Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kansai Special Part 1: Baird Brewing's John Chesen

As part of my work on the article in this month's Kansai Scene magazine about the craft beer scene in the region, I did an email interview with Baird Brewing managing partner John Chesen. Before we get to the interview itself, meet John, in his own words:

Bryan and I were classmates in grad school (1993-95 at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC) and I was his first investor when he started Baird Brewing Company in 2000.  I joined the company in July 2010, having spent most of my career in satellite telecommunications and in manufacturing.

Now on the main interview, a small portion of which was included in the article. Keep in mind that this interview was conducted in April 2012, and obviously some of the discussion is about events which have already taken place.

Can you tell me about Baird's background up until now in the Kansai region? 

Arguably the seed for Baird Brewing Company was planted in the Kansai region. Bryan Baird spent is first three years in Japan in Izumisano, South Osaka, after graduating from Williams College in 1989. It was in Izumisano that he first fell in love with Japan, in particular its dining and drinking culture.

Fast forwarding to the present we’ve got a strong and growing number of retail partners in the Kansai region. In Osaka, these include two beer bars, Qbrick and Eni-Bru, and a superb bottle shop, Asahiya.  Recently Café Absinthe has become a Baird customer.

In Nishinomiya, Beer Café Barley, which opens every day (except Tuesdays) at 1:00 PM, is a long-time Baird supporter. 

Kyoto, too, is home to some wonderful craft beer bars that always have Baird on tap: Tadg’s, Beer Café Bakujun, and Beer Friends. Third-generation Kyoto noodle shop Omen serves Baird beer at each of its three locations, and Baird bottles are always available to take home from sakeya Yamaoka Saketen.

Last year in July we participated in the Japan Craft Beer Festival in Osaka. It was a lot of fun, so we’re looking forward to being there again this year. Next month, on May 13th, we’ll participate in the Kyoto Ji-Biiru Matsuri. In addition, Osaka-based craft beer enthusiast and entrepreneur Ajen Birmingham has organized a couple events featuring Baird beer in the last several months. His next event, called Beer Base Live, will take place on September 22nd in Umeda. 

What plans, if any, does Baird Brewing have to expand its presence in the Kansai region? 

We currently own and operate four Taproom-restaurants. The original one is in Numazu (Shizuoka Prefecture), where our brewery is located. There are two Baird Taprooms in Tokyo (Nakameguro and Harajuku) and one, at Bashamichi, in Yokohama. We would love to have a Taproom in Kansai!  Before we can embark on new Taprooms, though, we need to build a new brewery. All of our current resources – human and financial – will be focused on that project for the next year to eighteen months.  Our new brewery should expand our capacity by a factor of five, so once it’s operational we’ll be looking for thirsty folks in Kansai with whom to enjoy a pint or two.

While planning and analysis are important, serendipity also plays a big role in Taproom planning. We tend to move quickly when the stars align around city, neighborhood, people/partners, and food concept. A good example is our Bashamichi Taproom in Yokohama, which opened in January of last year. In the space of about ten days we decided on Yokohama; hired an accomplished and passionate practitioner of Texas-style barbeque, Chuck Morrow, to be our pitmaster/tencho; and found a amazing three-storey building in the bustling nightlife district of Bashamichi. The Taproom opened for business three months later. We’ve got a hunch that a similar alignment of the stars will happen before too long in one or more cities in Kansai.

What do you think overall about the growing scene in Osaka? 

We’re thrilled about the recent growth in interest in craft beer in Osaka. Minoh Brewing and Isekadoya Brewing are playing catalytic roles, as are the pioneering Kansai craft beer bars and retailers mentioned earlier. This energy, investment and passion notwithstanding, we think the Kansai region is significantly underserved relative to actual and potential demand for craft beer, and that tremendous room for expansion exists.

On a more sober note, sustainable growth in craft beer in Kansai and elsewhere in Japan, and the substantially greater retail investment required to support it, depend on the there being more good Japanese craft beer and significantly greater consistency in terms of product quality. Far too many Japanese craft beers are good to excellent one time and mediocre to horrid when one drinks a beer from the next batch two weeks later. Operational inconsistency is the kiss of death for any company or industry, especially those that manufacture food or beverage products. Unless brewery processes for controlling quality, (particularly on the “cold” side of the house where fermentation and packaging take place) are more rigorously understood and implemented, the current Japan craft beer boomlet risks losing momentum, just as the first, late-90s one did, as initial consumer excitement is overwhelmed by inconsistent, occasionally awful beer.

How might the growing Osaka scene compare with the Tokyo/Yokohama scene? 

Awareness of and interest in craft beer started much earlier in the Tokyo/Yokohama region than in Kansai, and the gap is growing. It seems like a new craft beer bar opens every couple of weeks in the Kanto region.  Moreover, craft beer’s penetration of the upscale dining market -- restaurants with a 10-page wine list but a single (industrial lager) beer option -- is accelerating in Kanto, albeit from a near-zero base. 

Kansai, though, is waking up, and we’re excited about some of the new projects now under way.  (Word has it that craft beer entrepreneur Ai Tani is now building a new place near Umeda that will offer draught beer on-premise and bottles for take-home. Ajen Birmingham is also rumored to be looking start a place.) 

It may only be a matter of time before Kansai’s legendary zest for good living, no where more in evidence than in its enjoyment of good food and drink, propels the availability of craft beer in the region to the same, or higher, levels as those in Kanto. We intend to play an active role in realizing this potential.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the craft beer movement in Japan? 

The retail revolution needed to introduce more people to craft beer in Japan is in its infancy. More entrepreneurs are needed to start craft beer bars and, even more important, to include craft beer in existing and new restaurant formats, from fast casual to fine dining. 

In addition, large beverage distribution intermediaries -- tonya and gyomu oroshi -- need to study the unique attributes and handling requirements of craft beer and then make it more widely available in the marketplace. This part of the craft beer retail revolution took decades to happen in the US market, but most of the AB-InBev and Miller-Coors distributors in America now have specialty craft beer sales groups; in fact, as sales of industrial lagers like Bud and Bud Lite continue to stagnate or decline, craft beer is now the sole source of revenue growth and profit growth for these distributors.  The craft segment is fast approaching 10% of the US beer market. We’re betting that the same thing can happen in Japan.

Finally, as previously mentioned, Japanese brewers of craft beer must make more good beer and do so with greater consistency.  The “brew it and they’ll think it’s cool and drink it” phase of industry development needs to wind down at a much faster pace.  Japanese consumers are simply too sophisticated and too discerning. Fortunately, there’s more good beer this year than last year, and consistency of product quality is improving.  Japan is a country that reveres craftsmanship as well as freshness, variety and character in food and drink. We’re confident that these deeply rooted cultural influences spell a bright future for Japanese craft beer.

What challenges might be unique to the Kansai area? 

Kansai may be more culturally conservative that Kanto and therefore more measured in the pace with which it evaluates and embraces new ideas. It’s impossible to say if this is a factor in the relatively late start and slow pace of the region’s embrace of craft beer.  It’s clear, though, that there’s been awakening, and we’re delighted to be participating.


That's it for the interview. I'll soon post a couple more interviews that fall under this "Kansai Special" label. Thanks for reading! 


  1. Great interview! John's a fantastic guy, and I have no doubt that Kansai will be crawling with Baird Beers soon!

  2. I'd also like to say that this was a really great read. I think I'm slowly starting to piece whats happening out there in the Ji-beer world together. I'll be the first person at the bar when Baird Beer opens a taproom here! I went to Craft Beer Base this week too; it's good to have somewhere in the Umeda Area to drink.