Early in the morning on the first Friday in April, I headed north to California’s Central Coast. I have done this many times before and I enjoy the Central Coast with its slow laid-back lifestyle. It is far from the lifestyle in LA with its always-on-the-run attitude.
On that Friday, I headed north not just to enjoy the spring in that area, but also to attend a beer event. As I passed Santa Barbra the gloom gave up the grip that it had been holding on all the way from LA. The clouds slowly started to burn away and were just barely hugging the hilltops as the sun started warming up the day. I had Van Morrison on the radio and a spectacular view leading up to Firestone Walker’s From the Barrel, which was the event I was going to attend.
I started early from LA so I would have some time to check out the beer scene in San Luis Obispo (SLO). A visit to Tap It and Creekside Brewery is always on my agenda when I’m in SLO. Having a Tap It IPA at Tap It is of course something I didn’t miss. You have to drink a Great American Beer Festival Gold Medalist on its home field.
Beer, Porter and Bourbon
From the Barrel is an event that presents three different beverages; beer, port and bourbon, that are connected by one thing; the barrel. The barrel was used to just about anything, store, mature, produce, or transport. Not just beer, bourbon, and port but also other wines, cheese, meat, fish, salt, and much more. While wine and bourbon makers have kept the barrel alive in their production, modern breweries have taken to stainless steel. But the barrel has been reintroduced in beer making adding deep, complex flavors and aromas.
The host of the event, Firestone Walker Brewing Company, had a spectacular line-up of beers at the event. Parabola is just getting better and better each year and DDBA is one of my favorites from Firestone Walker. Firestone Walker Barrelworks brought Lil Opal, which is a wheat based Saison aged in French oak barrels. My favorite from Barrelworks is Bretta Weisse. This is a traditional Berliner Weisse brewed with Brettanomyces yeast giving it a funky aroma with floral, fruity, and tart notes. Bretta Weisse is a great session beer with only 3.4% alcohol and still great flavors despite its low alcohol content. Many session beers loose their body and flavors and are often watery, but not this one. Firestone Walker was not the only local brewery at the event. The very newly opened Barrel House Brewing Company in Paso Robles had a whiskey barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout.
Ninkasi Brewing Company from Eugene, Oregon is starting to make its way down the California coast. So far they distribute as far south as Ventura County and will soon reach LA. They had a Porter aged for 6 months in a Heaven Hills Bourbon barrel. Pizza Port Brewing in Carlsbad, CA also used Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels for their Night Rider Russian Imperial Stout. Russian River Brewing Company brought their Temptation, a Sour Blond Ale aged for 12 months in Chardonnay barrels. Lost Abbey brought their Deliverance, which is a blend between the Serpent’s Stout, their bourbon barrel-aged stout and the Angel’s Share, their brandy barrel-aged barley wine.
Breweries from out of state
There were also two non west-coast breweries present: Boulevard Brewing Company from Kansas City, MO with a rye beer aged in a rye whiskey oak cask; and for me a new and very interesting brewery called Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project from Denver, CO. This is a one-man project mastered by Chad Yakobson. He has taken his knowledge from his Brettanomyes Dissertation and put it to practical use with Crooked Stave. They had a Burgundy Sour aged for 12 months in natural red wine barrels and a Golden Sour brewed with Vignole grapes in white wine barrels.
There were, of course, plenty of bourbon and port choices too. I skipped the Bourbon and went easy on the Ports out of self-preservation. These are libations with high alcohol so it’s easy to over-indulge. I have to mention two local wineries that I think stood out. Wine is still a field were I’m a novice so I don’t really know the flavors that well but I know if I like something. EOS Winery and Cass Winery both from Paso Robles had some really delicious Ports. Port is definitely something I’m going to look closer into. Cass was also one of the many great food vendors there, so a visit to their winery seems likely the next time I’m in the area.
A great atmosphere
So what makes this event stand out from so many other beer events apart from the spectacular beer, port and bourbon line-up? To many events just have a good selection of beers (and sometimes not even that), a bunch of food trucks and that’s about it. To create some kind of atmosphere some events choose a “cool” venue, a mediocre cover band, and a hip radio-station, which is about all of the effort they can come up with to make it little more than just a drunk fest. To me, an event is just as much about the beers as the atmosphere of the event, which also are important elements to build a great beer culture. From the Barrel is held at Historic Santa Margarita Ranch just north of San Luis Obispo. The site was first recorded in 1769 as an assistant mission to the mission in San Luis Obispo. An old barn that is built over the original mission is the main venue for events at Santa Margarita Ranch. A running steam train and cars from the 1920-1930’s creates a fantastic environment and atmosphere for any event. Firestone Walker also encourages attendees to dress up in 1920-1930’s clothes. All this together with detailing, like signs, light, music, and event program all in harmony with each other makes, this so much more than other events I have been to lately. This is what an event is like when it’s done right.