Beer of Tomorrow was recently invited to visit the Firestone Walker Brewery and tour their new custom “hot rod” brewhouse, and I had already been planning a road trip to Santa Cruz so the timing worked out perfectly. A couple of weeks ago site cofounder Julie and I hit the 101 north and cruised up for a great afternoon at one of California’s marquee breweries!
I have personally been a fan of Firestone Walker beers for many years; ever since I first discovered their Double Barrel Ale (or DBA) shortly after moving to LA and fell in love with the label featuring a lion and a bear squaring off for a spot of fisticuffs. DBA (though in those days I simply referred to it as “Bear vs Lion“) was in a regular rotation with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Deschutes Mirror Pond, and Stone IPA as my go-to craft beers.
Firestone Walker has come a long ways in the last 10 years, and they now have a line-up of half a dozen year-round beers, a handful of seasonal releases, and an impressive barrel program! They are perennial winners at the major beer competitions, and just last week they took home yet another gold medal from the Great American Beer Festival for their flagship DBA and another for their delectable black rye IPA Wookey Jack. Firestone Walker’s core line-up of pale ales are distributed across six states while the Proprietors Reserve beers see a wider 14+ state distribution.
As FW garnered more national recognition the demand for their beers kept rising, and the brewery struggled with the production capacity of their first brewhouse. An expansion plan was designed, and the installation of the new custom 60BBL brewhouse was just completed last month. The new system is a novel design that utilizes the old some of the old vessels to increase the daily production capacity from around 400BBLs to nearly 1000BBLs!
After meeting our welcoming committee at the on-site pub for a quick pint of Unfiltered DBA (more on this beer later) we headed over to the visitor’s center for a fresh beer and to meet Mark Fischer the Brewery Engineer who would be our tour-guide for the behind-the-scenes look at the impressive Paso Robles facility. Walking the facility with Mark was a delight. He was clearly very passionate about the new equipment and systems and he talked at-length about their new wet-mill, brew kettle, and all-manner of heavy-duty brewing-nerd gear.
Mark discussed the challenges of building a fully custom brewhouse designed by a German engineers and automated by Spanish programmers, and one surprise that they ran into was just how high-efficiency the system is. The brewers have had to adjust recipes and ingredients to achieve a consistent product, but the kinks have mostly been worked-out by now.
The new brewhouse is fully automated and all of Firestone Walker’s different beers can be programmed into the system to minimize variables and manual labor. As impressive as the control room that houses all the brewing software controllers was I was more enthralled by the manual controls on the brewdeck:
Rivaling the engineering and equipment apparent on the interior of the brewhouse is the newly constructed tower the houses all the hardware. Added to the front of the brewery building, the metal and glass tower glints in the sun and provides a new signature visual design for the brewery. The kettle and tuns are accessible from the second floor of the tower that features an expanse of windows looking across the 101 freeway and into the central coast hills. This is the highlight of the visitor’s tour, and the desk even has a little two-tap bar for refreshments. The highlight for our tour was still to come however.
In brewing the magic happens after the grains are milled, and the mash finished, and the wort boiled and then cooled in the custom whirlpool (that Mark said was the source of many arguments with the German engineers who would not believe that the crazy American brewers would use so much hops in a batch of beer – over 240 pounds of hops in a 60BBL batch of Double Jack.) The magic happens in the cellar during fermentation, and with some of their signature beers Firestone Walker has always taken a different approach to fermentation: the Firestone Union.
The Union is a throw-back to 19th century British brewing techniques where the early pale ales were fermented in a system of large connected oak casks called the Burton-Union. Firestone Walker has this to say about the effect of the Firestone Union on their beer:
Our patented union of barrels uniquely incorporates 60-gallon heavy or medium toast American oak barrels into a brewing process that yields beers of extraordinary character and complexity. This system improves the fullness of the palate, enhances hop maturity and lends a clean briskness to the finish. The influence of the toasted oak also imparts unique hints of smokiness and vanilla, as well as a subtle fruitiness to the flavor profile.
Some of the beer that use the Firestone Union are all three beers in the Pale Series: DBA, Pale 31, and Union Jack, as well as Walkers Reserve porter, Double DBA, and a few of the pub-only releases. The most notable of the pub-exclusives is the 100% union-fermented and unfiltered UDBA. Standard DBA blends 20% beer that has spent about a week in the wood fermenters with beer more traditionally fermented in stainless steel vessels. Unfiltered DBA is not cut with any beer that was fermented in stainless, and the result is a turbid and distinctly rich ale with a full mouthfeel, complex bitterness, and it is seriously delicious. Unfiltered and unpasteurized UDBA doesn’t have the shelf-life that a retail beer requires, and so the only way to get it is at one of the Firestone Walker facilities (or maybe an extra special festival.)
At this point Mark had to return to actually working and Jamie Smith, the VP of Marketing, took over tour-guide duties and took us to my favorite room in the whole place.
Apart from the use of barrels in the actual primary fermentation of their beers Firestone Walker has made a name for themselves with their expanding barrel program that results in fan-favorite beers like the imperial stout Parabola and the barley wine §ucaba. The barrel room at the brewery is the most impressive one we’ve seen, and I cannot describe how amazing it smelled in that room. Hundreds of oak barrels, that in previous lives held everything from rum to bourbon to chardonnay, were stacked 5-or-6 high and 6-or-7 deep. The barrels are all in various stages of maturity, and any of them are fair-game for the brewers charged with developing the annual Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale.
The Anniversary Ale is a blend of many different beers. Every year their anniversary release is different, and the process begins with a panel of tasters – including many notable Central Coast winemakers – who develop a unique blend of beers. Last year’s release, XV, used eight different beers in the blend! This year XVI is slated for release next month and is a similar blend of many bourbon barrel aged brews; we’re looking forward to it!
After Jamie was able to drag me out of the barrel room the tour continued through packaging, cold storage, and finally returned to the visitors center so we could sample more of the beers that we’d just witnessed being made.
The Visitor’s Center
Located adjacent to the new brewhouse the Visitors Center is a tap-room and company store where you can get a taster-flight, a pint, or fill your growlers, and many of the taps pour beers like Velvet Merkin, Oaktoberfest, and Stickee Monkee that are exclusive to the brewery.
We put together a monster of a taster flight that covered everything from Firestone Walker’s still-in-development hoppy pilsner, to the luscious Velvet Merkin (the bourbon barrel aged version of their oatmeal stout Velvet Merlin), to the intense and complex Anniversary XIV. Sampling some of the best beers that the brewery had to offer was the perfect ending to an afternoon spent talking about beer and touring an amazing and impressive production brewery.
But our day at Firestone Walker wasn’t over as dinner time was quickly approaching and we decided to move over to the new taproom restaurant for what turned out to be an impressive and delicious meal.
The Taproom Restaurant
In addition to another bar pouring pints of, and filling growlers with, all the Firestone Walker beers, the new restaurant features a sprawling dining area and an open kitchen serving lunch and dinner daily.
Food is upscale pub food, pizzas, and a variety of small plates and snacks, and everything that we sampled was really tasty. The vibe in the dinning room was laid-back and we really enjoyed our meal (and the beers that accompanied it.) We’ll be covering the restaurant more in-depth in a future post, but suffice to say it the new space is impressive and easily stands up against the other on-site restaurants at other breweries (Stone Bistro included.)
After stuffing ourselves and picking up a growler of UDBA we walked back to our conveniently located, and quite nice, hotel all aglow from the wonderful tour, conversation, and (many) glasses of beer from our afternoon at Firestone Walker Brewery. Everyone we met at the brewery, from our initial contact with Christopher and Jamie, to the brewery staff, taproom servers, and restaurant manager, was very nice and legitimately excited to have us visiting.
We had a great time visiting the brewery, and we would highly recommend stopping by if you’re ever north-bound on the 101 through Paso Robles. Take the tour, grab a bite, and fill some growlers (with UDBA)! In just a few weeks (on November 3rd) the brewery will be celebrating the release of the XVI Anniversary Ale with a party at the brewery, and if you’ve been wanting to get out-of-town for a couple of days this could be just the excuse you’ve been looking for!
I’d like to thank Christopher and Jamie for setting up our visit, Mark for leading us on the special tour, and everyone else at Firestone Walker that we ran across for being so awesome and welcoming! They’ve built an impressive brewery in the middle of wine-country. While the beer might not be made in LA it’s close enough for us!
Check out the gallery of more picture from our visit below, and let us know what your favorite Firestone Walker beer is in the comments!