Publican practices the art of beer

Ohioan expat Bryan Baird takes a Japanese craftsman's approach to brewing suds

by Kris Kosaka

Love beer? Look to Bryan Baird, 42, an Ohio native living in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Imbibe a foamy one at his original brewery, The Fishmarket Taproom, but just don’t call him a bartender. Baird prefers the term “pub.”

To Baird, beer is the most social of all beverages, and he strives to maintain a “public house” atmosphere of camaraderie in each of his three taprooms, and in every bottle of ale that bears his name.

Baird admits he was never a connoisseur of beer, although he did approach the industry from “a beer lover’s perspective.” As Baird concedes: “In college it was all about quantity, not quality. Now, it’s about quality and quantity.”

His palate and philosophy turned to a thirst for craftsmanship as he discovered Japan. A university course, Modern Japanese History, enthralled this history professor’s son, and Baird came over after graduation to slake his interest in textbook Japan.

After three years in Osaka, he learned to love the real thing, and after getting a master’s in Japanese Studies back in the United States, Baird returned, determined to find a way to work and live in Japan permanently.

One year of being a salaried worker showed him what he did not want: “I didn’t want to sell things I didn’t believe in. . . . This culture appreciates handcrafted things, even on an industrial level. It’s not about finance or service. All great Japanese companies are manufacturers, and the more I studied craft beer, the more I realized it was the way I wanted to pursue things.”

To be given a chance to make something well, something he already loved awakened his business taste; the timing also coincided with the government’s deregulation that allowed microbreweries in Japan in 1994, and Baird was ready when ji-biru (local beer) was born in Japan.

Opening a craft brewery and taproom, after completing his certification from The American Brewers Guild, did not immediately flow smoothly. As Baird explains, “It took us 8 1/2 years to get to the start line, to the normal size of a small brewery.”

In the early years, Baird ran the entire brewing and packaging process with a minuscule 30-liter system almost single-handedly in the same building as The Fishmarket Taproom. His wife, Sayuri, acted as chef, working together to create the menu and the company philosophy: “Celebrate Beer. We take fresh ingredients, strive for minimal processing, and make the best beer with the best environment for enjoying that beer. We rely on a secondary fermentation in the bottle, to insure complexity and character.”

Baird realized early on that you can’t please everyone, and he melded his love for Japanese craftsmanship and good beer to approach brewing like a shokunin, or artisan. “My idea of a shokunin is a ganko oyaji, a headstrong old man. The shokunin knows more than the consumer does about what he does, he doesn’t have his finger in the air, thinking of what everyone wants. He knows his craft and he is going to deliver what he wants to deliver as a craftsman.”

This decidedly Japanese way toward an un-Japanese product stands as one reason for Baird’s success. “I feel I approach craft beer in a very Japanese way, a foreigner making craft beer in a more Japanese manner than Japanese are. Very few Japanese companies approach ji-biru in the shokunin tradition.” This unfortunate irony hurts the entire ji-biru business, Baird asserts.

“Good brewers do not really view other brewers as competitors, and I don’t either. If it is just Baird Beer and a handful of others making true craft beer, the market will never grow as large as it potentially can. Good ji-biru or good imported beer, any good beer is a friend of ours. Bad beer is the enemy, because it shuts the market down. It gives ji-biru a bad reputation.”

Baird hopes to change Japan’s estimation of beer in general. He embraces a type of brewing that stands on rich traditions of diversity. “Most of the industrial beers make adjunct derivations of a pilsner. Everyone’s making the same thing, Budweiser, Kirin, Heineken or Carlsburg: They all represent about 0.1 percent of the beer world, stylistically. So where’s the other 99.9 percent? No one knows about it. They think industrial beer is beer, but beer is actually so broad. Small-scale brewers can introduce the art in beer.”

Baird brews mostly ales, but adds a creativity that no brewer confined to one specific style could swallow. “I’m a mutt, as a brewer, an amalgam of all cultures. Since Japan has no indigenous beer culture, as a foreigner, I actually have an advantage. People give me the benefit of the doubt, they accept with a more broad perspective.”

Although Baird may encounter a raised eyebrow from a German brewer for adding fruits to some of his seasonal beers, here in Japan, by using only natural, local ingredients like yuzu citron and pumpkin, and processing minimally, Baird has met with success. Baird Beer now exports to the U.S., New Zealand and Singapore, allowing the Baird taste to travel.

Not that he planned on exporting: “The premise was to start local, build a base and capture the local retail market at our own pub and then gradually expand. It didn’t work.”

The demographics for craft beer drinkers did not fit the small town of Numazu, but the word spread to Tokyo. Beer enthusiasts started visiting on the weekend; the Internet helped to boost sales, as many craft beer drinkers are active bloggers and IT-savvy enthusiasts.

Baird Beer now holds over 150 accounts at restaurants and izakaya pubs in Japan. In addition to the original Taproom, he has added two more in the Tokyo area. By the end of December, individual consumers will be able to order Baird Beer online.

Baird credits persistence, “that old gaman,” for his recent taste of success. “If I had known how hard it would be, how long it would take, if I knew how much money I would lose in the beginning and not make in the median term, I would never have done it. I’m glad I didn’t know. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but in life, as in business, when the rubber meets the road — can you make it work? Making it work is the hardest part.”

Baird’s other advice to fledgling entrepreneurs in Japan: “Understand Japan and like Japan. I don’t think you can understand it well enough if you don’t like it. The key is to have that love, understand Japan from a broad perspective, but then, don’t be Japanese, be yourself. By being yourself, you bring a perspective to business that most Japanese do not have. No matter what field you are in, being different in this day and age, having a different perspective is an enormous advantage.”

Although Baird reaches for greatness, he’s no beer snob himself; he still occasionally reaches for those familiar brands, and admires the technological advances in industrial beer that guarantee every sip tastes the same with superb balance. “Baird Beer’s philosophy is not the only one,” he concedes, “but it is a good one. Making beer is not easy, and you can taste it, when someone has a philosophy and sticks with it. Without a philosophy, craft beer, craftsmanship anywhere, is soulless, rudderless, heartless. You can taste that, too.”

For Bryan Baird, nothing tastes as sweet as hard work, as true craftsmanship, as a toast to both tradition and artistry: He is the genuine article.

To soak up more on Bryan Baird and his suds, see www.bairdbeer.com