Food & Drink | Cultivating Craft

From one keg to 1,000, Baird Beer is still growing

by Jeremy Wilgus

Contributing Writer

For Baird Brewing, perseverance and the cultivation of a loyal fan base has made it a rarity in Japanese craft beer: a truly independent brewery. Lacking the shelter of a parent company, it has created a line of taprooms to spread its concept of craft beer and hospitality.

In 2000, husband-and-wife team Bryan and Sayuri Baird opened the Numazu Fishmarket Taproom along the west coast of Shizuoka Prefecture’s Izu Peninsula. They served imported beers while waiting for their brewing license, Bryan running the bar and Sayuri running the kitchen. Finally, in January 2001, Baird became the smallest licensed brewery in Japan, beginning with a 30-liter system; literally brewing a keg of beer at a time.

Initially, attracting customers in such a small town was difficult. Eager to avoid the stigma of ji-biru (local beer), Bryan marketed his beer as “craft beer,” then an unfamiliar term in Japan. This meant he often needed to explain the very idea of his beer to his customers.

Baird is one of the only brewers in Japan using secondary fermentation, where additional food sources for the still-active yeast in the unpasteurized beer are added to bottles and kegs. As the yeast feeds on the sugars, it gives off gas, creating a natural, mild carbonation, which Bryan prefers to directly adding carbon dioxide. This confused some early customers, who were used to heavily carbonated Japanese lagers.

“I spent a lot of time trying to explain that the beer was served exactly as it was meant to be,” Bryan says.

Furthermore, Bryan’s vision for the taproom caught some drinkers off guard. Rather than a dark, hazy beer bar, the Fishmarket Taproom was family-friendly and nonsmoking from the beginning. Bryan and Sayuri made a commitment to engage their customers, building long-lasting relationships.

With their small local following, revenue wasn’t enough to sustain the fledgling brewery, and Bryan realized the company needed to reach out beyond Shizuoka Prefecture to grow. “If we’d started in Tokyo, things would have likely gone much faster, but we wouldn’t have been able to scale up like we have in Shizuoka,” Bryan says.

In 2003, the company moved up to a 250-liter system and began bottling beers for sale to increase revenue. One customer introduced the Bairds to Eiko Nishida, the graphic designer they commissioned to create the distinctive artwork found on Baird Beer’s bottles.

The company continued to grow, expanding to a 1,000-liter batch brewing system in 2006 and opening its first Tokyo location, the Nakameguro Taproom, in 2008. The same year, Baird also began exporting its beer, first to America, and now to several additional countries. Its network of taprooms grew, too, with a Harajuku location opening in 2009, Bashamichi in Yokohama opening in 2011 and Takadanobaba opening in 2016.

In 2014, Baird opened its massive Brewery Gardens Shuzenji in the heart of Izu. Tying into Baird’s goal of community and pride of place, “Gardens” isn’t just a name: The grounds around the brewery are filled with fruit, vegetables and, most importantly, hop plants, all grown and harvested by employees; future plans are to become a licensed corporate farm. At the third-floor taproom, visitors can enjoy Baird’s beers — 12 beers are served year round alongside a selection of three to four seasonal beers — while looking out over the valley. Brewery tours are available on weekends and holidays and, late last year, a long-awaited camping site opened on the grounds.

Now boasting six taprooms, a massive brewery and nearly 100 full and part-time employees, Baird isn’t resting on its domestic laurels. In Los Angeles, a franchise based on the Harajuku Taproom opened in late 2017.

“We see it as a chance to export a little bit of Japanese izakaya bar culture,” says Bryan. The main goal is to spread the idea of Japan as “a good beer country.”

After close to two decades building the company, Bryan says what he still enjoys most is “trying to decide what (his) end-of-the-day kanpai (toast) beer is going to be.”

Information about Baird Brewing’s taprooms and beers can be found online at www.bairdbeer.com. This is the fifth installment of “Cultivating Craft,” a monthly series exploring the history and evolution of the craft beer scene in Japan.

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