Our second trip to the Central Coast was another memorable and sensory filled weekend, with fellow Los Angeles beer bloggers. And there was plenty of laughter, fellowship and pleasant folly….oh and corks, lots of ‘em.
The trip began, where Firestone Walker all began.
After bussing up from Los Angeles, our first stop was Area 51, a perfect name for an area that had a certain mystique and history. We were surrounded by 50 acres of land and grapes. Side note: the Los Angeles writers did a surprisingly good job at setting up camp.
I suddenly felt as if I was transported back several decades, as I sipped beer on the back of a flat-bed farm truck, passing rows of vines glistening in the early May sunlight. I gave a nod of acknowledgement to the lamas and scarecrow that were hangin’ out on the side of the dirt road.
I couldn’t help but giggle out of sheer giddiness. And no, I wasn’t buzzed. This was pure delight.
We drove up upon an unassuming building among the vines. This was Firestone Walker’s original brewhouse. We were soon greeted by Andrew Murray, of Andrew Murray Vineyards. The current tenant and winemaker happily handed out a crisp and fruity white wine called E11even. It was even more delicious in the hot afternoon sun.
It’s here where David Walker and Jeffers Richardson talked about their humble beginnings. “This is where it all began” said Jeffers, one of Firestone Walker’s original brewers and director at Barrelworks. Walker joked that their beers weren’t always delicious. Time, tenacity and talent have led Firestone to deliver decadently, delicious beers, since.
We were led back to camp after the tour with our first wonderful group meal of the trip. It’s here that we were introduced to Bretta Rosé, a deliciously puckering blend of fresh raspberries and their Barrelworks Brettaweisse beer.
‘Sour Jim’ - as they affectionately call him – explained the birth of this big tart (and I mean that in the best way): “…we’re down in Barrelworks down in early 2013 and Jeffers and I were kinda’ like mad scientists. ‘What could we do to make this beer really interesting?’”
Jim started cold calling fruit farmers and vendors. He got in touch with John at Driscoll’s up the road.
He continued the story at the long, wooden table, that he ran out yelling, “Jeffers! You won’t believe this! We just landed 1000 pounds of raspberries for free!”
They unwrapped the enormous amount of raspberries by hand. And after three or four ‘punch downs’ in the fermenter, the berries turned white. And as the weeks went by, the flavors came through. The result is a gorgeous, complex and expertly balanced beer. Following this little lovely was an experimental wine-beer hybrid called Zin Skin.
David Walker: “Essentially, what the Barrelworks does, is it connects us back to that weird, artisanal beginnings that we so enjoyed 5-6 years here. It’s a complete folly. There’s an interesting cross-section of wine culture and beer culture.”
Jim continued to talk about their sour discoveries and the roots operation.
In 2011, David toured Rodenbach in Belgium and came back to Jim and said with a giant grin, “I figured it out. I know what you’re doing! We’ll make it like something no one’s ever done!”
In 2012, things fell into place and Jim brewed things like Lil Opal and Feral One. Brettaweisse became this base beer. By the end of 2012, Barrelworks went from 28 barrels to about 450 barrels of beer.
Sour Jim: “What we’re doing down here is so craft, it’s so artisanal. It is like roots. It really comes back to the roots of making beers, a lot of the lineage of lambics and sour beers. These are historic beers, a lot of them. Just the flavors that you’re tasting; it takes you back to time that bacteria ruled and made beer like this. And it was the blenders, the crafters, the barrel masters that…ya know, we’re just there to help things along. And add things…add yeast, or lactic acid. The creatures are the real heroes here. The barrels are the heroes. The flavors that come from the barrels. The fruits are the heroes. These beers, they make themselves in a sense. There’s a lot of synergy.”
And while Jim was speaking so passionately about the beer and the art of brewing sour beers, I felt that silly grin come over my face again. No, there's no picture for that. Because it's way too silly.
Jeffers added: “The brewers are learning a lot from the wine makers. Barrelworks takes you back to cellaring, pre Industrial Revolution. Barrelworks is a creative endeavor that is following and learning practices that have been missing in brewing a long time, but not in the wine industry.”
The next day, we bussed up to Paso Robles, home of Firestone Walker Brewery. After a delicious lunch, paired with none other than their beers (I enjoyed their BBQ Chicken Pizza with Firestone Unfiltered DBA), we experience a tasting session led by lab analyst, Norm Stokes.
What was to follow was not quite as delicious, but much more educational. After all, part of what recognizing what IS delicious is recognizing what isn’t. Norm and the Firestone team prepared an array of off flavor Firestone tasters, either from increased aging or off temperatures. We tasted beers that had been aged 3, 30, and 300 days old. This ‘Sensory Analysis’ exposed flavors not normally craved; like cabbage, latex paint, butter and vinegar. But, these panels are great for honing those tasting skills.
For example, if the beer is light struck, Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS) can appear. Some malts have more of a precursor for DMS than others. This is generally removed during the wort boiling.
Head brewer, Dustin Kral, then led the group through the Firestone brew house. This is not your average brew house. This forward-thinking brewery continues to scale and upgrade their equipment to keep up not only with quantity demands, but surpass quality expectations. David Walker explained that it’s a fine line staying artisanal, but growing to the levels that the public is starting to demand.
Speaking of growth, we were eventually led to the new canning line. It features a grandiose palletizer and 30 head filling machine that allows them produce over 400 cans per minute. Canned 805 should be available in the Central Coast very soon.
What is affecting the evolution of beer? Alongside the yeast, barrels and innovative brewers, it’s wine and liquor.
Off another amazingly picturesque country road in Paso lies a wonderful boutique winery that has found a way to craft high quality vodka, gin and rum via their free-run juice, called saignée. Cast from the first grape crush, owners Alex and Monica Villicana distill the “prize juice” - as Monica refers to it – and create amazingly smooth and damn near luxurious liquors. This free-run juice is normally removed to improve wine quality before fermentation.
The Villicana’s are taking the Paso Robles Wine industry to the next level with the launch of Paso Robles' first craft distillery. They spent years figuring out an innovative and trend inspiring idea. What would you do with this juice? Make booze of course!
The result? Ultimate sustainability. Oh, and superior, sippable spirits.
Monica of Re: FIND Distillery happily explained how her husband and part owner started and their humble beginnings: “…We bought 80 acres of dirt basically here in Paso in 1996. Between the two of us and our family and friends, we planted 13 acres of vines. We literally hand augured each hole. We put the vines in, we put the dear fencing up, did everything. So, we definitely understood the soil…we make nine different wines in our 13 acre vineyard. Everything is pretty much estate here. We only produce about 2,000 cases annually…In the early 2000s, we started really working with our Rhone varietals, so you’re talking about Syrah, Grenache. They grow extremely well in this area.”
We started the visit with a tasting of vodka, gin, and a specially made distilled 805 called Writer Blank, specifically made for the LA Beer Bloggers group. I never thought I’d get teary eyed when sipping white whiskey, but there’s always a first.
They collect the juice. Bring it back to the winery. They ferment out to a high alcohol Rose. The high sugar fermentations produce glycerol, which has a heavy texture and sweetness, beautiful in spirits producing a lovely softness. They then start a four distillation process on all of their products. The first distillation is called a stripping run. When the wine is finished with its fermentation, they run it in the still as fast as they can to raise the alcohol enough to stabilize the product. Last year, they collected 23,000 gallons. After the first distillation at 40%, they put the 40% alcohol back in the still and hook it up to the tall column. As the alcohol boils, the alcohol condenses and fills up each one of the bowls in each window. After stacked, the water is turned off. They alcohol vapor is forced to condense and redistill. The boiling points of the different alcohols are often within 10ths of a degree. If using a traditional still with a kettle directly to the condenser, those boiling points would be too close together, making it hard to make a clean cut and get rid of the bad alcohols. Re: FIND Distillery’s Wonka inspired column stretches out the 10th of a degree, to make a clear cut, ending up with premium spirits.
“Distilling is about isolating the good alcohol and getting rid of the bad alcohol…it’s in 2nd, 3rd and 4th distillations that we really start to do the distillers craft to get the clean alcohol and introduce the vodkas and gins that we’re producing here.” ~ Alex Villicana
Next up was science experiment meets culinary blending amongst barrels and fellow beer enthusiasts. Several mason jars were filled with custom flavored spirits ranging lavender and lemon to cucumber and coriander. My first concoction tasted more like potpourri than gin, which gave me an even bigger appreciation of the distillers and the German equipment. My third try resulted in a strong, yet nice citrus-forward blend which was then mixed with a craft tonic and served with lime. Classy and crafty.
And just when I thought the trip couldn’t get any better, the folks at Firestone and Re:Fined upped the ante to mouthwatering culinary levels. A gorgeous table greeted us outside the winery with bouquets of white and yellow flowers. A five course meal was prepared by chef Thomas Yun and enjoyed by the Villacan’s, the Firestone Walker group and the Los Angeles beer bloggers. We started with Opal Laced Spanish Octopus with lemongrass and gooseberry vinaigrette, served with watercress salad and lime caviar.
Salivating yet? This was served with Firestone Walker’s Opal.
The second course consisted of Loch Etive Steelhead Trout sashimi with Union Jack blood orange sauce, grilled arulula seasoned with Shitaki Fleur de Sel. It was absolutely mouth melting, especially paired with Firestone Walker’s Union Jack.
I was lucky enough to sit next to Monica while enjoying the artistic feast. It brought home the fact that all of the amazing food and drinks we were lucky enough to enjoy were all prepared with love by these coastal locals.
Amongst the “mmmmm”’s and the laughter, the 3rd course was served. This was Pan seared lamb chop with celery root and parsnip puree and grilled ratatouille (am I the only one that loves to say that word?), served with Wookey Jack mint and tarragon cream. This was another beautiful and flavorful course.
The pairing was something new for the brewery. For the first time, they blended their Wookey Jack with RE: FIND gin for a rich yet refreshing cocktail that complimented the lamb and cream sauce perfectly. Proof that neither of these two craft companies are afraid to draw outside the line.
And like the day that proceeded, the courses continued to peak. Next up was Grilled Meyers Natural Spinalis Dorsi (Ribeye Cap) with potato puree, sautéed baby kale, served with sherry vanilla butter. Like a symphony's crescendo, they brought it all together by pairing this with the ‘Writers Blanc’ White Whiskey, served in a Manhattan.
The dessert was a refreshing Citrus Carpaccio, candied Limoncello zest, fresh berries, served with Chantilly whipped cream. The pairing was perfect and fitting. The table collectively sipped on RE: FIND Limoncello, one of their signature creations.
This is how people should enjoy meals; amongst beautiful scenery, amongst friends, with laughter and food and drink served naturally and beautifully from the earth.
If you haven’t visited Paso Robles, you’re missing out on a romantic California charm that envelopes you with magnificent rolling hills, artisan culinary cuisine, seasonal craft cocktails and of course award winning craft beer.
The forward-thinking companies, like Firestone Walker, exude quality and collaboration in a stunning, old world setting.
Clear out the day-to-day cobwebs of work and your habitual city hangouts and find out how the cozy central coast imbibes, toasts and lives.