Article by: Lou Fancher | See the article: East Bay Times
PLEASANTON — Words printed on a cardboard box turned Harpreet Singh Judge into a beer baron.
Of course, there’s more to the story. How and why a Livermore man who’d been raised until age 8 in Punjab, India, and who at age 21 had never set foot in a bar determined that his destiny was to own and operate a saloon is an intriguing tale on its surface. But to hear Judge — the owner of Beer Baron Bar & Kitchen in Livermore and Pleasanton — tell it, he’s just a surfer catching a wave.
“There were 80 startup craft breweries in San Diego and hardly any in the Bay Area,” he says. “I just knew it was headed here.” The seed was planted five years before, when as a teenager working at his father’s store, Perry’s Liquor & Craft Beer in Livermore, Judge noticed the names of fruits and other unusual ingredients listed on beer boxes he was breaking down.
“It interested me; how some beers were made with different flavors and foods. I guess that stuck.”
After graduating from Granada High School, Judge worked in banks for four years. He tried college for six months and during that time, his interest in craft beer grew.
“College just wasn’t for me. I had ideas about what I wanted to do,” says Judge.
He quit the classroom, helped out in his father’s shop and hit the road.
“I’d go to San Diego and up to Oregon and Washington. The way the business works is personable: If I see brewers face-to-face, they remember me,” he says.
Stocking the hard-to-get beers at Perry’s led to a level of notoriety.
“We were 34th in ratebeer.com’s best beer retailers in the world (in 2010); eighth best in California. Craft beer did well for us. I could see there was a future in it.”
Judge, 28, bought the Livermore Saloon in 2012. The downtown bar had gone through multiple iterations since its opening as Croce’s Restaurant in 1914 — becoming a favorite watering hole but hardly a world-class mecca for craft beers.
Judge changed all that when it became Beer Baron. After working behind the bar for 21⁄2 years and doing a renovation, Judge saw substantial success. The “mission to serve the best beer in the world” and handcrafted, barrel-aged whiskey cocktails led to an expansion. A Sept. 6 soft opening of a second Beer Baron in Pleasanton added a menu of small plates and bar snacks — and up to 30 unique locally and nano-brewery-produced beers.
“I worked every day for two-and-a-half years. It was a dive bar when I bought it, and I knew I had to get in there and turn it around,” he says, recalling the early days in Livermore. “I learned that the business is all about stories, connecting to people.”
The relationships he forged with brewers continue.
“They’ll tag their barrel and say it’s only for Beer Baron because I hung out with them, helped out, took them out for a pint of beer. It gets you specialty beers, brewed in such small batches not everyone can have them.”
The first beer Judge ever tasted was Hop 15, a double IPA made by Port Brewing Co. in San Marcos (San Diego County). “I was 18 and snuck a bottle from my dad’s store. It had 15 different hops, and to this day, when it gets released each year, I make sure we have it at Beer Baron. When I first had it, I noticed the mouth feel was different. Over time, as I drank it more, I got into the flavor. As you begin to be familiar with craft beer, your palette will change. You taste and notice dimensions you don’t taste at first.”
Dimension infuses everything from beers that include hefty IPAs, European ales, local stouts and lagers — to wine by the glass or bottle and Kentucky-based Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Eagle Rare Bourbon Whiskey used in cocktails.
The most popular “Whiskey Baron” and runner up “Peachy King” cocktails blend Eagle Rare with Italian Vermouth and peach liqueur or with local honey, Breckenridge Bitters, fresh peach and lemon, respectively.
“They’re smooth, easy to drink,” says Judge.
Food is a new frontier that Judge is approaching with care. The initial menu (available only in Pleasanton) includes starters — Lemon Grass Beef Jerky, Chile Lime Cashews — and small plates that include Hoisin Lamb Riblets or a Baron Burger.
“It’s food that’s ready in less than 10 minutes and goes well with what you’re drinking at the bar,” he says.
An expanded menu will gradually introduce soups, sandwiches, chicken and seafood options and desserts to accompany the salads and small plates already on the menu. Special food and beer or cocktail pairings are planned, but Judge says his primary focus will always begin and end with beverages.
His keen eye on future trends remains. Session IPAs that don’t leave a person feeling bloated, unable to drive legally, or needing a nap after just one beer are “what’s happening,” he says.
Nitro beers that build a thick mouth feel by infusing nitrogen and carbon dioxide in a pour are available but don’t dominate the offerings. Live music — reggae on Thursdays and jazz or blues on weekends — is scheduled at both locations.
“It’s a big plus when you have good music but can still talk to your friends,” says Judge.
Customers, he adds, love to interact with owners and they’ll find him — when he’s not breaking down boxes out back — behind the bar.
Cuisine Scene takes an insider’s look at Tri-Valley restaurants and the people behind them. To comment, or suggest a restaurant, email Editor Simar Khanna at email@example.com.