Old World Beers Reinvented on the Central Coast
- By Hudson Lindenberger •
When David Walker and Adam Firestone decided to open a brewery 18-years ago they wanted to create something unique. The two brothers-in-law wanted to try their hand at brewing using vintage British methods to create the type of beers they both loved, English Pales. Obviously they were onto something, because today their brewery, Firestone Walker, is the 16th largest craft brewery in the United States.
Adam Firestone is the great grandson of Harvey Firestone, the founder of the ubiquitous tire company of the same name. Californians know the family for their large vineyards created by his father Brooks Firestone. Like the Bear (representing the Californian, Adam) and the Lion (representing the Englishman, David) on their label the brewery is a merger of West Coast experimentation and old world brewing styles. When they resurrected the classic English brewing method called the Burton Union System that used Oak barrels during fermentation the brewery was heading into somewhat uncharted waters. The interconnected series of 20-24 barrels allows the beer to develop a full flavored taste, but requires a skill set not readily found amongst brewers in 1996 when they opened, when they were only the second brewery left in the world using the system.
Little did they know that their trials and tribulations would ultimately set them up for unprecedented success and make them one of the leaders in the American barrel aged beer scene. Wine Food Explorer decided to visit and see what the hype is about.
Dropping in on the Beer Garage
When planning a visit to Firestone Walker (FW) you must first decide which section of Central California you want to visit and what experience you are looking for. Since opening their first brewery in 1996 FW has expanded to two locations: Paso Robles and Buellton, with a third facility opening in Venice in 2015. Each location offers a full restaurant and a unique beer tasting environment.
Firestone Walkers Spiritual Home: Paso Robles
Paso Robles is the main brewing facility and spiritual home of Firestone Walker; they began brewing nearby on land leased from the Firestone vineyards and opened their first large-scale brewery in the town in 2001. In 2012 the brewery underwent extensive remodeling with the addition of a new brew house, a high tech packaging line, and numerous other facelifts.
The tasting room has a somewhat mechanical vibe to it with numerous homages paid to the automobile past that the Firestone family made their initial fortune on. Numerous large windows along with industrial light fixtures bathe the room in light that reflects off the ample sheets of stainless steel and diamond plate placed throughout the room. The large black chalkboard behind the taps contrast nicely with the brightness and draws your eyes to their beers on tap. With 14 beers on tap you are guaranteed to find one to your liking.
Awards and Accolades
The brewers at Firestone Walker are famous for their award-winning beers; they are the most successful brewery in America over the last decade, no one can match their accolades. They have pulled in an astounding 39 medals at the Great American Beer Festival since 2004, while winning Mid-Sized Brewery of the Year three times (2007, 2011, and 2013). In The bi-annual World Beer Cup they have won 25 medals, while being named Mid-Sized Champion brewer four times (2004, 2006, 2010, and 2012). You owe it to yourself to sample some of their liquid gold.
What’s on Tap?
There are certain beers always on tap at any Firestone Walker location, 805 is a lighter beach-worthy beer; Pivo Pils, an excellent Pilsner; Pale 31, their dry hopped California Pale Ale; and Union Jack, a west coast IPA full of citrus and flavor. One you should not miss is their signature DBA (Double Barrel Ale) which always takes one tap – this is the beer they built their brewery on. It utilizes beer from their Burton Union Barrel system that is blended with beer from stainless tanks, a 20 percent cask beer/80 percent stainless mix, to create a beer so smooth you forget you are in the states.
As for the other tap lines you will find a mixed selection of seasonal offerings, experimental test beers, and numerous other selections from their large library of offerings.
A Brewpub worth Visiting
If you are looking for food and even more hidden gems, make your way across the street to their brewpub for more hoppy heaven. The large restaurant with soaring ceilings maintains the industrial vibe from the tasting room while adding a humorous touch. Above the bar is an actually working conveyer belt with beers rolling along it, think Laverne and Shirley but instead of Milwaukee you are on the Central Coast.
The menu is well designed with a nice mix between typical pub grub (hot pretzel, burgers, and pizza) and higher end fare (steaks, fresh fish, and pasta). Chef Thomas Yun is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy and his dishes are excellent. Make sure to try the Seared Ahi Wontons, they were fantastic – light and crispy wontons with tasty Ahi.
While you will find their main line selections on tap always, you also can find some hidden gems on tap and in their extensive library of barrel-aged beers. Speaking of barrel-aged beers Firestone Walker is one of the leaders in the newest craze to hit craft brewing – barrel aged beers. The fact they are in this position is due to foresight, luck, and a couple of rebel brewers.
Retired Barrels lead to Experimentation
Due to their unique Burton Union Barrel system the brewery found themselves with a problem early in their operation, what to do with all of their retired barrels? You see, unlike stainless steel tanks, wood barrels only have a limited shelf life. The thing that makes them so unique is also what leads to their retirement: Flavor exchange only works for awhile, soon the casks need to be taken out of their system and moved into another use. The issue facing the brewers in the early 2000’s was what to do with them. They could chop them up, use as planters, or try laying some different beers down in them for extended aging to see what they could create.
Luckily for drinkers they started experimenting. The first results were a mixed lot. “We really did not know what we were getting into back then, we were figuring it out as we went,” says brewer Jim Crooks. “Some batches were good, some quite bad; the funny thing was we were doing all of this on the side, David and Allen did not really pay much attention to it.” As the brewer’s skills improved they branched out into spirit and wine barrels, testing and tweaking as they went along. Soon they were creating some memorable beers, stuff not seen in the states, they were unknowingly pioneering a new direction for beer.
Wild Yeasts create Wild Beers
“After several years we started working with wild yeasts, really playing with some crazy stuff,” says brewer Jeffers Richardson. “We knew the dangers associated but it really did not sink in, we were just so excited about the beers we were creating. Then one day Adam’s kid told him about the level of wild beers we had going on, he found out on Facebook, Adam flipped out, rightfully so.” Beer needs yeast to brew, simple right? Most breweries keep several strains of the same yeast growing in their labs (it’s a living organism, Heineken has used the same strain for over a hundred years) it is relatively easy to maintain and control. Not so with wild yeasts they can wreck a brewing operation.
Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus are the two most common wild yeasts used today by brewers creating experimental beers, they can lead the brewing process in very interesting directions with quite unique flavors. The beer can take months to years to reach a finished point and can sometimes go in flavors not previously thought of, for this reason brewers love playing with it, but only under a controlled environment. These wild yeasts can escape from barrels, they are not airtight, and spread rapidly throughout a brewery, spoiling beer and wreaking havoc. If a brewery has an outbreak they usually have to dump all beer and steam clean the entire facility. You can understand why Adam was upset when he found out his brewers had a covert wild beer program going on in his facility.
Buellton’s Barrelworks: A Temple to the Experimental
Luckily for the drinking public they did not dump the beer, instead they expanded their program over the last four years at a new location, Barrelworks located in their Buellton taproom location. This beer-geek heaven is located a healthy 105 miles from Paso Robles so no threat of cross contamination. This temple to experimental beers is one of a kind, something not found often. They have close to 2,500 barrels of beer aging throughout the facility under strict supervision; some will be laid down for years to come. There are only a handful of brewers across the country with a program this ambitious, New Belgium in Colorado and Goose Island in Chicago are probably bigger but not by much.
There are 14 tap lines in the Buellton location offering an incredibly diverse lineup of beers such as barrel-aged stouts, wild sours and Belgian Quad’s. The list is forever changing and they offer numerous bottle releases for purchase. If you were to go to one brewery this year this one is it, walking amongst the myriad of barrels staked high you feel like Jack in the Giant’s castle, curiously out of place but entranced none-the-less. The tasting room continues with their mechanical feel and the Buellton restaurant is spacious and comfortable while offering the same menu as Paso Robles.
Paso Robles Info:
1400 Ramada Dr
Paso Robles, CA 93446
Restaurant Hours: Sunday through Saturday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Brewery Tours: Friday through Sunday 10:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Tasting Room: Friday through Sunday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
620 McMurray Rd
Buellton, CA 93427
Restaurant Hours: Sunday through Saturday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Barrelworks Hours: Friday through Sunday 12 – 7 p.m., Monday 2 – 7 p.m.