From back porch home-brewing to a state-of-the-art sustainable-minded brewery on the Izu Peninsula, Baird Beer has grown up continuing to play an important role in growing the appreciation for craft beer in Japan while staying true to their mission to making honest, minimally processed beer.
“I was just a beer-loving rugby player,” Bryan Baird laughs. “I’ve always loved beer.”
Back in the mid-1990s, when ji-biru (craft beer) was de-regulated in Japan, there was a relatively short craft brew boom around the nation. The craft brewery count quickly jumped from zero to 275, but as mediocre beer started spilling into the market, the craft beer bubble had fizzled out by 1997.
“Japan is a sophisticated place where mediocre beer can’t endure,” Bryan explains.
Like many young people arriving in Japan for a post-university adventure, Bryan came to Japan as a JET, the government-sponsored program to promote native English teaching in public schools in Japan.
He fell in love with the country immediately, and not long after, his future wife Sayuri. He was especially impressed with Japan’s emphasis on craftsmanship. Realizing brewing beer had been de-regulated, he believed Japan could be a fertile market for small, craft brewers who focused on quality.
In 2000, Bryan and his wife opened a small brew pub in the fishing port town of Numazu in Shizuoka Prefecture. With Sayuri handling the food, Baird was freed to focus on his passion, making good beer with a tiny home-brewing apparatus in 30-liter batches in an old Hoff-Stevens keg.
In a little more than 15 years, Baird Beer has grown from a husband-and-wife brewery to a nationally recognized and distributed craft beer with several tap rooms in Tokyo and Yokohama, and a new brewery that distributes to selected international craft beer-loving markets.
“You know how they say, ‘If you build it, they will come?’ Well, we built it, and very few people came,” Baird recalls, struggling the first few years in Numazu before expanding to Tokyo. Business took off in 2003.
They continued to brew out of Shizuoka while sending their bottled beers first to the city, then nationwide and eventually overseas. In 2005, they expanded to a thousand-liter brewery.
Growing while maintaining quality, integrity and trust with craft beer enthusiasts is a balancing act, but Bryan and the Baird family manage to stay true to their core values while keeping deep roots in Shizuoka where Baird Beer was born.
“Rural Japan is aging, it’s de-populated,” Bryan says. In 2014, after being courted by the Izu City government, Baird moved south into the beautiful Izu Peninsula to Shuzenji, a hot spring resort town on the way to southern Izu’s famous white-sand beaches and surf breaks.
Shuzenji is now home to Baird Beer’s impressive new brewery (although they kept the original taproom in Numazu), and locals are thrilled to see them building their business here.
Perhaps most striking about the Baird Brewery is the zero-waste approach they have taken to the brewing process. Spent grain, hops and yeast are brought to mulch facilities. Ingredients are locally and organically grown without pesticides from neighboring farmland and orchards. Ten percent of the electricity comes from solar panels, and Baird hopes to one day run completely off the grid.
They’ve also built a wastewater treatment facility. After treatment, the water is cleaner than the clear nearby river water. This water will also be used for irrigation in the future and, as part of the “One Percent for the Planet” initiative, Baird Brewery donates to the National Conservation Society of Japan for every bottle of Shuzenji Heritage Helles sold. “Beer is about agriculture,” says Baird. “It’s tied to the land and nature, because that’s where it’s from. Our goal is to create minimally processed beer in a beautiful place while enhancing the environment and making intimate connections.”
Standing on the banks of Kano River, the brewery is flanked by hills, rice paddies and a quiet village. Originally a KOA Campground, the land around the brewery will soon offer camping and cabins for craft beer friends old and new who want to visit the brewery and the on-site Shuzenji Gardens Taproom.
If you’d like to take a brewery tour, finishing off with a fresh pint of beer at the taproom (or a few bottles to take home), tours are available daily, but check the website for times. If you have enjoyed Baird for years, as you walk along the hallway, you’ll see the familiar artwork designed for Baird beer labels by Eiko Nishida, an artist and family friend.
“We have different artwork for all our beers,” Sayuri Baird points out. “All our beers have a different style and history we want to share with our customers. The artwork helps get them interested.”
Today, the Japan beer scene is facing a new boom. There are still fewer than 2,000 licensed craft breweries in Japan, but craft beer pubs are growing as Japanese beer drinkers get a taste for the good stuff.