The Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest (FWIBF) is my home boy, my bff, my main squeeze. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a loyal fan of this central coast brewery and its annual fest. If you want to see that as a bias, I’m fine with that, but know that it’s for a good reason. There are very few breweries I would use the word “favorite” for and there are even fewer I would say I “love.” In this crowded time of massive tasting flights and new breweries opening like street-corner starbucks during the coffee boom, you need to be choosey. Firestone Walker does not release bad beer. The do not release unfinished beer. They do not release beer to the public until it’s ready. You won’t find canned versions of their beer with consistency issues. You won’t find bottles exploding with over carbonated or infection issues. What you will find when you pop the cork or the cap is a work of art. From their experimental creations at barrelworks, to their refined blended barrel aged proprietors series, to their everyday thirst quenchers like easy jack, winners all.
Craft beer blogging and journalism, is fraught with brewery owners and cheerleaders creating hype that really shouldn’t be there. Breweries grow and expand at an unnatural rate working to saturate the market. Money is poured into tasting rooms and equipment, with a lack of focus on the product actually being sold. The age of breweries working to grow organically and scaling with demand is waning. There’s a lot of noise and it can be hard to know what is worth listening too. If this were a radio broadcast, Firestone Walker is one Station that is worth tuning in to. They’ve been around for a while and have experiencing focusing in the right areas. Their history, ties to the wine industry, and growth in the central coast is all intriguing, but what they’ve done in the last 4-5 years is amazing. One of those accomplishments is this fest.
From Hunahpu to Hottenroth, the beer is here. From David Walker To Vinnie Cilurzo, the gangs all here. From Japan to Germany, Italy to New Zealand, from Florida to California, the best of the best travel and pour. This is, hands down, the best beer festival I have ever attended. Why? Here are a few more reasons.
Part of what makes this fest so incredible is the staff working behind the scenes. It’s not understaffed and those working the fest know exactly what they are doing. The result, brewers and food vendors being taken care of, fest goers getting what they need, and everything is smooth smooth smooth. You may not notice unless you’re looking for FW shirts, but these guys and gals are efficient and talented. Give them a hand because their organizational skill just resulted in the time of your life.
Perhaps one of the most pivotal differences between FWIBF and any other beer fest is that brewers want and are excited to be there. FWIBF turns what would normally be heated work, donated kegs, and the rowdy inebriated into a well exectuted weekend celebration and hang out. Brewers are put in hotels, given places to camp, treated to local Santa Maria style barbecue, and quality time (and bottle shares) among peers.
What’s better than just drinking beer? Pairing it with food. What’s better than pairing your beer with a long food truck line leading to overpriced lobster rolls? Pairing it with phenomenal local restaurant fare. Hot spots from Paso Robles to Solvang piled into the fest to set up a smorgasbord of everything from Sktickee Monkee Ketchup (Root 246) tamales to beer infused gelato (Leo Leo Gelato’s Velvet Merlin & Parabola Gelato = Tasty). Slider sized portions ensured that fest goers would not only get their fill on rare beer, but tasty food allowing them to try new treats and delicacies. There seemed to be a few less food stalls this year, but it didn’t take away from the overall experience. Everything being served was unique and delicious.
If having a great fest with tons of rare beer and delicious food isn’t enough, Firestone Walker kicks it up a notch with a handy little booklet you can use to plot out your journey. As someone who write about beer, this little booklet was a real lifesaver. Did I spell that right? What was the name of that one-off beer again? It’s all right here. If that isn’t enough, the brewery also provided fest goers with a smartphone app which includes everything from beer information, special event schedules, and the ability to vote for your favorite brewery. Special congrats to our very own OC based, The Bruery, for winning people’s choice. App users were also entered in a giveaway for 2 free tickets to next years fest! I know it may sound weird, but I honestly appreciate this handout more than a free bottle opener, sticker, glass, or coaster. With so much going on, it can be hard to remember it all.
The Paso Robles Event Center is large fairground which sees event all year round. It’s the perfect location for a beer fest, with ample room leaving fest goers with plenty of elbow room. Breweries and foods stalls are strategically placed around the main Frontier Town section of the fair ground preventing the crowds from becoming too dense. What’s more, tents, misting stations, and plenty of shade were set up to prepare for hot weather. So although this year’s fest was not as hot as last year’s, Firestone Walker was prepared.
Most fest are short, multi-sessioned, and over crowded. I’m not a fan of multisession events, they are usually drink-a-thons and as Worst Beer Blog would say, “Sweaty Bro-fests.” Long lines, poor execution, disorganization, and B or C grade beer being served. These fests are a good excuse for brewers to get rid of past expired beer because the people drinking it don’t care and the beer is being donated. Good festivals typically have one session and most are around 4 hours. The FWIBF is 5 hours, 6 if you’re part of the early admission. This is plenty of time get your fill of great beer, food, and fun – and you can pace yourself. Drunk & Disorderly wasn’t a problem even with the extended festival length.
This fest if geared towards people that love good beer. As such, you’re in good company. You’re not going to find jerks or even over imbibers. People enjoy their beers and respect one another. This may seem like a misnomer, but many fests are overcrowded with people that over-wasted, which affects everyone in the proximity. At FWIBF, happiness is in the air and friends are many.
Fest going is also a lot about who you spend your time with. I was very lucky to hang out with my good friends and fellow LA Beer Bloggers, Greg Nagel from OC Beer Blog, Erika Bolden from LA Weekly, and Kelly Erickson from Girls Who Like Beer. As a special aside, I even heard a preview of Greg’s new podcast, Four Brewers, which is out and about right now. If you like beer, it’s probably your jam so subscribe and download it today.
Be sure to download the app on your smartphone. You’ll find maps, tips, and also a schedule of special tappings, like an incredibly awesome uncorking of 3 magnum Feral One bottles. Each brewery brings their A game and some even bring their S game, knowing where to be and when to be there is important.
The FWIBF 2014 was very focused this year in a very intelligent direction. Accompanying all the heavy hitting danksauce whales (brah), were low abv sessions and sours (huzzah). There is really nothing like an extremely high abv beer paired with scorching sunlight. Having dry, refreshing, thirst quenchers available was a smart move. It also allowed breweries to diversify their offerings.
There was a flux of bourbon barrel aged imperial stouts in 2013, which was nice, but also palate obliterating. 2014 brought sessions from Sun King, Bret beers from Firestone (Bretta Rose), and one of the most unique beers in existence, Umami Monster, from Garage Project. These New Zealand creatives actually add Kombu (seaweed) and Katsuoboshi (dried bonito/fish flakes) to this beer, which creates an incredibly interesting brown ale. Not brave enough to have your mind blown, their fresh hopped NZ pales, ipas, and Sauvign beers were a fantastic alternative (or follow up).
The Love Letter
I love you Firestone Walker. You make me feel special as a beer drinker. I respect who you are, what you make, and how you make it. Thank you for making me feel like part of your family. If I were Daniel Drennon, you would be my Beachwood BBQ. My feelings may be soaked in warm emotions, but my bias is based on cold hard facts. Ya’ll are awesome. May this wonderful loveliness never end. Keep doing what you are doing.
The Verdict (Like you didn’t know already)
I love this fest, not just because of the amazing beers, but because it’s done well. In fact, I love this fest because everyone loves it. From those pouring, to those organizing, to those attending, everyone appreciates what is going on. Firestone Walker continues to impress me with their professionalism, attention to detail, community outreach, and personalization. There are so many beer fests to go to during the year and not all of them are worth it. This one is. If you only choose one fest to go to or you are on a budget, penny pinch, save up, and keep tabs on ticket sales because you will not regret going, but you will regret not getting a ticket. Line up early, do your research, prepare, and enjoy yourself. If I’m lucky enough to be invited back next year for 2015’s event, I’ll jump for joy. If I’m not, I’ll still jump for joy because I know someone else will have an amazing time experiencing what Firestone Walker is doing. Craft beer perfection.