brewer’s Nightmare Rye IPA in September and West Coast Wheat Wine in November. But wait, there’s more! Their Fruitful Life Series, also released on a rotating schedule, features Carpenter’s Mikan Ale (made with the citrus mikan fruit) as well as beers made with yuzu, apple, daidai, hassaku, ume plums, loquat, and even the Smoke and Fire Habanero Stout.
“I brew in the spirit of the craftsman and my chief audience is myself,” Baird said. “I love diversity in beer and hence our lineup of beer (both year-round and seasonal) is extremely broad and diverse.”
There are always two rotating guest taps available, along with a separate menu with a myriad of sake styles.
“People come in and get blown away,” Guttentag said. “There are thousands of different breweries in the States, and I feel they have a lot more similarities than differences. A lot of people are trying to do the same styles, trying to hit you over the head with their flavors, and we’re trying to surprise you with our subtlety.”
He added that in Japan there’s a big educational component to what Baird Brewing is doing, as their headquarters are somewhat rurally located in Shuzenji, Shizuoka Prefecture, two hours southwest of Tokyo.
“The locals in Japan said the beer didn’t taste like what they’re used to,” Guttentag said, “and we get some of that here too. The flavors are a little different.”
The Baird beers are shipped cold from the brewery in central Japan and kept in cold storage until the kegs are ready to be tapped. All the beers are unfiltered, with secondary fermentation taking place in the kegs. Guttentag said the products are still alive when they arrive in the U.S. “They travel well and are designed to sit down for a bit to finish,” he explained.
One of the most popular drafts at the taproom in California is the Jubilation Ale, made with Japanese figs and cinnamon, usually released in the colder months. Guttentag said, “A lot of winter ales can almost be too syrupy or too seasonally flavored, but this is very drinkable even in the summer.” Another best seller is the Angry Boy Brown Ale, which has an ABV of 7 percent and, according to its official description, has “a barely controlled bitterness, and, naturally, a bit of an angry edge.”
“Our long term plan is to do more of these taprooms,” Guttentag said. “It’s a unique enough product that there’s room to grow.”