One Year in: Checking up on Highland Park Brewery’s Mad Alchemist

Bob Kunz uses a tiny space tucked inside The Hermosillo to make a giant impression

We featured Bob Kunz as part or our Meet Your Brewer series back when Highland Park Brewery first opened. Now that the Northeast L.A. brewery is celebrating its one-year anniversary, we’re checking back in to see how the business and its beers have developed.

Finding Highland Park Brewery means finding The Hermosillo on York Boulevard first. The brewery is nestled into a storeroom in the back of the neighborhood bar, and the action bleeds out into the parking lot as well—about a half dozen barrels of aging Berliner Weisse are literally parked in spots near the back of the bar’s lot. How to make the most out of the least: Highland Park’s Bob Kunz is practically the Ikea of brewmasters.

Kunz, a long-time homebrewer and former prime minister of brews for Father’s Office, opened Highland Park Brewery almost a year ago. Since then, Kunz has developed a portfolio of unique sours (the aforementioned Berliner Weisse, Sun Soaked, is aged in oak barrels—a rarity for the style) and other innovative brews (Wake Up at Michael’s On Fire is a coffee beer with habanero and lavender from the backyard of a friend).

I recently sat down with Kunz to talk about Highland Park Brewery’s first year and what’s next.

How did you strike up the deal to come in here and brew?

Actually just bellying up to the bar, befriending Ross [Stephenson, owner of The Hermosillo]. I’d been looking for a space for awhile in the area. I knew I wanted to live in Highland Park and get a brewery off the ground here. They weren’t utilizing the space. and we hit it off.

How much have you grown into the space? What have you done since you got here?

Pretty much a perpetual motion of growing. We started on a pretty minimal budget, so we were as lean as we possibly could be to just get open and start making beer. And then slowly, we just keep adding things as we go. We started out with almost no kegs, and [now] I feel like I’m buying kegs every month just to keep up. We have added puncheon barrels— which are oversized barrels—that we do saison fermentation in. We’ve added red wine French oak barrels that are fermenting Berliner Weisse in the parking lot as we speak. We added a sour beer mixing tank, and then it’s just a constant improvement process from there to make better beer.

That’s interesting because you went from zero to sour beer pretty quickly. And sour beers are notoriously temperamental. Have you had any trouble with your sours?

Naw, we haven’t had to throw out any beer. I mean, I’ve made sour beer for quite a long time. Pretty much as long as I’ve been home brewing, which is 12 years. Most of the cultures we use here are an accumulation of homebrewing—when I’d have a good batch or stuff that worked out, I’d propagate that yeast or bacteria….I’ve always made time to make sour beers because that’s what I’m most interested in. Actually the first beer we brewed was a sour beer, Lazy Susan, and that was the first beer we bottled as well.

So describe to me your brewing space.

It’s very small—480 square feet. It’s kind of like brewing Tetris. We have a keg washer that turns into table that gets moved outside and turns into a pile of kegs and then gets moved and turned into a bottling line on bottling days. So, it’s a small space that we make the most of and have to be inventive. A 10-by-10 space is tough.

I think my bedroom is bigger than that.

[Laughs] It’s probably a bit bigger than 10-by-10.

Back to the beer: tell me about some of your triumphant beers, your favorites so far.

I’m very self critical, so it’s hard for me to say.

Put your fan hat on.

I think we’re actually making some pretty good hoppy beer right now, which I didn’t think we would do originally….We just put a fresh batch of Hello L.A. on, a West Coast IPA. It has Mosaic, Citra, Columbus hops. Pretty new world, lot of tropical fruit—mango, passion fruit, that kind of thing….Other things that have been well-received: We do a Mosaic-driven double IPA called One Up. Seems like people are the most enthusiastic about that out of our hoppy beers. Lazy Susan, which is a sour peach and nectarine beer. People are very excited about that beer.

I’m excited about that beer.

Personally, I like that beer, but I think it can be improved quite a bit. Cherry Spazz that we just released is probably my favorite sour beer that we’ve put out yet. Just really juicy, funky cherry with a dry, tart finish.

What’s about to drop that you’re super excited about?

People are going to be the most excited—we did an imperial stout called Griffith J Griffith. And we just aged one barrel— bourbon barrel—it’s like 53 gallons of it. And we bottled that like two weeks ago, so that will come out in the next month or two. That’s what consumers are most excited about. We also just bottled a beer last week….it’s a passion fruit and guava sour. Pre-bottling, it was coming along really nice. We actually used guavas from our tree in the back.

Very farm to table.

Yeah, as much as we can in the city.

redarrowHighland Park Brewery, 5127 York Boulevard, 323-739-6459. Stay tuned to the brewery’s Facebook page during L.A. Beer Week (June 22-26). Each day at noon, HPB will announce a new, extremely limited bottle release.