Two years ago, Ross Stephenson and some restaurateur friends bought an aging Mexican escort bar called Hermosillo Club on York Boulevard in Highland Park. They quickly converted it into the Hermosillo, a hipster-ready wine-and-craft-beer spot with snappy decor, yellow leather booths and an old-school projector upon which the nightly draft offerings are displayed.
Stephenson built the neighborhood bar incrementally, starting first by inviting taco trucks to park outside, in lieu of making his own grub, and pouring a small but well-curated list of local beers instead of making his own.
But today Highland Park's most successful bar makeover is in another league of its own. With last year's opening of an in-house tapas kitchen and this weekend's grand opening of Highland Park Brewery, located in the Hermosillo's back room, the former dingy dive is now the area's first official brewpub.
Highland Park Brewery's brewmaster and owner Bob Kunz (he prefers the title "beer guide") is no stranger to Los Angeles' beer scene. A homebrewer who discovered professional brewing while in college in Seattle, he moved to L.A. and got a job at Craftsman Brewing in Pasadena, then the only craft brewery in L.A. County. He left six years ago to become general manager at Father's Office in Santa Monica, leaving there only after Stephenson offered to let him build his dream in the back of the Hermosillo.
"The idea was always to open a brewery. I had written a business plan and everything," Kunz said on a recent weekday morning as he and some friends cut fresh peaches to drop into a batch of tart Berliner-weisse. "I was actively looking for places near my home in Highland Park, and then Ross said, 'Wanna check out this space in the back? I think it might be good for a brewery.'"
The space in the back" was being used by the Hermosillo for storage at the time but it was once a former VIP area — complete with three small private rooms and a bathroom with a shower — when the location was the Hermosillo Club. Now gutted and outfitted with a back-door roll-up, it was perfect for a small neighborhood brewery such as Kunz envisioned, so he bought a new seven-barrel brewing system and for the last six weeks has been making Highland Park Brewery's first round of beers, which are already some of the best in the region.
"For me, beer is always an adventure. It's about this sense of wonder," Kunz says of his approach to beer. "There's so much opportunity with the ingredients, and you can basically do whatever you want to do."
Without being beholden to particular styles, Kuntz prefers the dryer and more acidic qualities in beer, leaning more toward tartness or bitterness rather than malt and sweetness. Instead of going the typical route with a core lineup and a flagship beer, as most breweries do, Highland Park Brewery will be offering seasonal releases and a rotating cast of whatever catches Kunz's attention that month. Unafraid to experiment with bacteria and wild yeast, he's also looking forward to barrel-aging and spontaneously fermenting sour beers for the brewery.
"If we have peaches, we'll make a peach beer. If the sage in my backyard is good, we'll use that," Kunz says. "The goal is to always have an IPA on draft, but that IPA will always be changing."
The brewery's initial releases include Wake Up, a session black lager with coffee, akin to Port Brewing's Board Meeting; Vacation, a Belgian-style single brewed with citrusy American hops like Citra and Amarillo; Hello L.A. IPA, a bright, crisp and citrusy IPA that calls to mind more light and drinkable San Diego hop bombs such as Alpine Brewery's Nelson; and its only year-round beer, Refresh, an unfiltered, Pilsner-like beer with a biscuity finish, which will turn anyone into an HPB believer.
Several of the grand-opening beers have been quietly poured on draft for the last few weeks. And their superb quality, balance and all-around drinkability makes Highland Park Brewery an anomaly among the abundance of new breweries opening in L.A., many of which are releasing first batches without dialing in their recipes first.
Though some kegs of Hello L.A. and Wake Up soon willbe distributed to other local bars including the Greyhound, Tony's Darts Away and Bar Covell, the Hermosillo is home turf for Highland Park Brewery, a place its owners hope will continue to be a focal point for craft beer in the changing community along York Boulevard.
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"There are very few brewpubs and breweries in residential neighborhoods out here, but that's part of Seattle's culture," says Kunz, referencing the town where he spent so much time. "That's what I want to do here — have a brewery that connects with the neighborhood around it."
Highland Park Brewery's grand opening celebration is on Saturday, June 28, starting at noon. The Hermosillo, 5125 York Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 739-6459, thehermosillo.com.