Behind every overnight success, the saying goes, you’ll find years of quiet plodding.That’s definitely true of Bob Kunz and his Highland Park Brewery.
In March, Kunz opened the huge new 9,000-square-foot showcase brewpub across from the Los Angeles State Historic Park in Chinatown. It’s a gorgeous space with a bowstring truss ceiling, miles of exposed brick, a handsome red-tiled bar and a striking black concrete floor. Out front, there’s a cozy patio under string lights. Around back, there's an open view of the new 15-barrel brewhouse, double the size of the previous space, which is still operating on the opposite slope of Mount Washington.
Highland Park is currently the city’s buzziest brewery, churning out stellar hazy IPAs, complex saisons and hop-forward Pilsners that cram tons of character into a still-crushable lager.
It’s a breakthrough for Kunz, whose roots in the Los Angeles craft beer scene go pretty far back. He started working at Los Angeles County’s first brewery, Craftsman in Pasadena, in 2006. Most important for Kunz, the space allows him to grow while still selling his beer direct to consumers — important for his profit margins and the ability to maintain control from tank to glass. “Beer quality and freshness are extremely important to me, and I feel one of the best ways to achieve that is to sell direct to our customers," he says.
Kunz has been brewing for 25 years, starting when he made homebrew with his college roommate. That roomate happened to be Josh Pfriem, who now has a wildly successful brewery in Hood River, Oregon. Kunz worked for Craftsman in its early days, and then at the gastropub Father's Office.
In 2012, Kunz got the opportunity to take over the back room of a rehabbed dive bar in the brewery’s namesake neighborhood. Restaurateur Ross Stephenson and two partners were revamping the Hermosillo on York Boulevard, which in a previous life was a dingy “escort bar” complete with private rooms and a shower in the back. The Hermosillo group bought into Kunz’s plan and the brewery was born on a shoestring budget.
The new-look Hermosillo is very much a neighborhood spot, with pork belly tacos, day drinkers playing the bar’s unique ring-and-hook game and special case deals to its 90042 ZIP code. The vibe is Forman family den: “Man, they’re playing too much Dylan even for me,” complained a man with a ponytail smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk outside. Highland Park’s beers populate about half the tap list, which is beamed onto the wall above the taps using an old-school overhead projector. There’s also a well-chosen wine-by-the-glass list and a diverse, snacky menu with charcuterie boards and a fried chicken sandwich.
The new Chinatown spot, not far from Philippe’s and David Chang's new Majordomo, is a different thing entirely — it was designed by the Knowhow Shop of Giant Comb bike-rack fame and has furniture built from Douglas fir boards pulled from the rafters. The new spot draws a wider clientele, from beer chasers loading up on cases for bottle shares to families. It has a similarly diverse snack menu and interesting wine picks, including a pet nat and a house-made Vermouth.
The list is heavy on hazy IPAs, which Highland Park was early to make and which have propelled its success. The cult favorite is Yeah Yeah, a velvety smooth double IPA with a soft yellow glow and a bouquet of tropical aromas from Vic's Secret, Mosaic and Simcoe.
“We’ve been making hazy beers for three years or so,” Kunz says. “That’s ramped up quite a bit though in the past year as consumer demand for those styles has really increased. … We produce mostly hoppy beer so it’s nice to be able to develop a whole range of flavors and textures that simply doing just one style of hoppy beer doesn’t allow for.”
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For my money, though, the standouts at the new Highland Park are the lagers. These cold-fermented styles of German origin take longer to make than ales, meaning they tie up tank space that’s in high demand at a popular small brewery. Now that he finally has some space to stretch out, Kunz is making stellar lagers that bring in new hop character while maintaining the neat lines and drinkability of the styles.
“We’re incredibly passionate about making lager beer,” Kunz says, and it shows. The list is always changing, but lager-wise look for America’s Preference, which uses traditional German yeast but gets layers of domestic and imported grains and then domestic and Czech Saaz hops. It’s quaffable but complex, the rare lager that you can spend some time dissecting — or not.