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.
If I were to place an apple and an orange in front of you and ask, “which is better?” you’d probably say, “that’s a dumb metaphor” and promptly throw them at my head. Deservedly so. Both have varieties that span different visual, aroma and flavor profiles. Scientifically speaking, both pack different acidity, sugar content and nutrition. From a physics standpoint, both would bounce off my face in a similar trajectory when thrown at a high rate of speed.
Now, If I were to put a cluster of cabernet grapes, bag of fresh malted barley and a fistful of fresh whole cone hops in front of you, the question of “which is better” becomes insanely intricate. Forget for one minute that wine and beer have thousands of variables that affect the final flavor. Each of these relies on the perfect setting, the perfect food, the perfect company and the perfect beverage to bring its spirit alive. Having each component at its peak, one can truly judge “which is better.”
So when I saw that the Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach was hosting a beer vs. wine event, I figured the results would be skewed heavily towards wine, especially as it was marketed as a “Stone Brewing vs. Constellation Wine Brands” event. I give Stone all the credit in the world, but their selection of high IBU palate wreckers aren’t necessarily the first thing I would grab to accompany five courses of noted Chef David Fuñe’s fresh and adventurous fare.
On arrival, my preconceived notions of an overall stuffy event were shattered by a two words on a poster at the entrance: Master Pairings. “Is Dr. Bill Sysak here?” I Bieber-shrieked. “Indeed he is; welcome!” On the wine side, certified wine sommelier Scott Young was prepared to do battle with beer in this gorgeous seaside setting.
The Surf & Sand resort is a landmark hotel on the south side of Laguna Beach. Once party to Nixon’s press core when the president relaxed in his San Clemente getaway, reporters like Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Diane Sawyer could be seen doing reports from this lush seaside getaway. All the attention from the news at the time was largely responsible for transforming the town from a hippie artist village to a noted tourist destination. Today, its charm remains simple with large cushioned patio areas, a beachside view from every angle and flames blazing away the chilled sea air.
Pairing beverages with chef Fuñe’s cuisine is no easy task. I imagine him laughing maniacally in his kitchen laboratory like a mad genius tinkering with molecular gastronomy. With courses like a salad ‘sopa’ served in a test tube, a ravioli topped with a translucent bacon-rollup and a dessert of red chocolate pavé with cow’s blood pot du crème, I’m sure Dr. Bill and Scott lost sleep over what to pair.
After each course, beer or wine was circled and dropped into a hat. Although I’m heavily biased toward beer, I can honestly say the decisions were harder than expected. With great wines like Robert Mondavi Pino Noir Reserve 2011 battling Lost Abbey’s Lost and Found, for example, the margin for ‘excellent vs world class’ is what we’re being treated to… On the last pairing, beaching a 2008 Stone IRS whale vs. a Saved Red Blend wine is where I knew beer had won.
Overall, we were treated to a gorgeous view with waves crashing nearby, five courses of inventive delicious food, delightful and talented table guests and some of the finest beverages in the world. I’m sure we will all lose sleep thinking about this great experience. Oh, you want the score? Beer won four courses to one.
Wine took course four to my surprise. The thick mouthfeel of the duck leg and egg yolk was a good match for the beer, cleansing the palate. The wine slid over it, creating an even more full mouthfeel. Perhaps people were taken aback by beer in a can, even Scott Young joked that his wine he paired was “aged in cans” to everyone’s laughter.
1) Salad ‘Sopa’ with blood orange, radish, anise and añejo tequila
b) Stone Brewing Co. Cali Belgique IPA
w) Ruffino Prosecco
2) Cold ‘Raviolis’ belgian endive, bacon mousse, apple
b) Liefmans Goudenband
w) Franciscan “Equilibrium” White blend 2012.
3) Scallops – crystallized tomato, parmesan, lemon creme
b) Lost Abbey Lost and Found dubbel
w) Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir Reserve 2011
4) Duck Inspired by Dr. Seuss – slow poached egg, leg of Moulard, cilantro, mushrooms
b) Oskar Blues Old Chub Scotch Ale
w) Franciscan Magnificat Meritage 2010
5) Red Chocolate Pavé – pot du crème, blood orange, candied bacon tuille
b) Stone Brewing Imperial Russian Stout 2008
w) Saved Red Blend 2010
Sometime last year, a good looking lady moved in a few doors down. While making coffee in the morning, I’d spy her stylish Bettie Page bangs, matching fluffy white robe and slippers yelling at her dog to “go potty! Go potty dammit!” I’d think to myself, ‘What a spicy, spicy woman.’ Driving down the street, I’d do that nonchalant steering-wheel wave at her out watering plants. To this day, she always makes a point to wave back, batting lashes, probably thinking nothing of the married neighbor from a few doors down. As it should be.
Around the same time my dashing neighbor moved in, a new tavern opened in downtown Fullerton. “Hopscotch” was the name, implying that an adult playground lies inside the historic Mission-style building. With promises of various hoppy-scotchy delights, I’m sure all the local breweries licked their chops at the prospect of a craft-only beer and whiskey bar in the neighborhood. Turns out, the boy next door was the first to strike. Bootlegger’s Brewery, located just a couple lights down Fullerton’s tree-lined streets, recently got invited over for supper; beer pairing dinner style.
As the summer sunset sizzles west towards the ocean, cocktails and cigars light up Hopscotch’s glowing back patio. This pre-game crowd is a testament to what kind of folks are interested in this sort of situation. Six courses of chef-prepared macho grub paired with five beers and five beer cocktails prove no match for these seasoned professionals. Should I be scared? Can I hang? The mere thought of this epic neighborly beer/food dating game makes me nervously knock back my pre-dinner beer a wee bit swiftly. Even the green table candles dance drunkenly to the music drowning under the hungry dining room’s roar.
With the ding of a glass ringing like a boxing bell, Hopscotch Executive Chef Cody Storts hops into the ring and welcomes us. Cocking his neck left and right, he sets the tone for the evening: “If you’ve ever done a fancy six course, wine-swirling dinner… I’m the complete opposite. Fullerton has been long overdue for a no-fluff studly dinner. It’s the way I want it and we hope it’s the way you want it.” We applaud and get ready to rumble. Round one…DING!
The first beer to hit our table is Bootlegger’s Brewery Belgian IPA. The Brewmaster/Owner of Bootlegger’s Brewery, Aaron Barkenhagen, speaks to it with a little history. “I started the brewery five years ago after home brewing in my garage for ten years. The beer is basically our Rustic Rye IPA with Belgian yeast.” Personally, Rustic Rye is one of the first beers I enjoyed from Bootlegger’s years ago and it stuck with me. The Belgian yeast version hits the nose with a juicy fruit and grassy note, finishing with a white peppery spice. “We currently brew 7,000 barrels of beer a year, half of which is poured right here in Orange County… We like to take care of the people in our own backyard,” says Aaron, with his slicked-back hair and a confident grin.
It didn’t hit me until course three what Chef Cody Storts true intentions were. First I was forking the soft pink circular wagyu tartare topped with wiry red chili threads, then I’d gently opened the gorgeously green-lipped flaps of fresh New Zealand mussels, before eagerly crunching into some flip-flop sized grilled Texas-style bread. The third course, a hand-length tiger shrimp resting on a soft white bed of salty grits is what clued me in. ‘Is chef trying to seduce us?’ I slid down my seat watching Bootlegger’s petite and beautiful Patricia Barkenhagen place the tip of the prawn in her mouth and slowly bite down. Breaking out in a sweat, I clear my throat and sip “Lairds Foley,” a cocktail mixed with Bootleggers Lemongrass Wit and Laird’s Applejack Whiskey among other house-made ingredients. With my beer long-gone, this beer cocktail thing saves me with a refreshing sweet kick that extends the sweetness of the shrimp. It’s gastro foreplay, really.
At this point, several sipped-on beer cocktails hang around my plate like a third wheel. Thus far I’ve sampled each dish with a swig of beer and a sip of cocktail, letting my subconscious guide my devilish ways. Each course is served with a Bootlegger’s tasting room exclusive beer and a cocktail created by Hopscotch Mixologist James Wood with the same beer. It’s nice to sample both to see which is worth of tomorrow’s hangover. Beer seems to be winning though, and I’m not sure if it’s a “comfort zone” thing.
Around course four my suspicions of chef were yet again confirmed. Pickled pork belly snow-capped with a load of creamy white goat yogurt is literally food porn in its purest form. Still not convinced of this obvious gastro seduction? Pork, seared in duck fat (the birds) surrounded by lemongrass coulis and honeycomb (the bees) is a nice touch. This gorgeous plate is a feast for the eyes and might be my favorite dish of the night… and year, for that matter. The crispy edge of the pork is like the best jerky you’ve ever had and the middle of the morsel is filled with mouth-exploding juicy pork love. Even the beer pairing of Wildfire Wheat really brings out some exceptional toasty notes from the rauch malt and crispy meat.
The final two courses hit our table crawling. We’re gutted and buzzed with a slight case of the meat-sweats. For the sake of this review, I get up and stretch to make room for a traditional cassoulet and one of the most inventive cocktails I’ve ever tasted. A “Hopsidaisy,” which is basically a Columbus-hopped gin drink containing grapefruit, lemon, house-made thyme syrup on top of Bootlegger’s Tropical Thunder Pale Ale, then garnished with whole cone hops. A one-hundred IBU cocktail is something I would have never expected at a beer dinner, but Hopscotch’s James Wood doesn’t quit. On the beer side, Bootlegger’s Tropical Thunder has a unique story stemming from an “oopsy-daisy” moment at the brewhouse. Originally a Golden Chaos Belgian Golden brewday, the brewers pitched the wrong hops and went with it. To further this “frankenbrew,” they used traditional German hefeweizen yeast and dry hopped it. The end result is an intensely tropical beer with huge banana, mango and pineapple notes stemming from the hops and yeast. It’s truly a unique and refreshing take on a standard hoppy pale ale.
As the evening winds down, dessert of chocolate goat milk cheesecake goes down like a funky flan. The last beer and cocktail pairings are sipped, leftovers are boxed, and a cab is called. I can guarantee some crazy sex dreams will fill my night.
For a first date, I’d say that the two got along beautifully. As with any pairing dinner, I always look for a heightened experience. With each dish, beer and cocktail, excellence was achieved. Some of the pairings brought out nuances of the courses that weren’t there before. Plus, the time, planning, and overall romantic overtones were not lost! I can’t wait to see what Chef Cody Storts and Mixologist James Wood come up with next. This meal is one for the books; the kind you find under a mattress.
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“What can I get you young man?” beckons a voice from behind the bar. Searching for a tap board and giving up, I scan the tap handles. “Can I get a Sierra Nevada “oh-vulla”? “Oh, you mean the “oh-Veela?” “Yeah, that’s the one…is that the Saison with mandarin and peppercorn?” “Yep.” He slides a snifter over with one finger, head creeping to the top, “enjoy my friend.” I sip and gleam about, taking in the afternoon, pretending to check my phone while listening to nearby conversations and jokes, trying my hardest not to laugh.
Hollingshead’s Deli reminds me of a sitcom in the 80’s filmed live in front of a studio audience. One foot through the door and the stage is set to a small family deli circa 1965 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Cheese heads, beer signs and Favre newspaper clippings flutter about as the door jangles open. The deli counter in back assembles sandwiches and salads like mom used to make. The green and gold themed bar back is filled with personalized dimpled pint glasses; a true mark of a place that regulars love.
Biting into a violet colored pickled egg, I ask Kenny — the second generation owner — about the business’ 50th anniversary party this Saturday. Wait, 50th? Did they really open in 1963?
“Yep, it’s going to be real special. Breweries are bringing something unique for the occasion.” “When did you get into the beer biz?” I ask. “In the late 80’s when Mr. Straub (of Straub Distributing) told my dad (Ken Sr.) beer is going to be the next big thing in beverages. He sold us twelve cases of imports and said, “I’ll be back in two weeks and whatever doesn’t sell, I’ll pay you cash.” We sold out of everything and never looked back. It’s been a fun ride! All the local places coming onto the scene making exceptional beer has made it even better.”
In the mid-90’s Hollingshead’s was one of the first customers of Vinnie Cilurzo of then Blind Pig Brewing in Temecula. Although Vinnie has moved on to much bigger things, Russian River is still one of Hollingshead’s main draws. Pliny the Younger release day has a line around the corner, and many of RR’s beers can be found on tap regularly. “Natalie Cilurzo was just here last week to pay us a visit and to wish us a happy anniversary,” adds Kenny.
Their 50th Anniversary is being celebrated on August 24th from noon to 5 p.m. With only 200 tickets available at $50 a pop, I’m sure it will sell out. They’ll be doing appetizers, ribs, cake and of course unlimited special beer donated from various breweries. “We even got to blend a special Stone Brewing Mixtape for the party, it tastes incredible,” notes Kenny.
With over 500 bottles of import and craft beer plus 22 taps, Hollingshead’s Deli is where it all started in Orange County. With their old school vibe and dedication to customer service and selection, I’m sure they’ll be around for another fifty! Cheers!
Contact Hollingshead’s Deli at 714-978-9467 for tickets, sandwich/catering orders, or just to say hi.
Bonus quote: “When your article is up, make sure and fax it to me” – Kenny Hollingshead. I plan on doing so – fax # 714-978-9594
Having only visited Claremont a couple times, I suddenly find myself wielding a token Pilsner glass, a map of the festival’s downtown area and a dozen tasting tickets. A bizarre feelings sets in quickly as I sip a locally brewed Oak Hills Brewing Conviction Pale Ale outside the local Coldwell Banker / foot massage parlor. There’s no gates. There’s no fences. The only thing corralling the surrounding herd of beer-sipping strangers is a piece of paper that reads ‘no beer past this sign’. Claremontonians follow this simple honor system as well, bouncing off the invisible force-field until their glass is deemed empty.
This is not your average beer festival. Laid out like a beer/food/blues scavenger hunt, most of Claremont’s charming college-town village participates in the annual Claremont Village Blues & Brews Craft Beer Walk in late June. Over thirty establishments open their doors for craft beer samples and bites from local eateries. Around every corner, live music fills the air and sets a relaxing tone. Just as the taste of one beer fades on the palate from one stop, blues cross-fades to the next. Each band and beer pulls us from stop to stop like a magnet.
Almost buying some vintage cowboy boots from Replay Village while sipping an Oskar Blues Deviant Dale’s? Yep. Quaffing a Hangar 24 Belgian Summer Ale inside American Apparel? Check. Doing a flight of Pomona’s Sanctum Brewing’s four beers inside a great comic book store called ‘A Shop Called Quest’? Totally. (Best smelling shop ever by the way with huge notes of ink and pulp. It’s euphoric.) Simple food samples being served at most tasting spots are a delight. Bacon-wrapped dates at the Last Drop Cafe were great next to Craftsman Brewing Co.’s ruby-red Cabarnale.
At Maple Boutique, a store I wouldn’t be caught dead in if it weren’t for the beer, I pinch myself. A summery blonde, sporting a warm smile, hands me a beer of the same ilk from Oceanside Ale Works. A few feet away, a vintage 1981 Atari Centipedes cabinet calls my name. With one hand on the fire button and one hand clutching the seasonal beverage, I easily clear three levels without moving. Who knew this was such a great strategy? The eclectic shop is filled with vintage iPhone docks, artistically modified vintage plates (one with R2D2), and one of the biggest gold pimp cash registers this side of the Mississippi.
As we zig-zag through the village, each tasting area is unique, friendly, and not part of a huge chain. The small-town vibe is held up firmly by the Claremont colleges and keeps this area pristine and totally interesting.
Several sites offer non-alcoholic treats, making this one of the best festivals ever for designated drivers. If you simply wanted to enjoy good blues, the event is basically free.
The beauty of this festival is best summed up by my last stop at Aromatique Skin Care: One part Wiens Brewing Descend Black IPA, one part dimly-lit massage room, plus one part complimentary hand/foot massage. I nearly climaxed with pure joy! Seriously. A free massage at a beer fest. Who knew.
Gripe: No beer festival is perfect, however this one had some issues with beer service that can easily be corrected. Some of the stops had varying degrees of success drawing proper samples. Some tastes were over-carbed, some under, and one I had was completely flat. Adding standard jockey boxes at each location would easily fix this issue. I haven’t seen a hand-pump party tap since college…those belong nowhere near a beer festival.
Overall, Claremont Village is a perfect backdrop for a beer and blues festival. It’s refreshing to see a fest do something completely different. Trusting the sell-out crowd with beer and all-you-can-eat food samples is quite a task. I guess if you treat people like cattle at a beer fest, they’ll act like it. Everyone was mellow and enjoying the day.
If you can’t wait for the next fest, I highly suggest grabbing some friends and taking the train for a proper beer crawl through Claremont Village: Start off at The Back Abbey for some Belgian Beer goodness and crawl to A Shop Called Quest for some comic books, hit the Cheese Cave for a nibble, then visit Eureka! Burger for American craft beer. Shop at some unique shops inside the historic Packing House for some retro goodies and bottle shop. Also in the Packing House, the Beer Belly Deli has one of the cleanest turn of the century bars ever and is set to open soon. End your day with some spa action at Aromatique Skin Care for a relaxing massage and sleep the train ride home. Sounds relaxing, no?
Claremont also hosts a wine version of this fest in September and sells out ever year. Visit claremontwinewalk.com for more info.
View the Facebook photo album here.
Greg Nagel has been a beer fan for over twenty years and recently attended Sierra Nevada Beer Camp (#94 – Sleight of Hand). Follow him on his gonzo beer trail at OCBeerBlog.com and on twitter at @OCBeerBlog