The Success Behind the Invitational

Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest 2015

It’s been four years now and the Firestone Walker team has been developing and executing one of the greatest beer festivals in the nation, the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest.  Unlike the traditional brew fest which showcases as many breweries as possible shelling out flagships, the Invitational breweries are hand selected/invited by FW Brewmaster, Matt Brynildson, and asked to bring their greatest beers.  Boy do they deliver.  Not only are fest-goers treated to some of the rarest beers around, but this is also one of the best, if not only, opportunities to taste fresh examples from international brewery participants.

Fresh New Zealand beer from a fresh New Zealand brewery made with fresh New Zealand hops? Yes Please! #FWIBF15

“Firestone Walker Invitational, is probably the best festival I know.” – Agostino Arioli, Brewmaster – Birrificio Italiano

 

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The Firestone Walker team must be doing something right because, for this year’s fest, over 3000 tickets sold out at a record breaking pace – in under a minute!  Firestone Walker Public Relations Consultant, Christopher Weir, sums it up pretty good. “I think it’s that sense of intimacy.  It’s the sense of experiencing beers that you’ve heard about for a long time, that you’ve always wanted to try, and many of them are right here at your fingertips, on top of that you’ve got great music, you’ve got a good vibe, you’ve got an outdoor venue, you’ve got great food. So it’s got the trappings of what attracts you to a beer festival in the first place, but it takes it up a notch with regard to what you’re actually experiencing in terms of the beers and the brewers and the setting.”

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Behind the Festival

The Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest is, at least for me, one of the most unique festivals around.  Because of the exclusivity of the brewery participants, the beer offerings, food options, and overall experience, it’s really unrivaled in my mind.  It’s so well organized, thought out, and executed.  Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and the vibe is happier and more-relaxed than other fests I’ve been to, which is largely due to the people pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Planning a festival of this size and complexity can be a year (or four) long project.  “It’s rewarding when it all comes together so it’s a big…it’s a really big project with a longer timeline than most,” says Firestone Walker Event Director, Veronica Jaurez, “In our fourth year, this year, to be honest, this event will be over tomorrow and we’ll probably take a week off before we have a post meeting and then we immediately start planning for the next year.”  Jaurez, being used to the pressure, doesn’t do the event alone.  “We do run on a pretty lean team of employees from Firestone that are here, which is my event team. We also have Pioneer Day, the non-profit, who has their own small team…We each individually have about a solid team of 6 to 8…We have some amazing volunteers.”  When I asked her about the largest challenge I was surprised that it wasn’t the organization of the actual venue, but the shipping that posed the most strategy.  “There are a lot of additional permits, if breweries are not distributed in certain states or countries then you have to go through a lot of loops to get the proper licenses to move along the states and through customs. So that is on of the biggest challenges I probably personally deal with on the beer side of it.”

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For other team members, like Jemma Wilson, Firestone Walker Media & Marketing Specialist, outreach, and communication are key. “Making a list and dotting I’s and crossing T’s, it is endless checklists. I wake up in the middle of the night often and I email myself things like ‘oh crap I didn’t do that’ and ‘this is what I have to do’.  It’s tiring for sure and it’s hard and you hope to god you that have everything,” says Wilson, who also managed the production of the Invitational’s new app. “We did away with the paper program in an effort to go green. So we have the app and it was the most tedious project I have worked on.  The content gathering for that was insane and I stared at an excel sheet for hours and hours and hours every day…I am so proud of that.  That is hands down my biggest accomplishment for this fest.  It’s exceeded my expectations.”  The app really was a great tool for me during the fest.  It seamlessly melded my beer hit-list, event schedule, social media, and note taking all in one, which is a huge improvement over the paper programs.

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On the brewery selection side, Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matt Brynildson is the head decision maker. “It’s just a concept where it’s more about the brewers and the beer than it is about the festival day itself.  This is a three day celebration for the brewers and hopefully we’ve assembled some of the better brewers.  That’s our opinion not anyone else’s opinion,” says Brynildson, “It’s super organic…it’s not necessarily about best friends best beer…more and more it’s about seeking out beers that no one in this region can taste and you’re going to see a trend towards turning it into a more international festival than a local celebration.  For better or for worse.  It’s more about exposing people to these wonderful beers we’ve found as we’ve travelled the world and I think that’s cool.  That’s what I would want if I was someone living here in the central coast and had this opportunity.”

What’s really striking is the drive to make the festival the best it can be.  There is a very honest drive to make sure everyone is involved and is comfortably enjoying themselves.

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The Brewers

Why do brewers and breweries from around the world travel thousands of miles with their best beers and land themselves in Paso Robles, CA to pour beer with distant consumers?  Brewers don’t typically get the best treatment at festivals.  They are expected to donate their time, their beer, and swag to a crowd that may or may not appreciate what they are pouring.  At the invitational this is not the case.  Brewers are celebrated all weekend.  It’s three to four days of activity and beer celebratory events, one of which is the actual festival.  Still, for many brewers outside of California or the country, getting to Paso Robles can be a very big to do. I talked to a few a few of the brewers that travelled so far to get here.

“It’s just a concept where it’s more about the brewers and the beer than it is about the festival day itself.” Matt Brynildson, Brewmaster – Firestone Walker

Pete Gillespie, brewer of Wellington, New Zealand’s Garage Project returned for a second year in a row after last years success. “We were invited, which is a huge, a huge compliment.  We were invited last year.  It was my first trip to the states, I mean it’s quite amazing to be at a festival with such a high caliber of brewer.  And we obviously didn’t make massive twats of ourselves so they invited us back which is really nice.  So this in year two which is really cool.  I think this is far and away the best beer festival I’ve ever been to and I’ve done a lot.  I really like, it seems very generous, do you know what I mean, There’s a great selection of breweries.  It almost seems like it’s more a celebration of beer than a money making exercise or anything self aggrandisement, it really does seem like a genuine celebration.  Everyone seems happy the vibe is great, I would not hesitate to come back here.  I only hope that we do alright again this year and they invite us next year, that’d be awesome.”  I honeslty hope they get invited back as well, the beers they pour this year and last year were fantastic.

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I also had a chance to catch up with Agostino Arioli, brewer of Italy’s Birrificio Italiano, to find out why he made the trip overseas. “It took, I don’t know, 20 hours or so. It was very difficult, very tough travel.  By the way I’m coming from Italy and this is the third time I’m here at the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival.  The fuckin’ beer is wonderful.” Arioli, who’s TipoPils was an inspiration behind Pivo Pils, and his beers have become a staple at this fest. “I’ll tell you, Firestone Walker Invitational, is probably the best festival I know.  Together with a beer festival in rome, it’s called Eurhop, it’s wonderful, but this is probably the best I know and every year we come here with friends, with collaborators, with all the people I know, and I say ‘let’s go’,” continues Arioli, “I brought a beer that’s the first attempt of a new kind of a barrelworks that we will open Intrantino…you’ll have the chance to try this one, it’s a traditional beer, it’s called Cassisona, it’s a black currant flavored beer, with berries, but champagne style, and I love it.”

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Another returning festival stable is Mahrs Brau with owner, brewer, and music lover, Stephan Michel.  Michel, who also spent time at school in Santa Barbara, recently collaborated with heavy metal band Mastadon on a beer and that was a big topic of conversation.  “The point is mostly that I love the feeling to see people very happy about when we are coming over.  They love us here.  They really love us they really enjoy us and that makes me happy.” Michel really enjoys talking about his Bamburg based brewery and sharing his beer with people around the world. “It’s also with the context of the brewers, I like the people, I love California.  I Like to hang with the right people who really enjoy my stuff.  That’s why I’m coming out here. I don’t think about making business or profit on it, I love to hang out with the people and meet new brewers.”

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Beer Highlights

There are so many amazing beers at the Invitational.  More than I could personally fully experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s too many.  I had to leverage the power of the new Invitational app to create a bucket list that would allow me to focus on the beers and brewers I was most interested in.  If you’re going for Dark Lord, Hunahpuh’s, and Black Tuesday, you wont be disappointed, but I personally was more interested in learning about the international brewers attending.  That being said, I spent a considerable time at the Barrelworks tent enjoying unending glasses full of wild joy being poured by Jeffers, Sour Jim, and the Walker’s.  Additionally hanging out with Matt Olesh and Greg Nagel at the Bruery while refreshing our palates over some POG Juice.

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Garage Project

At the 2014 Invitational, I happened upon a New Zealand brewery I had never heard of, Garage Project.  It was then that I met several amazingly fresh NZ hopped beers, a chardonnay beer, and the Umami Monster, a beer made with Kombu and Katsuoboshi.  It was clear that Garage Project was not only incredibly creative, but flippin’ fantastic in execution.  Their beers were tasty, interesting, and unique.  To add to their allure, their branding and beer labels are some of the most colorful and striking around.  I was excited to hear that they would be returning this year so they were at the top of my list and my first stop.

This year they brought several beers that amazed and awed.  My first invitational beer this year was called Two Tap Flat White, which it turns out is actually two beers mixed together – a nitro cream ale and a coffee imperial stout.  Brewer Pete Gillespie explained that the beers were made to be mixed not enjoyed separately.  Together they created one of the creamiest most satisfying coffee beers I’ve ever had.  In addition the coffee adventure was Bosa Nova Baby, an incredibly tropical Brett IPA made with Citra, Sauvin, and Galaxy hops as well as guava, mango, strawberry, passionfruit, and pear.  Saying this beer was fresh and refreshing would be an understatement – it’s bursting with tropical hops and fruit.  To cap it off they had a strong barrel aged rye beer and a Rose beer.  The rose was really nice with an incredibly bright sparking wine character.  I sincerely hope they come back next year, I absolutely love their creativity.

Birrificio Italiano

Another returning international brewery, represented by Agostino Arioli, was Birrificio Italiano known for TipoPils, which inspired Firestone Walkers Pivo Pils.  Arioli, has a bit of a love hate relationship with their flagship Tipopils, which, as it turns out, is pretty common with best sellers.  TipoPils may be a thirst quenchingly refreshing and well executed pilsner, but it’s not the beers Arioli is most excited about.  To this years fest he brought Tipopils, Scires, a bottom fermented blended sour with cherries, and Cassisona, a non-brett tart fruit beer made with cassis (blackcurrant).  Cassisona’s tartness was, unlike many of the other wild beers being poured at the fest, completely derived from the fruit, which made it delightfully bright.  It poured a ruby gold and screamed cheese pairing.

Not only did Birrificio Italiano bring a wide selection of great beers, but they were also the featured invitational collaboration brewery.  The cross continental collaboration titled, La Piccola, was unveiled at this years 2015 invitational in a very interesting way or should I say ways.  There were three different versions of this dark saison being poured at the fest, one with sichuan peppercorns, one without, and one that was sent down to barrelworks to undergo secondary wild fermentation.  For those that home brew and like experimenting with variations on a base beer, this was a really cool side by side.  I enjoyed Agostino’s version, with it’s noticeable analgesic qualtiy, and the Barrelworks version the most.  The flashes of spice, umami, zest, and modest carbonation make it perfect for food pairing.

For those that wanted take home, beer gift packs were sold at the brewery and Barrelworks.

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Mahrs Brau

Bavaria’s own Mahrs Brau made it’s triumphant return all the way from Bamburg, Germany.  This is one brewery I can say I’ve been to…because, well, I have.  I fell in love was an incredible unfiltered kellerbier over there called Ungetspundet, which they refer to as “U”.  Or maybe that’s just what they tell all the American tourists.

Brewer/Owner Stephan Michel also made his return to this year’s invitational and with him he did indeed bring U as well as a Bock beer.  Michel, who’s family has been in charge of the brewery since 1895ish, loves the traditional German style of brewing, but is enamored with the freedom outside of the Reinheitsgebot.   I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw some non-traditional beers coming out of Mahrs in the future – if Germany ever loosens it’s belt.

Joyfully Overwhelmed

There is so much to experience at the Invitational.  It really is a festival for every type of beer fan.  You can really focus on whatever you want wether it’s specific breweries, music, amazing restaurants, or spending time with your friends, this a great fest.  Whats more, the brewers pouring your beers are excited to be there and are excited be filling your glass…and that my friends is a beautiful thing.

“That’s a dimension of craft beer.  The 3500 brewers in America all have the same feeling about everything.  They want to share beer culture, they want to share that experience.  Beer lends itself to a social experience.  The artisanal way of doing things makes it a great thing to talk about. It’s attractive.  It’s hard not to enjoy that.” –  David Walker, Proprietor – Firestone Walker 

 

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About Kristofor Barnes

Kip is the founder of Bierkast and co-founder of Los Angeles Ale Works. Picking up home brewing after college, he has since become an accomplished award winning home brewer, LA Beer Blogger, and author of the Beer Lover's Guide to Southern California. Kip is a graduate of the University of Southern California's School of Cinema Television. He lives in Inglewood, CA with his sciency wife Katie. Follow him @bierkast or #FollowTheLAAW @laaleworks

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1 Comment

  1. One of these years I’ll make it out, looks like an awesome fest!

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