Before Jimmy Han and his wife Yume opened Beer Belly in Koreatown, people in the craft beer community already knew his moniker: Hophead Jim. The well-known IPA drinker made frequent appearances at craft beer events, bars and breweries, and when the Hans debuted their contemporary establishment in 2011, they already had a substantial craft beer network. They captured the imagination of locals with their ever-rotating tap handles and bottle program, and also with a monthly brewery showcases, which they dubbed the One Night Stand program. Eventually, they attracted the attention of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” Good thing they’ve got patio expansion plans in the works, since people have been flocking to Beer Belly for craft beers and Death by Duck. On April 17, I had lunch with Jimmy Han at Yu Hyang Restaurant in Koreatown, and he shared insights into craft beer and community.
At what point did you know that you would work with craft beer for a living?
It wasn’t that much of a plan early on. Growing up, high school, college, I always wanted a place to drink for myself, have a bar or have a club, or have a sports bar. During college, I was into a lot of sports, so I thought it would be cool if I could open up a sports bar.
What sports do you like to watch?
Did you play sports growing up?
Yes, a lot of basketball. As I got older, I thought okay, it would be cool to open a wine bar, but I didn’t know that much about wine. I never studied wine. I wasn’t a sommelier or anything. This was around 2006, when me and Yume were dating. We went to a Champagne bar in New York called Flute…It’s a cozy, dark, wood interior. I thought L.A. needs a Champagne bar, but that’s when times were good. People were spending $100 or $200 on a bottle of rosé, and they’d have strawberries and cream with their Champagne. That was a date night. Then came the “recession,” 2008, and I was thinking, 1) I don’t know enough about wine to do a wine bar, and 2) Champagne bar, I don’t think people will be spending the same money as they were before. I was doing real estate at the time, but it was slow. There weren’t any transactions. It was a very standstill, easygoing market, as in, not a lot of work.
Commercial real estate?
Commercial real estate. I spent a lot of time drinking beer, and I recently got married with Yume, and I decided that in this time when I’m not doing real estate, I’ll open up a small little craft beer bar in Koreatown for me and Yume to make a living for ourselves. That was basically how it started.
There wasn’t a magical bottle, and then the lightbulb came on?
No. I’ve always been attracted to craft beer. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Firestone Walker DBA, when I could find it. I was always intrigued by the different styles. Anchor Steam, in particular. I thought it was cool that there were different techniques and different methods to brewing a beer. That’s what really attracted me to venture out and try different beers.
When did you start developing the name Hophead Jim?
When I started on Beer Advocate.
That was your handle on Beer Advocate?
That was my handle on Beer Advocate. I would read up on beer. That was a lot of fun. Every night I would sit down with a bottle and a glass and I’d take tasting notes and study up on the brewery and whichever style I was drinking, and read about what other people thought about that particular beer or brewery. It was a lot of fun to sit down for 30 minutes or an hour or so and just have a nice beer and read about beer.
How would you say that Beer Belly has evolved since it opened, from a beer perspective?
From the beginning, I wanted to make sure that people that came to Beer Belly to learn about craft beer – I expected more than half the people who walked through the door not to know what an IPA is – so I wanted to take them through this journey. I never said that I would only serve California craft beer, or even local. I think people assumed that, but as I took people through this journey and exposed them to craft beer and the styles and breweries, I wanted to make sure people knew what was available locally, so I made it a point to make 99% of them local breweries. I like all good beer, and I get a keg of Deschutes Abyss, it’s not like I’m not going to put it on just because they’re not from California. I wanted to make sure people go on this journey, but started the journey from here, where we’re at, and learned about the breweries around here. Eventually they’ll learn about Stone, they’ll know what Dogfish Head is, they’ll learn about Dark Lord. Those names and reputations will precede them, people will get there, but in the meantime I wanted to make sure that they knew there’s a brewery in Eagle Rock they can go to and see how beer is made and maybe take some classes and taste some stuff, and all the wonderful breweries in Orange County. I wanted to make sure people knew about all the local breweries before they found out about the big ones.
Does that tie in to the One Night Stands too, awareness?
Of course. Education. Exposure. I love my double IPAs and sours and barrel aged stuff, but I still think it’s important people learn about the session beers and the approachable stuff. I can hand them an IPA – it can be Pliny the Elder or Pliny the Younger – they’re still not going to like it, but start them with something they’re used to, like a hefeweizen or lager. Heavenly Hefeweizen from Craftsman is one of my favorites. It’s pretty distinct from any other Hefeweizen. I wanted to show them that a hefeweizen can be pretty different across craft beer, along with lagers, pale ales, and get them used to hops and what that flavor is. Eventually, hopefully, their palate will come around to looking for more hops, maybe an IPA and of course if they become a hophead, they’ll be looking for the double IPAs.
Is no handle safe as far as rotation?
No handle is safe as far as rotation. I still bring around Heavenly Hef a lot and 1903 lager. Everything makes the rotation. At Beer Belly, for me, it was all about the creativity. That included the brewers, that included Chef Wes [Lieberher] and the food, that included the artist Yoshi, the architect, even the contractor, because the architect can draw up any great plans, but the contractor knows how to execute those plans to the physical location. For me it was all about creativity and working with a lot of creative individuals and creating this environment for exploration, whether it be beer or food, or social exploration…It’s been pretty crazy because it’s been this perfect storm of our customers and our breweries, and our chef and our food and our staff, I’ve just been amazingly blessed. I feel so lucky to have everything come together and people respond to it the way they do.
Even though you built your establishment on beer, you’ve gotten to be very well known for the food, especially now with Diners, Drive-ins and Drives.
Wes is very talented at making “beer inspired comfort food,” as he calls it.
What do you think the Diners, Drive-Ins and Drives effect will mean for Beer Belly?