It’s been another very good year for the mid-California brewery Firestone Walker. As of the beginning of 2013 they were the 24th largest brewery in the nation, averaging over 20% growth each of the past three years.
With the recently completed 2013 Great American Beer Festival came more accolades for FSW – three Gold medals (Taproom IPA, Pivo Pilsner, the yummy black I”P”A – Wookey Jack) and they were also named “Midsize Brewery of the Year”.
Along with their heralded production brewery in Paso Robles, Firestone Walker is now committed to the production of “live” barrel aged sour brett inoculated beers – at their “Barrelworks” facility about an hour further south.
I was lucky enough to meet the manager of the live beer project, Jeffers Richardson who invited me to the Barrelworks for a personal tour. As I walked into the vast warehouse – with well over a thousand barrels stacked from floor to ceiling – it truly felt like I had entered a cathedral of beer – made the way it used to be.
Jeffers couldn’t tell me exactly what the annual output of the Barrelworks was, as after all there’s the original continuous cycle of racking in the barrels, aging, tasting and blending that makes it hard to predict how much beer is really available to the public at any time. After 2 years they have just about filled all of their French and American white oak barrels – and a for a few afternoons and each evening, the public can sample some of them at the Barrelworks tasting room.
At the Barrelworks they manage a “library” of Firestone Walker beers brought in – some are special for the barrelworks (like the Flanders style brown currently in the huge 72 barrel oak foeder), others are part of the standard FSW line like the DBA used in many versions.
Working with master blender Jim Crooks (“Sour Jim”) Jeffers helps put together batches of live sour beers for public consumption. “It’s like being a painter with a palate of colors, you select and blend to create the masterpiece.” Talking about the difficulty of working with the live sour beers Jeffers commented: “I call them (the barrels) bug catchers – and we are like zookeepers – that’s live microflora in there. This is how beer was originally made, nothing could be more real”.
I asked Jeffers and Jim about how they go about putting together a blended live brew – do they start out with a plan, or just sample things until they find something they like?
“It’s some of both – we sample and find something we like – then we look at balancing out the acidity and flavors. Sometimes we end up with a batch we like for the tasting room and sometimes we just pull a special single barrel we find and make it available. We have a lot of creative license and are encouraged to experiment to make something that could be really extraordinary”.
“The brewery and it’s owners have made a commitment to barrel aging sour beers, and while it may not be their favorite style, they are doing it first class. It creates a buzz, and is good for the brand – but it’s not like we are doing this just as charitywork either”.
I was fortunate to taste a few of the masterpieces – Jeffers walking me through the tart but refreshingly light “Bretta Weisse” Berliner weiss, then the subtly spicy sour Saison “Lil Opal”. The collaboration brett laced Saison “Lil Mikkel” made with the gypsy brewer Mikkeller was even more tart, but not really lip puckering.
All of these beers were fresh tasting, light to medium bodied and refreshingly sour – most with a hint of oak balancing it all out to create really special and exciting flavors. I have to say that while I do enjoy the powerful spirit barrel aged imperial stouts and the like, those are more like novelties compared to real live barrel beers like those created in the Barrelworks.
As the french would say “The more things change, the more they remain the same”. The old authentic ways of “barrels, bending and balance” are new again at Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks, and it’s real beer appreciation that results – but for now you have to get to Buelton California to try them.