What better way to enjoy California’s wine country than going on a beer pilgrimage to Firestone Walker’s famed Barrelworks and tasting room?
Santa Ynez Valley is Los Angeles’ own little backyard Napa. There among the vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms, surrounded by the rolling hills of golden grass studded with ancient oak trees, Firestone Walker’s Buellton restaurant, bar, Barrelworks and taproom is one of a number of outstanding craft breweries churning out a wide range of top notch beers poured in joyous taprooms. Less than 2 miles down the road from Firestone Walker, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. has only been operating since 2011, and already has racked up 13 serious medals for its beers like Hurricane Deck DIPA, Stagecoach Stout, and Davy Brown Ale, and has a wonderful restaurant and taproom with a huge, gorgeous backyard with big wooden lounge chairs, long communal tables, and free horseshoe and bocce ball games.
Solvang Brewing Co., 3.5 miles to the east in the cheesey Danish tourist town, has a cheesey fake windmill, and cheesey fake Viking decor. But it serves up 7 of its own brews on tap, and has deep roots in the community. The Renfrow family that started Solvang Brewing are proud fourth-generation Danes, and are among the earliest Danish settlers that established the town in 1911. They restored that cheesey windmill, which has been a local icon in the town since 1963, and the brewers set up their restaurant and taproom in the former Viking Room, one of the town’s oldest, most storied restaurants.
In the nearby coastal town of Goleta, Hollister Brewing Co.‘s brewery, taproom and restaurant, established in 2007, has a rotating array of 15 of its own beers on tap at any time, including such happy sounding beers as Hippie Kicker IPA, Control Alt Delete Altbier, and Popsicle Princess, a Belgian fruit beer brewed with cherries, peaches “and 108 Big Stick Popsicles.”
Firestone Walker Barrelworks & Taproom
But the first and mandatory stop for any serious cerevisophile is Firestone Walker, and your tour may end there, as you find yourself spending half a day at this temple of yeast, malt and hops. And barrels. Do not forget about the barrels. Firestone Walker is one of he most acclaimed craft breweries in California, and perhaps the country, and is revered for its barrel aging program. In the tap room, you will taste things, magical things, that will will blow your palette’s mind.
The large, beautiful restaurant’s distinctly mountain lodge aesthetic, with open kitchen, soaring ceilings with exposed heavy wooden beams and wood everywhere really makes you want to cozy up to some rich, complex ales. Dinner is served 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm Fridays and Saturdays, and 5:00 pm to 8:30 pm, Sundays through Thursdays. Lunch can be had from 11:00 am to 4:30 pm Friday through Sunday in the bar and on the patio, which has lovely views of the rolling hills and oaks, as well as a cozy outdoor fireplace.
Lunch fare includes salads, sandwiches, wood oven-baked pizzas, and entrees that meet a range of tastes – you’ve got your steak salad, your Cobb, your burgers, your pulled pork. There’s also a flatiron steak, fish and chips and fish tacos. My steak salad was excellent. All the veggies were good quality, fresh and crisp, and not a leaf of iceberg or a watery beersteak tomatoe in sight. The steak had that robust, beefy, slightly gamey flavor that steak lovers desire, with a nice, strong sear on the outside and perfectly pink for medium rare inside.
Dinner offerings include heartier, steakhouse fare, ranging from blackened ahi tostada, to crab cakes, to steaks, fish and ribs and pizzas. Small bites include house-made soft pretzels, fried stuff, and sauteed green beans. Wherever possible, Firestone Walker beer is worked into sauces and batters. Overall, you can expect a somewhat typical American bar menu with high quality ingredients and bold flavors. Just right to support all that beer you will drink.
The beer menu includes a range of Firestone Walker’s wonderful beers, many of which are only seasonally available, or are varieties that are not usually found in your local bottle shop or bar. I had a flight, including UDBA (5% ABV). It’s their flagship beer, Double Barrel British Pale Ale, but 100% oak fermented, unfiltered and only available at the brewery and taproom. It’s vanilla oak, toasted grains, a little toffee sweetness, fruity English yeast and earthy hops. It’s not your standard IPA, but has depth and layers that unfold and reward as the beer warms up.
The Tap Room Brown Ale with Hemp Seeds (5.7% ABV) is a solid brown ale that is rich and complex, with plenty of dark roasted notes but a light body, nicely hopped, and the hemp seeds are noticeable. I could do without the hemp seed flavor, which distracted a bit from the warm, deep flavors.
The Double Jack Imperial India Pale Ale (9.5% ABV and 75 IBUs) will be the beer here to make the hard-core hop heads start fidgeting. It’s powerfully flavorful, with plenty of biscuity malt to support the wopping, fruity, spicey hop flavors, bitterness and aromas, and some caramel sweetness to take the bitter edge off. Despite the 9.5% ABC, it’s clean and dry, with no alcohol burn so it’s dangerously refreshing and easy to drink.
The Wookey Jack, one of my personal favorites, is Firestone Walker’s Black Rye IPA (8.5% ABV and 80 IBUs). This deep, dark beer is like the bastard lovechild of a dry stout and a powerfully hoppy IPA – it has the dark roast and licorice flavors, big, hoppy aromas, earthy hop flavors, and a little fruity alcohol. The best part about this beer is that you can taste and smell everything in it – there is simply nothing missing, and it completely fills up all your senses, making it extremely satisfying to slowly savor. It rates a 95 out of 100 on Beeradvocate.com.
While their barrel aging process and use of wild yeast, bacteria and barrel infection harkens to the mists of beer history, Firestone Walker also distinguishes itself by an obsession with using technology and science to constantly improve their beer quality. As co-founder Adam Firestone told the San Luis Obispo Tribune, years ago, they decided to “marry technology, the greatest industrial quality controls available, the greatest process engineering possible, the greatest materials and input control possible.”
Wine Country is in Their DNA
Firestone Walker’s location in the Santa Ynez Valley, and its barrel aging program are no mere coincidence of geography or just another brewing technique. They have the wine country in their DNA. That’s a wonderful thing, and you can taste it in some of their more exotic beers you’ll find in the separate Barrelworks tasting room. Firestone said it all started in the mid 1990s when he decided to try to re-use wine barrels from his family’s Firestone Vineyards to ferment beer together with his brother-in-law David Walker. Their initial attempts with wine barrels were not successful, and so they brewed their first beer, Double Barrel Ale (DBA) using new American oak barrels, under the guidance of original brewmaster Jeffers Richardson. Jeffers returned to Firestone Walker last year to become the director of Barrelworks.
Thankfully for all of us, the barrels would return. Long after Firestone Walker was a runaway success, some of the staff in the brewhouse started tinkering with aging strong, sour and wild-yeast ales in retired oak bourbon barrels from Kentucky. “…a few vessels of beer stashed into the voids between pallets of packaged beer in Firestone Walker’s cold storage warehouse. Officially, the program didn’t exist, but it grew quickly and became unruly,” according to the brewery website.
Brewmaster Matt Brynildson and the brewhouse crew convinced Firestone and Walker that the beer from the rogue barrels needed to be shared with the world, and the first release was “10” in 2006, commemorating their 10th anniversary. It was a sensation, and their brewery started annual limited release vintage anniversary blends of several, strong, barrel-aged beers that became like rare, prized vintage wines to be collected and cellared for special occcasions.
Today, they have 1,500 of the 60 gallon barrels, making it one of the most extensive barrel-aging programs in the craft beer industry. Firestone Walker is now ranked among the top 20 craft breweries in the nation by sales volume, according to the American Brewers Association’s 2012 ranking, brewing about 140,000 barrels a year and employing 350 people.
As the name of its flagship Double Barrel Ale alludes to, Firestone Walker employs the English Burton Union barrel-aging system that recirculates the fermenting beer through multiple interconnected wooden barrels. Firestone Walker claims to be the only brewery in the United States that uses this method, developed in Burton upon Trent in the mid-19-century. The system allowed excess yeast foam to be expelled from the casks while leaving the bare minimum very head space within the casks, and it enabled the breweries to maintain their yeast strains for nearly a hundred years. The water from the region had high levels of sulphate, and today, Burtonisation is the term for adding sulphate, usually gypsum, to the boiling wort in order to accentuate the hop flavors. The highly hopped Pale Ales, especially that of Bass, became so popular that by 1888 31 breweries sprang up in the town to supply “Burton Ale.”
The main show here is the Barrelworks tasting room. Go easy on the beer in the restaurant and save some room in your belly – and on your credit card – to taste the magic coming out of those barrels. Guests are welcome to poke around the barrel room where you can see the old wine labels stamped on the barrels. The taproom has lots of cool educational posters describing how lactobacillus and pediococcus bacteria and wild brettanomyces yeasts are used to make the wild, aged and sour beers. There’s also a cooler with some very expensive (up to $55), very special Firestone Walker beers, like some of their vintage anniversary ales from years past.
Barrelworks Bretta Weisse (4% ABV) – Floral, fruit and tart with a tint of that funky brettanomyces wild yeast and a dry finish. A delicious beer pretending to be champagne.
Velvet Merkin (8.7% ABV) – Bourbon barrel aged oatmeal stout with rich, deep, complex, decadent chocolate, coffee and bourbon flavors.
Helldorado Blonde Barley Wine (12.6% ABV) – Close your eyes and you’ll taste a slightly less rich-tasting barley wine. Instead of toffee, leather and dark fruit, this slow-sipping ale has honeysuckle, lavender, toasted oak and floral characters.
Bravo Imperial Brown Ale (13.5% ABV) – The first beer brewed for the Spirit Barrels Program, and used in numerous anniversary releases. It has Fuggles hops for an earthy, resinous character, is not sweet, and has big, boozy bourbon notes, as well as hints of spicey, leather and tobacco.
Parabajava Barrel Aged Imperial Stout Infused with Coffee (13% ABV) – This is one of the Barrelworks products that has generated the most buzz (pun intended). It uses Intelligentsia Coffee, and has heavy dark roasted coffee, chocolate, molasses and smokey oak bourbon notes.
Thankfully, the taster glasses are very small so you can taste more and remain upright.
The Barrelworks taproom certainly lives up to the hype. As if to underscore that impression, I received an email that evening with a press release announcing Firestone Walker awards at the Great American Beer Festival taking place that same weekend in Boulder, Colorado. Firestone Walker was named Mid-Size Brewing Company for the fourth time in 10 years, and Brewer of The Year. Their Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA, Pivo Hoppy Pils and Taproom IPA beers all won gold medals in their categories, and Union Jack IPA earned a silver. All in all, a wonderful place to explore just how far and deep beer flavors can go – even if you are already well versed in complex craft beers, and a great reason for beer aficionados to take a trip up to the Santa Ynez Valley wine country.