The journey to the center of Firestone Walker’s barrel is a story of barrels, rebel brewers and wildly fortuitous and tasty consequences. Hearing the call of the wild, I had the immense pleasure of spending some quality time with the people behind the brewery.
The journey began from Union Station in downtown, Los Angeles, where ~ 15 other Los Angeles craft beer bloggers awaited our Greyhound chariot. Our first beer of the day, at 9am, was a Firestone Walker DBA. After a few hours on the freeway, our bus turned onto a dirt road. Now, I’m sure the bus driver was accustomed to navigating the 405, 8am commuters and BMW’s, but he was slightly out of his element trying to make the sharp turn towards Windrose Farms. And personally, I’m glad. About 20 minutes later, real estate guru turned farm owner, Bill Spencer, picked us up on his tractor, flatbed contraption. Okay, so this city girl hasn’t spent enough time on the farm to even know what it was that led us to the amazing vegetable and fruit farm.
There, David Walker and the Firestone team greeted us with a beer, where Bill proceeded to talk about the land, the food and farming. Windrose is a small family farm, where 12 acres are in vegetable rotation, six are in apples and stone fruit and five are sheep pasture. Currently transitioning to biodynamic farming, Windrose provides ingredients to the Firestone Walker Taproom restaurant, and supplies produce to numerous Southern California chefs.
It was a gorgeous day and the table was set amongst the greenhouses, outside in the California sun. The first ever craft beer bloggers conference, at Firestone Walker began with a fresh, organic and amazingly flavorful meal, paired with non-other than Firestone Walker beers.
The farmstyle salad with fresh picked greens, vegetables and Union Jack vinaigrette paired beautifully with the Double Jack IPA. The citrus and fruity aroma was the perfect accompaniment to the salad. This was followed by braised bitter greens, Windrose Farms smoked tomatoes, paired with Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA. This unfiltered spicy, malty and hoppy black ale is bold, yet refined. It really is a delicious beer. The Firestone crew then served Walker’s Reserve braised lamb, roasted root vegetables with Parabola Russian Imperial Stout.
As I gazed around at the other giddy beer writers eating, talking and drinking, a feeling of that old world tradition that Matt Brynildson later talked about, came over me. Barbara Spenser talked about the mineral rich lettuce and where it originally came from, how it was grown and the differences between their greens and store bought vegetables. The cook was preparing the food in front of us at the end of the table. I could tell by the smile on his face, he had an immense appreciation for good, quality, organic food. And I imagine watching all of the smiles on our faces and noticing the empty plates gave him that chef’s pride of knowing he made a wonderful lunch. It reminded me of my time living in Switzerland, and how Europeans relish the mid-day meal. They take their time and savor their food. With this, fine beer or wine is usually a close companion. This is how meals should be enjoyed.
We ended the meal with DBA caramelized apples, vanilla ice cream and a glass of Double DBA Imperial ESB.
Our journey toward the center of the barrel landed us at small, artisan winery, Herman Story Wines. Proprietor Russell From is a veteran member of the small winemaker blending team that Brewmaster Matt Brynlidson assembles each year to assist with the blending of their Anniversary Ale. They release their wines twice a year, in Spring and Fall. Their 2010 Casual Encounters is a blend of 40% Syrah, 40% Grenache & 20% Mourvedre. In the words of Russell: “Herman Story was a rancher, logger, swapper, banker, philanthropist, teller of tales and my grandfather…” The story of Firestone Walker was unfolding and the local flavor is rich in history and heritage.
Now that we had a sense of the quality of people that Firestone worked and played with, we moved onto the brewhouse. Their new brewhouse was completed in the fall of 2012. It was installed with extensive custom features made to meet Matt’s vision for maximizing beer quality, including his personal modifications for milling, hop dosing, and kettle efficiency.
In Matt’s words: “By the time we got done with it, it essentially became a full-blown custom hot rod brewhouse.”
Collectively, they are taking advantage of unprecedented technological opportunities to elevate quality. A couple of examples from the tour included:
Wet Mill: Unlike a traditional dry mill, a wet mill features a steeping chamber that hydrates the grain, allowing the husk to slip off intact, without being fragmented. The benefits? (1) it reduces the amount of tannin and protein during lautering, minimizing haze and harsh tannin effects; (Side note: lautering is a process in brewing in which the mash is separated into the liquid wort and the residual grain.)(2) it provides a better filter bed; and (3) the rollers can be set closer together to better pulverize the endosperm, increasing the yield percentage of sugar while requiring less energy. Their new wet mill represents 25% of their new brewhouse cost, a massive expense for an incremental gain in quality.
Automated Hop Dosing: The latest hop-dosing vessels are run by automation software, improving overall hop dosing consistency. The alternative, and what Firestone was doing until recently, is having the brewers running up and down the stairs, turning knobs and manually orchestrating the hop dosing. Obviously, they did a spectacular job, as proven in the taste of the brews, but for ultimate consistency and efficiency, you just can’t beat the software.
In addition to utilizing the latest brewing technologies, today’s cutting-edge beers are also made using one of mankind’s oldest vessels: the wooden barrel. Barrels are used in a variety of ways during the brewing process:
- Fermentation – This refers to primary fermentation of the beer in oak barrels. Their unfiltered DBA is a great example and a local favorite. They call their oak barrel fermentation system the Firestone Union, and it dates back to their origins in 1996. The Firestone Union is inspired by the famed Burton Union, once a staple of beer making in 19th century Britain, resurrecting a time-honored brewing tradition, that embraces handcrafted quality. Oak barrel fermentation enhances the fullness of the palate and brings a bright briskness to the finish.
- Aging – Beers can be aged for a year or more in barrels to produce high-gravity strong ales. Barrel aging imparts rich flavors bourbon, dark fruits, espresso, wine and smoke. Firestone started their barrel aging program in 2005, in advance of their first Anniversary Ale bottling that was released in 2006. Each year, the Anniversary Ale is a blend of as many as eight divergent component ales assembled with input from local winemakers, like Herman Story. Some of these blends have merited their own stand-alone vintage bottles, such as Parabola, Double DBA and Sucaba.
- Secondary Fermentation – To create wild (sour) beers, the brewer allows or initiates secondary microflora fermentation in the barrel, thus creating their distinct funkiness. The beers are subsequently aged in the barrel as well. They typically use retired wine barrels to make their wild beers they are also incorporating bourbon and Firestone Union barrels.
Firestone Walker started making their first wild beers in 2007. Currently, their wild beers are only available at Barrelworks. And with the gorgeous landscape and multitude of amazing wineries nearby, it’s well worth the trip. Barrelworks opened early in 2013. The origins began eight years ago with a few renegade barrels, when brewmaster Matt slyly imported some spirits barrels from Kentucky. It is the mothership of their growing barrel-aged wild beer program, which includes revolving creations such as Lil’ Opal, Sour Opal, Rufus, Reginald Brett and others.
Brewmaster Matt Brynildson (via the website), “As I can’t really say how we got here—it just got out of control, in a good way.”
Adding a certain pedigree strain of yeast and bacteria produces a range of strange, interesting, bright, refreshing and wonderful attributes. At the heart of the wild Buellton Barrelworks project is Brettanomyces, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus, which may occur spontaneously or from oak barrels that have been previously inoculated. Firestone beers are made and aged in a variety of American, French and Hungarian oak barrels, many of them inherited from local Paso Robles wineries.
Matt is not your run of the mill brewmaster (I’d venture to say none of them are really “run of the mill”), having started out as a chemist. This was apparent when he showed us around the lab, explaining how it’s divided up into three sections. They run samples and gather analytical data, a microbiologist works with various yeast strains and a ‘sensory technician’ assures the aroma and taste are of the highest caliber. How does one get THAT job? And when we all started smelling something burning, he was the coolest of cool. The other blogger who didn't realize he was leaning against a hot plate, burning well, something, let out a nervous laugh. And THAT was our queue to move on to the next room!
As Matt continued to talk about wild beers and the intriguing process, he mentioned something that peaked my interest. “They get interesting at 3.8,” he said. He was talking about the pH. One guy who knows a little something (A LOT) about blending is master blender & QA manager, Jim Crooks (or ‘Sour Jim’, as he’s called). Standing in front of a plethora of wooden barrels, he passionately talked about the new 7,000-square-foot temperature controlled barrel aging cellar and their Firestone Walker barrel programs. He recalled the humble beginnings of the program, a gift from Russian River Brewing Company that arrived by mail, wood chips that were covered in the anaerobic bacteria. I soon noticed my eyes were not the only eyes lit up in the barrelhouse. Walking to another, chillier room, this is where we began to taste exactly what they were talking about. Barrelmeister, Jeff Richardson then let us sip their creations straight from the barrel. The PNC Tequilic Distortion (working title) 2012 in American Oak was amazing with the tequil, oak and smoke notes. And these individual barrels can be pulled off and tapped for the Barrelworks bar in the other room.
There was no one favorite moment of the trip, because it was all top-notch, but the wild beer bending session was really cool. The Lil Opal blending tasty tutorial was comprised of three small barrels (Saison-Lil barrel #93, #16, #13 & Bretta Weisse), and a fourth in a canter. They had their own ABV, yeast strains and flavor profiles. Using beakers, we measured and tasted, measured again and tasted more. We finally came up with our own sour ale dubbed “EK@”, using the first initials of each of our names (Erin Peters, Kip Barnes & Aaron Carroll). Citrus peel, cantaloupe, cider, grapefruit, grape with a slight smoked taste was our final tasting notes.
It was delicious, in my humble opinion. You really can't go wrong blending four Firestone Walker sour ales.
The award winning brewery has fostered a strong and loyal following in the central coast, steeped in old world tradition. Scientific brewing, a new cathedral of barrels, natural ingredients and a never-ending passion for delivering cracking ales has made them an instrumental force, taking craft beer quality to wild, new heights.