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executive impact

Baird Brewery: Celebrating beer

By Chris Betros

The motto of Baird Brewing Co, founded in 2000 in Shizuoka Prefecture by the husband and wife team of Bryan and Sayuri Baird, has a simple motto: Celebrating Beer. It's born of their deep passion for craft beer and a great reverence for brewing history, tradition and culture.

Japan Today hears more from Bryan Baird.

When did you first time to Japan and what brought you here?

I first came to Japan in 1989, fresh out of college. I was interested in Japan through courses I took in college in political economy and Japanese modern history.

Were you a big beer drinker as a young man?

Yes, indeed. I played rugby in college and beer culture and rugby culture are quite intimately intertwined.

Why is Baird Brewing Co headquartered in Shizuoka?

My first job out of brewing school in California was with a microbrewing equipment manufacturer who had sold brewing equipment to a brewery-pub in Numazu city. I was thus stationed in Numazu both to continue the brewing training of the Japanese brewers on that system and to use Shizuoka Prefecture as a base from which to sell microbrewery equipment nationwide. During that brief period, my wife and I fell in love with the area, appreciating the natural beauty and thinking it a terrific place to raise a family. Moreover, we felt it to be an ideal location to launch a craft brewing business. The water is excellent, costs are modest, Tokyo is proximate and distribution is extremely convenient.

For the last year or two, I have kept hearing that craft beer has come of age in Japan. What do you think? Are there more craft beers on tap in restaurants or on supermarket shelves?

Craft beer has not come of age here yet. It still hovers around 1% of the beer industry here. Compare that with a craft beer market share north of 10% in the United States. I would characterize craft beer as just beginning to come of age in Japan.

I understand you expanded to a new big brewing facility in Shuzenji last year. Does that mean your business is growing rapidly?

We built a lovely new brewery in the Shuzenji area of Izu city in 2014. Since launching our company in 2000, this was our third brewery expansion. Our business, started on a very small scale, has been growing robustly for 16 years now.

How have sales been so far in 2016, compared to 2015?

Our beer sales to independent accounts are up in the 25-30% neighborhood so far in 2016.

What is your best-selling brand? How do the seasonal brands do?

We really have no single flagship brand. We view our portfolio of 12 year-round beers as our flagship. They represent about 78% of sales. Among them, Rising Sun Pale is the best seller, slightly ahead of Suruga Bay Imperial IPA. Seasonals are important to us – both as beer lovers and as business people. Fully 22% of our production by volume is devoted to them.

How much of your products do you sell wholesale and how much retail in Japan?

We sell through every channel allowed in Japan. We own/operate five of our own taproom pub-restaurants (as well as a taproom tasting room at our Shuzenji brewery) in Japan. We sell direct to restaurants, pubs and liquor shops. And we increasingly sell direct to the wholesale tier in Japan. Every channel is important, none is dominant.

Which countries do you export to?

Our export markets currently include the U.S., EU, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.

How do you market yourselves in Japan? Do you do traditional mainstream or digital media advertising, taste tests for pub owners, or do you rely on word of mouth?

We built our business on word-of-mouth marketing and that remains our number one marketing strategy. We do no paid-for advertising – mainstream or digital. We are cultivating a growing team of beer sales ambassadors in the field. We engage in social media in both Japanese and English. We use our brewery-owned and operated taproom pubs as showrooms for our beer. And, importantly, we put a tremendous amount of love and passion into exquisite brand artwork.

Do you plan to expand the number of taprooms? How about more in Tokyo?

Yes and yes.

If the big brewers like Suntory, Asahi and Sapporo boost their craft beer production, what will that mean for you?

They already are. I think it’s great. We small, passionate and uncompromising brewers are now driving the market. The big guys are looking to us. We have brought dignity and unpretentious sophistication back to beer (not to mention variety and seasonal diversity). As they say, "Imitation is the biggest form of flattery." I am flattered.

What’s the difference between a good craft beer and a great craft beer?

Good craft beer enjoys an adequate interplay between depth of flavor and balance of flavor. Great craft beer is supremely complex while still managing to be exquisitely balanced. We call that "character" in beer.

How much beer do you drink each week?

I taste (monitoring the production process in brewery) daily and I drink (after work and for sheer enjoyment) daily.

Do you ever drink other companies’ beer just to see what the competition is offering?

I drink other breweries’ beer all the time, mostly for pleasure but also to learn. Show me an outstanding beer brewer and I will show you a sensitive and thinking beer drinker.

How many staff do you employ?

We employ approximately 40 people full-time and another 40-50 part-timers.

Is your job a 7-day-a-week job?

It has been, more or less, for 16 years now. But I do what I love and I work with, and am financed by, all the people (family and friends) with whom I am most intimate. There is no wall between my business life and my personal life.

When you are not working, how do you like to relax? Any hobbies or sports?

I love sports and I work out vigorously daily. I love to travel and experience new places, peoples and cultures. The former allows me to drink beer in a more or less healthy way daily. The latter is made more enjoyable by beer imbibing. I also love to read.

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Bryan is a great guy who's built an amazing business from scratch, and he makes some of the best beer in the country, which can be delivered direct to your door. Treat yourself for the holidays.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Good luck to the guy, but 450 yen a bottle is too much for me to pay. That's not compared to Super Dry or other major beers, but compared to Aooni for 280 and Yona Yona or those Grand Kirin bottles for 240. You can get great beer in Japan now for under 300 yen for 330ml.

If craft beer is to capture 10% of the Japanese market, I think it will have to come down in price.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

It is exciting to see people like Bryan Baird and a number of other non-Japanese resident brewers and importers breathe some vibrancy into Japan's beer drinking culture. They are having a substantial influence on Japan's brewing industry and the nation's corporate mega-breweries are taking notice.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I do love their Suruga Bay IPA, it packs a real good punch.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Great beer, great business model. Good luck to him. I just hope the prices start coming down as volumes rise.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

a BIG thank you to Baird san & others making micro brews in Japan, I now hardly ever by beer by the big breweries for home consumption!

I have tried a few of yours, ones I remember the name......Angry Boy Brown Ale, Suruga Imp IPA & the Kurofune Porter & I know there are more

Keep them coming please!!

And don't worry about the "craft" beers the big boys are making, while they are better than their main brews they aren't even close to Bairds (& others)

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Seems like a cool guy

He really is. I am a beer lover who was lucky to end up not far from the original taproom when I first came to Japan, and besides the great beer, it is always motivating to support a business ran by good people.

Angry Boy Brown Ale, Suruga Imp IPA & the Kurofune Porter

My three favorites! Recently on facebook I saw there is a 'Country Girl Kabocha Ale' coming out soon which I really want to try.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Seems like a cool guy. Decent beers (too much hops in the whole product line for me to say "great beers"), but seems like a great company to work for!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Plus all their restaurants/izakaya are 100% NONSMOKING FROM DAY ONE and they are very successful. Why? Because huge numbers of people (Japanese or not) in Japan recognize and support that a healthy non-cancerous environment is GOOD. Excellent example to counter those many mindless idiots who think that smokers control their profit margin.

I think BB also tries to provide some sort of pleasant "out of the way of healthy air breathers" place for nicotine addicts to toke up, but really, the main point is they provide what any sane person would want: a really great beer with food in a nice environment that will not require one to wash all clothes and shower cancer causing pollutants off as soon as one returns home. Come ON Japan, let's get with it! Smokers do not deserve any coddling. Nonsmokers are waiting to give you their money.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Aldgate Ale is my favorite pint these days, and I believe it's a Baird product. Tsurga Bay is another winner.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Aldgate Ale is my favorite pint these days, and I believe it's a Baird product.

This is actually produced by Nagano's Swan Lake brewery

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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