It’s been a year since our last trip together with Firestone Walker. Last year we focused on barrels, how they affect the liquid inside them, and the then new Barrelworks in Buellton. It was an epic and informative experience, something that I wasn’t sure could be topped, but I was wrong. Well, maybe I should say that it didn’t top last year; it equally awesome on a whole new level. Last year’s trip to the brewery in Paso, the detour to Windrose Farms, the barrel tasting at Herman Story Wines, sampling of Parabola, and sour blending session at Barrelworks was something that’s not easy to forget. It was a unique opportunity to spend serious time with my blogging compatriots while also simultaneously getting to know the fantastic folks behind Firestone Walker. This year had a reunion element to it. By now everyone knows each other, so there is a certain level of familiarity and mutual respect that made the whole experience that much more comfortable. Firestone Walker is unlike any other brewery I have encountered. On the outside they seem large, dominant, with exponential growth. But the reality is that these people operate more like a family than a business. Their attention to customers, community, grass roots growth, and general quality is unparalleled. I feel less like a customer when I’m drinking FW and more like part of the team. The beer backing up this amazing group is fantastic.
Okay so what was this year’s trip all about? Loosely titled, Rough Cuts & Remixes, we focused more on Firestone Walker’s past, present, and soon to be. The journey started in West LA at Firestone Walker’s Venice location, which is currently under construction. The fairly unassuming lot is populated by two white buildings split by a parking lot. The company purchased the property last last year along with the neighboring parking lot. That’s right, there will be ample parking when the brewpub opens up. There is still mystery surrounding what the final location will actually be, but it’s sounding more and more like it’ll be a taproom and pub with an experimental nano brewery attached. For West Angeleno’s it’ll also be a prime spot to pick up FW special bottle releases without needing to drive north.
The 25 person crew boarded the bus along with returning guide and Firestone Walker superstar Anders Nilbrink (@beeroverthere). Our bus came fully stocked with Double Jack, Easy Jack, Pivo Pils, OPAL, and Wookey Jack, along with an assortment of snacks and special bottles (Whale Brah) provided by the bloggers. In standard LA fashion, traffic was horrendous, so getting out of the city took some time, but before we knew it we arrived in Los Olivos off of Zaca road.
Deep in the old Firestone Vineyard, a 50 acre plot of grapes as far as the eye can see, is Area 51, the original Firestone Walker Brewery. After we disembarked the bus and set up our camping gear we boarded a flat bed farm truck: destination Andrew Murray Vineyards. Andrew’s winery is located in the old Firestone Walker brewery. A friend of the family and business, Andrew is both winemaker and caretaker for the expansive vineyard. The gang was met with a glass of blended white called E11even: crisp, dry, and delightfully fruity. Andrew talked about the history of his endeavor and both Jeffers Richardson and David Walker took us through fond memories of brewing in the early days. FW beers weren’t always good, and David recalled a time when they were terrible. Perseverance and tenacity eventually payed off leading them to the present day brewery now located in Paso.
After the tour, we dined on incredible food provided by a local catering company who grilled up tri-tip on a Santa Maria style BBQ located on site. We were also taken through an assortment of experimental sours including the soon to be released Bretta Rose, a relative of one of my favorites from Barrelworks, Brettaweisse. The beer base is a brett funked hefeweizen, and Rose is that beer with more time and 1000 lbs of raspberries. Like the rest of the Barrelworks projects, Bretta Rose is expertly ballanced and incredibly complex. It pours a deep orange rose and has with it an incredible bouquet of tart fruit notes. The beer is dry, tart, and the raspberries shine through, but do not overtake. Balance. It’s clear these guys know how to blend beer. In addition to Rose, we also tried an experimental wine-beer hybrid called Zin Skin, and several others to be named. Both Sour Jim and Jeffers are clearly working hard creating some truly unique offerings, and it’s going to be incredibly exciting to see how this arm of FW evolves in the coming years.
After a night of camping and slight debauchery, we headed off to our next destination, Paso Robles. Lunch was followed by a tasting session led by Lab Analyst Norm Stokes. Norm had prepared an off flavor course for us which covered both chemical off flavors and those induced by aging. After a plethora of Diacetyl, DMS, and Acetaldehyde laced beers we tasted beers that had been aged 3, 30, and 300 days old. Sensory panels are a great way to augment your own tasting skills, and it’s fairly easy to get a hold of the equipment to do it at home. This panel was fairly unique though as it’s an eye into what Firestone Walker does daily. Norm explained that all brewers are required to undergo daily sensory analysis tests to keep their skills sharp, while other employees are strongly encourage to do it as well. During our analysis, I found that I’m not extremely sensitive to oxidation in beer. While I can tell beer is old, I don’t get the wet paper flavor that most people seem to detect. A few others in the group were sensitive to oxidation, but could not taste DMS or Diacetyl. It’s interesting how we are each so different when it comes to detecting flavors.
After the Sensory Analysis it was off to the main brewery tour with Dustin Kral. Dustin had lead our group last year during some special barrel tastings of Parabola, PNC, and a few others. This year he’s ascended the ranks to head brewer and was our personal guide through the brew house. He took us through the stainless innards of Firestone Walker, showed us the new rocket silo sized fermentation tanks, and eventually led us to their brand new canning operation. The Firestone Walker brewery is a modern marvel of stainless steel pipes, sophisticated electronics, valves, hoses, and talented operators. The canning line is icing on the cake with a fully functioning palletizer and 30 head filling machine that allows them produce over 400 cans per minute! While they are still working out the kinks currently, canned 805 is on the near horizon and we should start seeing it fairly soon. Firestone Walker also has a keg filling machine that pumps out 140 kegs per hour.
The next leg of our tour took us to the 20 year old Villicana Winery, owned and operated by husband and wife team Alex and Monica Villicana. Ready to celebrate another fantastic winery in Paso Robles, we were actually there to enjoy distilled spirits. Villicana added a distillery arm to the operation about 4 years ago called Re:Fined – their main source of alcohol coming from wine grapes and not grain (which technically makes this brandy). We ran through a tasting of vodka, gin, and a specially made distilled 805 called Writer Blank, which was subsequently made for the LA Beer Bloggers group for this specific trip! After the tasting we went head long into gin blending. Like the sour blending session from last year, we utilized beakers, graduated cylinders, and pipettes to create our own custom blend of gin. On the table, various mason jars filled to the brim with custom flavored spirits ranging from grains of paradise and angelica root to cucumber and coriander. Our base gin had to include at least 50% juniper spirits, but the rest was up to us. I ended up creating a blend of juniper, grains of paradise, angelica root, cubeb, and lemon, that I titled “Silk Road.” The result was a very spicy mix with flavors reminiscent of curry and Middle Eastern food. Each of our concoctions was mixed with a craft tonic and served to us with a lime – custom gin and tonic.
Perhaps the most epic was still to come. Outside the winery was a beautifully decorated wooden banquet tabled complete with floral centerpieces. The entire group; Alex and Monica Villacana, the Firestone Walker team, and the LA Beer Bloggers, sat down to enjoy a 5 course meal prepared by chef Thomas Yun. Spanish octopus with Opal, steelhead sashimi with Union Jack, lamb chop with a Gin-Wookey Jack cocktail, rib eye with a Writers Blanc Whiskey Manhattan, and citrus carpacio paired with Re:Find Limoncello. One of the hands down best meals I have ever had happened here, and it’s one that I will likely remember to the end of my days.
After enjoying the amazing hospitality of Alex and Monica Villacana (thank you) and the Firestone Walker Team, we set back to our hotel, prepared for our trip home, and ended with a bottle share in Jeff and Rob’s room. The way box included a stop at Barrelworks where I was, once again, able to reunite with one of my best friends, Bretta Weisse.
I feel like it’s hard to do this weekend complete justice in a blog post. I hope that, for the reader, it’s entertaining to read. If there is anything specific that I want people to take away from my experience/the readers’ experience, it’s that Firestone Walker is truly a special brewery. They operate on a different level than most other businesses that I’ve seen. On the one hand, having bloggers up for a trip like this does bolster loyalty and serve the FW interest, but it’s also so much more than that. Behind this in genuineness, honesty, and an overwhelming attention to detail, quality, hospitality, and community. It’s a cause that deserves support, praise, and loyalty because this is how a real brewery should operate.
As someone that is building a grassroots operation up myself, it’s companies like FW that give me hope and inspiration. I’m already looking forward to my next trip up north and it’s not that far off, the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest is just around the corner.
* May 17th Firestone Walker Barrelworks release – Bretta Rose
* May 31st Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest