After the tour of the brand-spanking-new Shuzenji brewery, BeerTengoku headed back up to the taproom for a chinwag with Baird Beer’s head brewer, Chris Poel. We got ourselves a beer (took a while to decide – did you see all those taps!?), and sat in the outdoor deck area. The drizzle was unabating, but the view was impressive, surrounded by rolling green hills in the middle of the countryside. With that as a backdrop, the conversation naturally came to how Bryan Baird – and indeed Poel himself – found themselves in their current position.
Baird Beer’s Move to Shuzenji
For Poel, who gave up a steady job as a university teacher to work at Baird, the early days were stressful. He often wondered whether he had made the right decision and the exhaustion from all the physical labour was taking its toll. Perseverance paid off, however, as in the six years since then he has gone from sweating over 30-litre barrels to the position of head brewer at Baird Beer’s state-of-the-art current facility.
Not that learning the ins and outs of the facility have been a cakewalk, though. The technology controlling the brewing process was designed by German brewmasters, who personally oversaw the implementation of the system and managed any teething problems the staff might have had. Poel recalls that, after being led through training of the system, he was told that it was his turn to brew a batch. Without hesitation, he pressed a button. The German coordinator looked shocked and asked him, “Why did you do that? Do you know what you just did?!”. Slightly confused at such a dramatic reaction, Poel explained the exact process he had initiated. The German’s face cracked. It had been a test.
Eventually, Poel was the one to flip the switch and start production at the Baird Beer’s new brewery, a moment which he ranks as one of the highlights in his career at Baird Beer so far – that, and having one of his own creations added to the Baird “Monthly Style Series” of beers- the amusingly titled “Bakayaro!” (“stupid bastard!”, or similar), a strong ale which is available from December. Never has it been so fun and rewarding to shout that and get something other than a offer of a fight outside or quizzical looks.
Evolution of Baird Beer’s Lineup
Despite the evolution of Baird Beer’s brewing processes, the beers they make have largely stayed true to their original recipes. For Bryan Baird, to whom we spoke briefly during the brewery tour and also via email after our visit, each of the beers tells a story. He maintains creative control over the recipes and even the distinctive artwork, which is commissioned by a local artist. Historical events are commemorated, such as the Kurofune Porter representing the landing of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships. Baird’s father was a history professor and instilled a love of world history into his son. Details surrounding the beers shaped by Baird’s personal experiences are obviously less well known, but he told us that the “Kabocha Country Girl” beer is dedicated to his mother, who grew up in the countryside growing pumpkins (“kabocha” in Japanese).
Seeing the taps in the taproom for the first time, I was taken aback – most craft breweries have just a handful of regular beers, in addition to one or two seasonal beers. Baird boasts over twenty regular beers and almost as many seasonals. Baird Beer’s originality shines through in their lineup. The Wabi-Sabi Japan Pale Ale, flavoured with wasabi and green tea, is the perfect example of their philosophy towards brewing: if Bryan Baird thinks the flavour will suit being in a beer, and can be made with subtlety and balance, he’ll consider it for inclusion. Their Asian Beauty Biwa Ale and Shizuoka Summer Mikan (made with Japanese apricots and oranges, respectively) also reflect this. All three of these beers are finely balanced so as to not overpower one particular flavour. It’s a refreshing change from the “souvenir” flavoured beers catered towards tourists.
The number of beers in both regular and seasonal rotation is huge, especially for a craft brewery, and perhaps explains why Baird Beer aren’t so concerned with expanding their range in the foreseeable future. Beers such as Red Rose Amber Ale and Rising Sun Pale Ale have evolved – from Bay Steam and Fisherman’s Wheat Pale Ale, respectively – and several of their seasonal beers have made it into the year-round brewing schedule. Baird have made beers in collaboration with other breweries as well. They worked with Mikkeller to produce the Fruitful Life Citrus IPA in 2012, and Chris Poel visited the United States himself to create Angry Amos, a fusion of their own Angry Boy Brown Ale and Country Boy Brewing’s Amos Moses Brown Ale. For that particular recipe, they sourced bourbon barrels to age the beer in, a technique which Poel is eager to implement at Shuzenji in the future.
Baird Beer’s Future Plans
Baird Beer’s plans for the coming months and years make it clear that they want to spread the Baird name and passion for beer to as many people as possible. With plenty of space to significantly increase capacity at Shuzenji and Chris Poel’s plans for experimenting with new brewing methods, there will be plenty going on inside the brewery. Literally a stone’s throw from the building, plans for a live music stage and campsite on the brewery grounds will encourage people to check out the scene growing around craft beer. Further afield, there are more taproom openings on the cards, including at least one in Kansai. We at BeerTengoku can’t wait to see where Baird Brewing goes from here.