Highland Park Brewery’s founder and brewer, Bob Kunz, has already had a busy morning by the time he opens the metal roll-up doors leading into what was once the VIP backroom of the Hermosillo bar on York Avenue. Now, the space holds the tanks and kettles where the young veteran of the Los Angeles craft beer scene creates the lineup of hoppy IPAs and funky sour beers that have taken the shifting neighborhood by storm.
Highland Park Brewery makes beers targeted at the beer-drinkers in the neighborhood, and no brew demonstrates this hyper-local ethos better than Yard Beer.
Kunz has spent a couple hours walking up and down his neighborhood’s hilly streets on the lookout for the critical ingredients for Yard Beer — a saison that's infused with the flavors of Highland Park, thanks to foraged fruits and herbs picked from the Kunz’s own yard, and the yards of his friends, business partners and friendly neighbors.
By the time the brewer has finished his meandering three-mile stroll, his bags are filled with lemongrass, sour flower and a half-dozen varieties of lemons and limes. After thoroughly washing and zesting the bucket-full of citrus, everything gets added to a Vitamix blender and noisily buzzed into an aromatic slurry that evokes bowls of pho, sour candies and childhood summers in Southern California.
Kunz draws a small glass of the unadulterated beer from the 200-plus-gallon fermentation tank and carefully stirs a fraction of a teaspoon of the pungent paste into the brew.
“Normally I’d be much more scientific about this whole process,” he says, “but sometimes you just have to do things by feel.” He takes a few rapid sniffs before sipping carefully and considering the flavor. Another fleck of paste is stirred into the glass. Another sniff. Another sip.
“I’m amazed at how much that lemongrass comes through,” Kunz says as he gauges how much more of the foraged ingredients might be needed. The bags are still nearly overflowing with sour flower and lemongrass, and he used only a handful of citrus zest. “It’s better to start small and work up,” Kunz advises as he pours the first batch of concentrated local flavor paste into the base beer.
How does he know how much of the foraged ingredients to add? It’s mostly instinct and feel, he explains, with an eye toward giving customers what they want.
“My own sensibility tends toward more subtle flavors, but if you list an ingredient in a beer’s description, the customer is going to want to taste it. It’s a balancing act. I’ll try it tomorrow and we can add more if it needs it.”
Kunz separates the beers he makes at Highland Park Brewery into two camps. The “predictable beers” -- like the hoppy Hello LA IPA, Beer Spaceship pale ale and the subtle Belgian single Refresh -- are brews that customers can expect and keep coming back to.
The “unpredictable” beers push the boundaries of palates and process to showcase the funky, sour or inventive side of the brewery. These are beers like the peach- and nectarine-infused sour ale Lazy Suzan, and the soon to be released Sun-Soaked, a sour wheat ale that was fermented in used oak barrels left out in the sun in the brewery’s parking lot to provide a high fermentation temperature.
Bottles of the latter are currently on pre-sale and will be released at the brewery on Saturday, along with the newly bottled pFriem Spaceship (a collaboration with Oregon’s pFriem Family Brewery).
Yard Beer was brewed last summer as well, and that iteration of the beer was less tart and featured rosemary, sage and eucalyptus leaves in addition to lemongrass. Kunz is going for a brighter and more citrus-focused flavor for this year’s Yard Beer, though he nearly had to call an audible as his initial stops to forage only yielded a half-dozen limes and lemons.
Along the final few blocks nearing the brewery, Kunz spotted what looked like a Meyer lemon tree in the yard of a one-story ranch-style home. A single bough arched over the fence, weighed down by a pair of bright yellow-orange fruits. Kunz quickly plucked the citrus just as the homeowner peeked-out from under the hood of a car in the driveway.
“You need more?” the man asked, beckoning Kunz into his yard. “Please, take.”
That was a windfall.
The frontyard held three or four different citrus trees laden with fruit, and the driveway mechanic, Carlito — with the hospitality that anyone who’s lived with an over-growth of citrus trees knows well — helped Kunz fill his bags with various lemons. It was a neighborly interaction that not only helped save the day but also underlined Yard Beer’s connection to the yards — and the people — of one of Los Angeles’ best neighborhood breweries.
Highland Park Brewery, 5127 York Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 739-6459.