I have a bit of a confession. I didn’t always like Firestone Walker beers. There, I said it.
Around five years ago, I watched their medal count at the GABF and World Beer Cup grow. I’d grab a six pack from whatever big box store in Orange County sold their beer. I’d pour a glass, then shrug. “Is my palate flawed?” I’d think, being underwhelmed. I recall drain pouring Union Jack. I even gagged down a DBA at a local sporting event, not wanting to waste $13 I forked over. It was dreadful.
A few years ago driving down the Central Coast, I stopped off at their brewery for a bite to eat and ordered a Pale 31. Hops exploding from the glass like the ol’ snake in a peanut jar gag, I was floored by the aroma. I thought the bartender poured the wrong beer. “Nope, that is Pale 31 sir.” Did they change the recipe? Did they fire the brewer? My mind was blown at the difference in quality from what I get back home. Turns out, the stores I shop at suck at refrigeration and bottling date rotation. Sorry to totally whine about it (& more).
As Firestone Walker Brewing Company turns eighteen, this is a perfect time to take a look at their heritage. With over forty GABF medals in last dozen years, it’s clear there is something unique about what happened in 2001: Adam Firestone and David Walker hired a brewer named Matt Brynildson.
“I got the call to go to the bigwigs of brewing on the west coast, or at least that’s what I thought at the time,” says Matt. “Adam and David come from a winemaking background and the focus from day one was trying to integrate old chardonnay barrels and do a primary fermentation of clean English ales. They’re winemakers and didn’t understand the microbiology of brewing so well. Their first beers were okay malt vinegar, salad dressing at best,” he continued.
Firestone Walker’s first brewhouse lies in the middle of a vineyard in Los Olivos at the Firestone Winery, aptly named “Area 51” for its hinterland feel. The old brewery still exists and is currently used by Andrew Murray Vineyards, a curator of Rhône-style wine to this day.
“This is where it all began,” says Jeffers Richardson, one of Firestone Walker’s original brewers and current director at Firestone’s Barrelworks. “This is our original brew house.” It’s a building the size of a car wash with a side that opens to a deck that faces the fifty acre vineyard. The building is now filled with dimpled wine fermentation vessels, an industrial sink and an upstairs office. It’s functional, rustic, open air and spotless. There’s something romantic and movie-like sipping wine amongst the tranquil view of grape leaves flapping in the breeze. Brewing beer in this space must have been how the French field workers felt making Saison in the old world. “The beer we made here was terrible for years” reveals co-owner David Walker. “There were quality issues as we had trouble sustaining a boil for any amount of time.”
Onward to the New Brewery in Paso Robles
Firestone Walker’s current home in Paso Robles was originally occupied by SLO Brewing Company, where Matt left Goose Island in Chicago to brew. “I homebrewed in Kalamazoo, Michigan where Larry Bell (of Bell’s Brewery) had a homebrew shop and small brewery. I followed him around as much as I could.” Matt also worked as a chemist in a hop lab for his day job and homebrewed for local fraternities at night. “I went to school for brewing at Siebel Institute of Technology and took a job at Goose Island,” he added.
Shortly after joining SLO, they closed the Paso Robles location for good, almost forcing Matt to pack his bags. Jim Crooks (aka Sour Jim) brewed at SLO as well, just out of a food program at Cal Poly. David Walker notes, “They trespassed into the building and kept the fermenters in the building alive; there was a bunch of weird beers in there, and that explains a bit of our heritage.”
“When we took it over, there were Trader Joes (beers), Humboldt Brewing, Red Nectar, Hemp Ale and a Honey Blonde Matt made for a [BBQ chain restaurant]. To Matt, all these beers were treated equal, with respect. It didn’t matter what label went on them. Not only were they keeping these other beers alive, they were brewing the standard Firestone Walker beers as well.”
Current Brewery in Paso Robles
Firestone Walker now owns around seventy acres surrounding the brewery in Paso Robles. Inside the steamy-hot building on the brew deck, head brewer Dustin Kral breaks down the current infrastructure. “This system was state of the art when it was put in here back in the day. Bell’s and Deschutes built their breweries on this classic early 90’s technology. It’s pretty solid and good quality.” When the awards started coming in around 2002, Firestone Walker’s brewery model became very popular.
When the brewery reached capacity, they had two choices: go out and buy a new two hundred barrel brewhouse and put it in a site next door, or “essentially turbo charge our existing system, maintain the same back-size, and run within the existing footprint,” says David. “What we’ve done here is double the capacity but we haven’t changed the bandwidth of the brewery in terms of how it moves wort in the process.”
A wet mill and brewhouse automation were added as well. Despite the ease of pushing buttons to mash in, hop charge and boil, “the guys are more connected to the wort as they’ve ever been,” says David. At first, the brewers were reluctant to take on automation but now they’re now converts. “I don’t understand why we were running so long without it. It makes total sense on labor, staffing, quantity, and quality, so we’re getting everything out of this brewhouse that we want to,” says Dustin.
A German-made whirlpool was acquired to produce pilsner and hefeweizen. “In the beginning we struggled with the whirlpool and had to relocate a couple draw-off ports so that we can get all the clean liquid [from hoppy beers] and leave all the hop trub behind,” says Dustin. For non IPA beers like 805, Double Barrel Ale and Pivo Pils, the whirlpool works perfectly. “There’s not a drop of wort left in there…all that’s left is a gorgeous little trub pile in the middle. It also has a jetting machine that breaks that trub and discharges it all out to the farmer.”
The brewery is currently on pace to brew 220,000 barrels in 2014. Adding some jacketed “run-to” vessels to the brewery, they can essentially hold wort at temp while the boil kettle is being cleaned, then transfer and get to a boil in five minutes. “We used to mash in every three hours, now we’re mashing every two, with the hopes to increase it to an hour and a half,” claims Dustin. With the old JV Northwest system, they were brewing the same capacity, but now they’re running 66% faster. “We were making 9-10 turns a day on the old brewery; today we can easily get 12-13. The goal is to get in the 14-15 range…in a perfect world, 16 brews a day.” They currently brew 24 hours a day, 6 days a week, with Sundays reserved for brewhouse cleaning, valve replacements, and other maintenance.
Production brewers start in the cellar then work their way to the brewhouse. “The goal in that is all operators eventually know everyone’s job,” declares Dustin. “Tim, a current brewer, worked in the Visitor’s Center, did marketing for a bit and is now part of the production team. Another guy, Zack, was really good in the restaurant, took a pay cut to run the forklift for a while and is now working the barrel union. We try to take people from within and continue training; we think this makes for an exceptionally solid team.”
Despite the rapid growth, quality is Firestone Walker’s number one concern. To grow comfortably, “we rely heavily on our lab. They’re the cockpit of the whole operation,” says Dustin. The team, led by Melanie Miller, tests beer at every step of the process, halting production as necessary. Having brought up my bad experience with store bought beer back home, Norm Stokes, QC lab sensory tech shared a flight of Union Jack aged at three, thirty and three hundred days; both stored in refrigeration and without. Surprising to note the beer without refrigeration at thirty days is a shadow of its former self. At three hundred, notes of wet cardboard and asparagus cover up any notes of actual beer.
Yeast management is also a challenge for the team. Now using three strains in production, they can now propagate in house. “We used to use one strain…the English ale yeast; now we do Pivo quite frequently (lager), also our saison, Opal, has its own yeast.” They currently use the house ale yeast around ten times, going “from a single jar to fifteen gallons; two barrels to ten…fifteen…one hundred, then one-fifty. We then source it out throughout the brewery,” says Dustin. Yeast management alone is a fulltime job.
Firestone Walker’s barrel warehouse (aka the best smelling place on earth) is home to a cathedral of spirit barrels stacked to the ceiling. Beers like their Anniversary Ale, Velvet Merkin, Sucuba, Parabola and Stickee Monkee sit on bourbon aged oak coming from various producers. Over 1,500 barrels total impart their boozy, woody goodness. Other experiments, such as tequila-aged Velvet Merkin or coffee-infused Parabola (Parabajava) or other collabs sit resting in the temperature and humidity controlled room.
One of the most unique things about Firestone Walker is their barrel union for making Double Barrel Ale (DBA). Around thirty barrels make up their Burton-style union, where DBA undergoes a primary fermentation. This portion makes up 20% of the overall beer, adding complexity, a subtle fruitiness and a crisp-dry finish. At the brewery, be sure to try the 100% unfiltered version and compare it to the production version.
Beer Gone Wild at Barrelworks
Back in 2005, “Sour Jim” Crooks got his nickname from stashing various vinous vessels of beer between pallets in an old warehouse far away from the production brewery. Being a quality lab tech at the time, his aim was more curious than anything. “I’d forget about the barrels for a while and would note they would get more sour during the hot summer months.”
With the popularity of sour beers, Firestone Walker has tapped back into its roots by expanding the barrel program with wild and experimental beer. The offsite location, an hour and a half away in Buellton, gives the group a padded cell in which to go crazy. Wine barrels and foeders sit in the dark warehouse with large candelabra lights setting the mood. Jim and Jeffers blend various fermentations without the fear of infecting the brewhouse in Paso Robles with wild bacteria or yeasts.
Being in wine country, there’s no shortage of wine barrels. Many of their friendly neighbors prefer to remain nameless, but enjoy giving barrels and grape must to the brewers for whatever experiments they want to anonymously collaborate on. Beers like Bretta Rosé, Feral One and Lil’ Opal are notably releases; often reeling in a non-beer crowd with the unique barrel and farmhouse flavors.
Invitational Beer Festival
After only three years, the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival (FWIBF) is regarded as one of the best beer festivals in the country. Being an invitational, brewers are hand selected and pounce at the chance to participate. Not only are the rare beers poured fresh, great local food and music are part of the festivities. I once noted the festival is a ‘greatest hits mixtape of beer festivals’.
The LA satellite will house a restaurant, R&D brewhouse and an educational piece according to their website. The official opening date and what style of beers and food will be served is still to be determined.
As Firestone Walker has vastly improved their quality from the early days brewing beer in a vineyard, a lot of quality issues can still happen after beer leaves their care. Distributors and stores are improving as craft beer continues to grow. “Our beer should be stored at 44F for no more than 120 days.” Find a beer older than that? Don’t buy it and report it here. Proprietors Series or Barrelworks beer? Cellar/drink/trade to your heart’s content.
Firestone Walker’s XVIII Anniversary celebration will be taking place at multiple locations on Saturday, October 25, 2014. Beers announced for the party: Anniversary 13, Anniversary 14, 15, 18, Sucaba ‘12, ‘13, PNC, Hydra Cuveè, Velvet Añejo Merkin ‘13 (aka tequila Merkin), Merkin ‘14, Maltose Falcons collab “Brownywine”, Stickee Monkee ‘13, ‘14, Parabajava, Velvet Mocha Merlin, Feral Vinifera, Foeder #2, Wookey Jack, Double Jack, Pivo Pils, and Unfiltered DBA. For more info visit this link.