It’s been said that good things come in small packages. What’s said much less often is that good things come from the small back room right behind the bar. For one that’s not a very catchy saying, and it’s rarely true. It can actually be quite scary back there. Lucky for us, such is the case with Highland Park Brewery, which occupies a grand total of 480 square feet of space in a little room behind a terrific beer bar called The Hermosillo. The two are distinctly separate businesses, yet the symbiosis is unavoidable. The Herm acts as Highland Park’s tasting room, offering fresh IPAs and new saison experiments. In return, the bar is often packed with beer fans and neighborhood locals alike, thanks in part to the shock waves put off by this mighty mouse of a brewery.
Specializing in mixed fermented beers, Highland Park Brewery is without question putting out some of the most inventive beers in Los Angeles, size be damned. Established in 2014, HPB will put out around 700 barrels of beer this year, which makes it both a treat and a rarity to snag sought after bottles like Raised Eyebrows (a mixed fermented sour aged with guava and passion fruit from the parking lot) or Cart Fetish (a sour collaboration with Monkish Brewing). Both are well worth the search. What’s even more of a treat is to enjoy the full spectrum of their beers, (from Noble hop driven IPAs to rich dark beers like their imperial stout with coffee), fresh from the taps of the Hermosillo, while conversing with the man responsible for these yeast and bacteria driven brews, Bob Kunz. A wacky guy with a lot of heart and a lot of beard, Kunz has accomplished some incredible things with the system he’s been given. He brews these beers in the freakin’ parking lot for god’s sake. Bottles are conditioned 33 to a milk carton stacked in the hallway. But as you’ll read, the pursuit of innovation and quality is always in the forefront of Kunz’s mind, and evident in the beer he produces. This interview is a long one but a good one – so before we begin I want to make an emphatic suggestion to my fellow beer fans out there – go visit the Hermosillo and try these beers. Visit now, and visit often. I just might see you there.
And now, on with Mr. Kunz:
Nick: Tell me how you became interested in craft beer, and what led you to where you are today?
Bob: I was getting an English degree in creative writing in Washington State in Bellingham, WA, and essentially I started drinking good beer immediately. I’m a very tactile person by nature, if I like something I want to learn how it’s made and how I can make it, so when I started drinking craft beer I thought, “I’m going to make craft beer.” I immediately started home brewing and within a couple summers I had an internship at a brewery in Bellingham called Boundary Bay. I worked there one day a week over the summer cleaning kegs. It was a great experience, [being a part of] the dialogue and conversation. I wasn’t all grain brewing and those guys told me I had to.
From that point on it just kept snowballing. I was home brewing but also I just kept seeking out beer. I’d say I’m a beer consumer first and foremost. I just love it. I seek out new beer, interesting beer; I’ll push my palate to experience new things; to experience the best of a style.
After college I wanted to work in beer but it’s hard to get your foot in the door. I did get that internship but they didn’t have an immediate position. My wife and I decided to do some traveling; it was shitty timing but essentially we decided we were going to travel and then the [Boundary Bay] offered me a full time job. I didn’t take it obviously because I had these travel plans. We traveled for a couple of years in South America, in Park City, Utah. We moved from Park City to Los Angeles and before we moved I said I was going to work at a brewery [when I got to LA]. I reached out to all of the breweries in town at the time; this was around 2006. I think there were five? Mark Jilg at Craftsman was the only person that responded.
At that time I was very into wild fermentation and playing around with all kinds of yeast and bacteria. I think Mark always had that intrigue as well, so it worked out as me being the lower man on the totem poll that brought some creativity and enthusiasm.
It was my first legitimate foray working at a brewery; I would say he’s the most influential person for me mentor-wise. He really pushed me to develop my palate first and foremost. He didn’t focus as much on education or the technical [aspects] but if you had a discerning palate you could get to where you wanted to go. That’s how I’ve always approached beer, I’m not the most technical person but if I know where I want to go I can modify the process to get there.
My time at Craftsman was awesome but it was small company and there wasn’t really room for me to grow. From day one of my first home brew batch 14 years ago I knew I wanted to open my own brewery. I thought I could do it in the next two years! Little did I know it’d take me 12-13 years to happen, but the first day I sat down with Mark I told him my intent was to open my own brewery, so after two years I knew I needed more upward mobility to make it happen.
I made an immediate transition to Fathers Office. I bartended there for three years but wasn’t seeing a lot of growth personally. I had written tons of business plans and make a brewery happen but it hadn’t happened yet. I had already been doing all of their beer education but I took a bigger role in the beer buying and eventually took over as general manager for both stores for a couple years.
That was almost as equally shaping as working at Craftsman – working with Sang Yoon at Fathers Office. It was much more challenging, Sang wasn’t an easy individual, but both [Sang and Mark] have a pursuit of excellent. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but I knew I wanted to open up a brewery and sometimes you just have to buck up and be pushed to get the experience you need.
It was two years of doing that; but in that time I was GM and I lived in Highland Park, and the Hermosillo opened up. I was just bellying up to the bar and it was the one place in the neighborhood where you could get good craft beer. I hit it off with Ross (one of the owners) and one day he said, “hey we have this space in the back, you want to check it out? We’re thinking about a brewery.” I had become pretty serious and was pursuing a couple locations, so we checked out the space together and I thought, “it’s going to be small but I think I can do it!” I rode my bike home that day and said to my wife, “I think I’m opening a brewery behind the Hermosillo.” And it kind of just went from there.
We opened in May of 2014. We did the build out and permitting all ourselves. Ross and I together maneuvered the city; it was pretty tricky but if you have a goal you get there. Sometimes it takes diligence and you have to keep pounding the pavement.
Nick: Tell me what Highland Park Brewery is. What are you after with this brewery?
Bob: If it was one type of beer that I would like to brew it’s mixed culture fermentation. So, beers that are made with nontraditional yeast and bacteria, that are really driven by fermentation. We have such a small space that we’re barely scratching the surface of that. We have eight barrels in the parking lot, two in the brewery, and that’s where all our mixed fermentation beers come from.
So that’s my heart, what I’m passionate about and what’s meaningful to me, but that’s not all I drink. That beer’s special. I want to drink it all the time but I probably drink more pilsners or IPAs than anything. It’s probably cliché but we make beer that we want to drink. That’s the bottom line. If it was a pyramid, at the top of the pyramid is unique mixed fermentation that’s going to push people and what they’re experiencing. “Is it good beer, is it not good beer?” That’s the fun of it. After that it’s beers that we want to drink and beers that are still going to push people and be intriguing. Crisp beers with Noble hops, and IPAs; all of those beers are well suited for our geography. For me, temperature and climate matter for what I drink, so we end up making beers that suit that, and ultimately hoppy beers, crisp pilsners, and saisons make sense in our climate.
Nick: Why can a small neighborhood brewery focus on such niche beers and get away with it? Would it make sense from a business perspective to put out safer beers?
Bob: When you’re small you’re nimble. It’s easy to shift gears and be creative. The bigger you get as a company it’s harder to move even a little bit in any direction. For us, it’s a seven-barrel commitment. We’re committing five kegs and a thousand bottles on an experiment. Maybe everything won’t turn out perfect, but being small allows you to have innovation. I don’t want to grow at a rate where quality and innovation aren’t at the forefront. I only want that production to follow quality and innovation.
Nick: Do you think that ability to grow and maintain quality is a hard line for a lot of breweries to walk?
Bob: I absolutely think so. I’ve had to put myself in check; you end up being in a capitalist society that pushes for “more, more, more,” and it’s hard not to get caught up in that. But there’s something in the back of my head telling me, “slow down.” You got to have enough time to do the innovative stuff and what you’re truly passionate about. Not just pumping out IPAs. Take a back seat and make a pilsner. But, the ideology of the world we live in is “more, more, more.” We could make IPAs all day long and sell them all day long.
Bob: I really don’t know. It’s interesting because this bar was already busy before Highland Park Brewery was here. The brewery has added more of a critical mass, but if I’m completely honest it’s challenging for education to happen here. The bar staff barely has time to get out of a few words to tell people what a beer is about. In a perfect world people would have all the right information and be informed; you could really create an environment where you could spend time with people, but if I’m being honest it doesn’t happen very often here because we’re just too busy.
Nick: That doesn’t lessen the experience that people are drinking these crazy beers and maybe not understanding them fully?
Bob: It doesn’t. The ideal for me would be more education I come back to, “Okay, it’s just beer, do I like it or do I not like it?” It’s a simple philosophy but when applied to the consumer it’s pretty rad. I think we’re lucky with the demographic we’ve nurtured. People coming to the Hermosillo are creative, so even if they’re not beer people they still like weird shit. They order a beer at a fast pace and then go, “Oh whoa! This is weird! I like it!” Ultimately that’s what matters; that I like it and it’s pushing me. Not that you have to put tons of thought into it, but to at least think that I’m intrigued and my life is a little more interesting because of that experience.
Nick: Switching gears, the craft beer industry right now is changing. Do the words “craft beer” have the same meaning as they’ve always had?
Bob: It’s a little bit of just semantics. Language changes over time, and it means something different now than from twenty years ago to twenty years in the future. I’m always going to fight for the little guy, for people that are authentic and genuine in their heart. We need to make money, we are businesses and we can’t deny that, but there’s still a genuine approach to what you’re doing to where the product is held as a higher than a concept or money. I don’t worry too much about it because language changes all the time, whether you call it craft or not craft… it will probably change again in 5 years.
The bottom line is that the majority of consumers won’t know the difference. They’re going to end up drinking what they have access to, which then really becomes the question, is what do people have access to? There are one percent of craft breweries making a shit load of beer, but for every buy out or merger there are ten to twenty new breweries. 1.8 breweries open up per day in the US, and those breweries are shoestring; they thrive because they connect to a neighborhood and their local community. There are advantages and disadvantages to including everyone in “craft” but ultimately I don’t think it matters. What matter is that there’s still people connecting with other people and producers are still selling directly to consumers. That’s growing just as much as the brewery that AB is buying. And if they’re in more grocery stores and more people are drinking them it might actually open people up to trying more breweries.
Nick: Along the lines of neighborhood and locality, Highland Park has been at the forefront of the gentrification debate. Craft beer for the most part is seen as a white person’s game. What responsibilities, if any, do breweries have to their community dealing with the issues of gentrification?
Bob: I think I get a little bit exhausted by the topic of gentrification, partly because I’ve always been a boot strapping person myself. I don’t come from money, I busted my ass to get where I’m at, and I’m going to keep pawing my way forward. I have a goal, and I’m going to struggle and work really hard to get to that goal. To me, gentrification is such a unique topic. It’s funny you bring it up in the context of craft beer, because I would almost be tempted to say that there was a little less diversity at the Hermosillo [before the brewery]. I do the bottle pick ups and it’s got to be over 50% of the people picking up bottles are Latino. It’s almost a non-existent question in our climate, but that doesn’t relate to the Hermosillo’s clientele. I would say that the brewery’s bottle sales are greater in Latino demographics than the people bellying up to the bar. That’s unique because our bottles are way more esoteric and out there. Maybe what your question pointed to is that craft beer is this niche thing that white people created?
Bob: We think about it because it’s in our face. People put signs on your door and there are protests and you read about it a lot. But in the day to day it doesn’t really exist. I live in the neighborhood and ride my bike, I interact with people around here. I go to businesses that are Latino owned, black or white owned.
It’s challenging, but I don’t have a great response. Ultimately I’m running a business that’s having some success so it’s probably upping the value of things here and pushing some people out, but I moved to Highland Park five years ago because it was the only place I could afford. So it’s a funny dynamic.
Nick: On the other side of the locality discussion, you’re using hyper-local ingredients. You use fruits and herbs grown in LA in your beers. Why is it important to source locally?
Bob: I’m inspired by the geography, which produces climate but it also produces agriculture. We’re in Southern California where fruits and vegetables are everywhere. It’s a huge inspiration to me, but it’s really challenging to source quality barely, malt, or quality hops; those come from very specific regions. We try to make something that’s authentic and genuine to the place that we are, and that becomes a challenge because all of our beer is based on commoditized agricultural products. So we do fermentation in our parking lot, and we have a guava tree in our parking lot that only exists right there so we use those guavas. I have eucalyptus trees on the sidewalk in front of my yard and I’m growing herbs and lemons all the time. We’re trying to find ways to utilize those in our beers.
I also think it makes us authentic to our neighborhood. If an ingredient thrives here we should use that. I have a lemon grass plant that I got from a patron that comes in here, I water it maybe five times a year and it goes nuts. We should use that in our beers because it’s an ingredient that is incredibly aromatic, we can use it as a season or spice to base ingredients and it’s going to contribute in a way that people can relate to. Guava is a great example because you ask anyone in Highland Park, Eagle Rock, or Mount Washington and they’ll probably say, “Holy shit we have so many guavas we don’t know what to do with them!” It’s an aromatic funky fruit that has a place in beer made in Southern California.
Bob: The space that we currently have is about 480 square feet, and we probably take up another 600 square feet of the parking lot that we use as if it was a part of the brewery, and that’s not ideal. If I go back to mixed fermentation, sour beer, barrel fermentation beer, concrete fermented beer, ceramic fermented beer – I have exciting things I want to do but our hands our tied in the space that we have. We’re close to signing a lease in Chinatown, which would be a 6,000 square foot space. We’d do a tasting room and barrel warehouse. The immediate [effect] would be that we could do more mixed fermentation beers. That space, if we get it, would have another 4,000 square feet that we could add on as continuous space where we could put another brew house. The demand for our IPAs will grow so it will give us a chance to make more of that. Never say never but that seems about the scale I want to exist in.
If the warehouse [lease] is successful we hope to be up and running by the beginning of 2017. Within the next two-three years we’ll probably be making around 1,000-1,500 barrels. If we then put in a brewery maybe 3,000 barrels, but I really wouldn’t want to do more than that.
We also self distribute. It’s important to me that we have a close tie to the food chain, I want to be a producer directly connected to consumers so I know where our beer is going and how it’s getting tapped. We try to put tight parameters on our beer; that it’s stored cold and poured within seven days of receiving. We typically get our beer to people in two to three days, and that allows us to put product first and foremost instead of just popping out beer.
Not to talk smack but for how great Ballast Point is… I’ve had phenomenal beers from them, but right now production is outweighing quality. I’ve had some pretty shitty Sculpin bottles because they’re just grow, grow, grow and their beer just sits on the shelf, and it’s a hoppy west coast IPA that’s driving their brand. Ultimately they’re making business decisions and not product decisions, I think. I would like to do the opposite and make product decision first and foremost. I hope that I can have that restraint, because it’s hard when you have a business and you’re trying to succeed. You still have to make money in the society that we do, but I always keep poking in the back of my head, quality and innovation over production.
Bob: For the most part people get it. This is probably going to sound terrible, but when I think about wanting to go to a really good beer bar [in LA] there aren’t a whole lot that jump out at me. When I’m in San Francisco, San Diego or Portland there are probably five to ten that I’m pumped out of my mind about. Maybe because it’s new or different, but there’s a lack of authentic beer spots here. There are places that have really good beer that have to cater to an LA crowd and they try to develop a “concept” and it has to be a bigger production, and it loses some of that, “no this is a real business with real people” feel.
Nick: It’s not the Toronado in San Francisco…
Bob: Yeah, I want a real business where the owner has bartended for the first five years. That doesn’t happen too often here. You raise a bunch of money and you’re reliant on investors and you’re making decisions based on return on investment instead of “alright, I got this business. I’m going to bartend for the first year and it’s going to have a soul and be authentic.”
Nick: What jumps out at you as a few places that do meet that standard in LA?
Bob: I like Barbara’s at the Brewery. The place is a little weird in the Brewery Art Colony but it’s real and it’s got a great beer list. Another spot I end up going to a lot is Sunset Beer Company, I think a lot of the guys that work there are excited about beer, it feels genuine to me. The Hermosillo too, I am not an owner of The Hermosillo but I was coming here because I liked it and it felt authentic. It’s got a weird layout and they just made it happen, the bartops are all crazy, but it’s real.
Nick: Is there anything you’d say to beer fans that we haven’t covered?
Bob: It is a unique layout here; you come to a bar that’s not the brewery that has all the brewery beers on tap. You can’t see the brewery, and it’s a little bit weird in that sense. It’s two businesses that coincide very well together under the same roof, and when you come to the Herm you’re essentially coming to Highland Park Brewery, but it isn’t. Highland Park Brewery is in a small little room behind the bar, and you can’t see it! But if you go into the parking lot you can see some tanks and barrels and all our grain.
Bob: As a brewer it’s an amoeba. I’ve always liked change and spontaneity and to be pushed for adventure, and ultimately I’m dependent on yeast and bacteria to do what I want them to do, and they don’t always do what I want. To me it’s a cool thing where you’re part scientist, part creative, part janitor, and that’s always kept me interested. It’s a moving, breathing thing that you can’t quite get a handle on unless you’re AB Or Sierra Nevada; you still have hiccups where you’re dealing with a living, moving thing, which is pretty cool.
As a consumer, which is what I am first and foremost, it’s always been approachable. You can get the coolest shit out there and it’s still only $20 to $25. I love food and beverage, and I wouldn’t even say that I’ve had my best experiences drinking beer, but it’s pretty cool that it’s so approachable. It’s the everyman’s drink but it can still be pretty complex. You can get a Gose, which in my mind is the epitome of a beverage, and it’s $20. $20 for the best experience that I’ve ever had in my life. $20 and I can still find them on the shelf. So it’s approachable and you can get the best beer of any style in a $10 six-pack. Firestone Walker Pivo Pilsner, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Pizza Port IPAs and they’re all around $10. That can’t be said for a lot of things, that you can have the best in its class and its still affordable for the everyman. It’s pretty awesome.
Visit hpb.la for more info. Located at . The Hermosillo is open Mon-Thurs (5pm-2am), Fri-Sun (12p-2a).