In August 2013 I was invited to take a trip to the Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles to attend the annual winemakers blending session that would create the brewery’s seventeenth anniversary beer. The following account of the trip only touches on the amazing experience. I hope you enjoy my telling of how a dozen central coast winemakers and one intrepid beer writer came together to create a beer unlike anything else.
I woke suddenly, dumped from my slumber into a foggy reality cut through by a beam of sunlight cruelly streaming through a gap in the blackout blinds. The stiff white linens reminded me that I wasn’t in my familiar bed in Hollywood. I was in the Paso Robles Courtyard Marriott, and I was hung over.
“At least I earned this,” I thought while standing in the shower, scalding water streaming over my pounding head. “I blame those winemakers…”
There’s an adage among winemakers that “It takes a lot of great beer to make great wine”, but in the case of Firestone Walker Brewery’s annual anniversary beer, it takes a lot of great winemakers.
Each year around harvest time at the vineyards, Brewmaster Matt Brynildson invites a group of central coast winemakers to the Paso Robles brewery to help create to create a blend of barrel aged beers.
Winemakers are adept at creating blends from disparate components, and Brynildson makes some world-class components to work with. The tradition began for the brewery’s 10th anniversary, when their barrel aging program was in its infancy. Today, the brewery has over 1500 spirit barrels filled with a range of brews like Parabola, Sucaba, and Double DBA, as well as beers like Stickee Monkee, Bravo, and Helldorado developed as blending components and are rarely seen outside of the brewery tasting room.
This year the winemakers would be creating Firestone Walker XVII, and the brewery invited me to make the trip up from LA to witness, and participate in, the festive collaboration-turned-competition.
It had seemed straightforward enough, I reflected while shakily attempting to butter a pallid bagel from the hotel’s breakfast bar. I’d cruise to Paso Robles for the Tuesday afternoon blending session, enjoy a celebratory meal at the taproom restaurant, and be back at the hotel early enough to make a deadline on Wednesday morning before heading to the Buellton Barrelworks facility for an interview with David Walker.
I was warned that I’d be “thrown into the lion’s den as an active participant” during the blending, but I figured I could hang back and watch the pros work while snapping some photos and taking notes for a feature on the process. My notes told a different story, or they would have if they hadn’t been a near indecipherable jumble. I settled into another cup of coffee and tried to piece together the blending session with my notes, photos, and foggy recollections.
After a welcome pint with my brewery contacts I was delivered to the tasting room bar where the winemakers had begun to congregate. They wore harvest beards and exchanged hearty handshakes and brusk hugs as more old friends arrived. Tall stacks of plastic cups, note pads, and empty pitchers had been arranged around the tables, but my concept of a structured discussion, tasting, and blending was quickly challenged as the eponymous David Walker called the group to order to form teams.
These winemakers are fiercely competitive, and each year they form 2-person teams to develop the best blend and win a year’s worth of bragging rights (and a wine-case crown to flaunt during dinner).
I was teamed up with Matt Trevisan of Linne Calodo Cellars – who must have drawn the short-straw. “Why do I always get stuck with the beer writers?” bemoaned Trevisan, and I briefly thought I might be traded to another winery’s team for a case of merlot. “No offense,” he added before explaining that he really wanted to dethrone the reigning champions.
“Let’s make some magic then.” I replied nervous excitement.
My morning deadline was blown, there was no fixing that, but I could still make my rendezvous in Buellton. Of course, I’d need to recover my car that I’d left at the brewery after the celebration dinner.
Brynildson had dropped me off at the hotel after he found me hunched at the taproom bar scribbling frantically in my notebook – trying, unsuccessful it seems, to capture my impressions of the blending and dinner.
We we pulled out of the brewery parking lot, Brynildson was flagged down by a group of the blenders who were decamping to Herman Story Wines for a vinous nightcap.
“You want me to just drop you off at the hotel?” He said somewhat wearily, but I wasn’t about to give up the chance to see how one of the best brewers in the country spends his off hours.
“I’m going where you’re going. Just consider me along for the ride.”
Jeffers Richardson, Firestone Walker’s first Brewmaster and current “Barrel Meister”, arrived to the blending with a whiteboard detailing which beers were available to the teams.
“Parabola, 91BBLs; Stickee Monkee, 45BBLs; Velvet Merkin, 80BBLs, Helldorado, 54BBLs…”
The list read like a beer hunter’s wishlist.
Trevisan and I went to work tasting the individual component beers and discussing what character we wanted in our final blend, and soon we were measuring milliliters into graduated cylinders and calculating how much Parabola to include to hit our target volume of 220 barrels.
The tasting room filled with the din of the winemakers trading barbs and telling stories about the harvest. Pitchers of Parabola and Velvet Merkin and Bravo were passed from table to table. Pencils were swiped and pitchers rerouted as teams attempted some light sabotage and disruption.
Stakes were high, but the strong beers lighted the mood as the teams finalized their submissions for the blind tasting to decide the winning blend.
It wasn’t quite that simple though.
Herman Story Wines are “made, schlepped, peddled, and drunk with friends” by Russell From in an environment comfortable to craft beer fans: an industrial park. There’s a warehouse of barrels, a wine press, and vats that are rolled out the back when trucks of fruit arrive.
Near the center of town, From’s atelier seems a popular after-hours hang for local brewers and winemakers, and there was already a handful of people lingering outside the open steel roll-up door when we arrived. Led Zeppelin IV was playing loudly as From and his assistant winemaker talked excitedly about the wines and flitted between tall stacks of oak barrels, probing select examples with a glass wand – appropriately called a “wine thief” – before splashing the violaceous liquid into our glasses.
I sipped on reds that lay heavy on a palate unaccustomed to wine and listened as the winemakers and brewers discussed the minutia of fermentation. Someone produced a case of Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils and passed the stubby bottles around.
Lips dyed purple from the young wine, From’s passion for winemaking was plain as he expressed the importance of attention to the details of winemaking . He called attention to the Zeppelin tunes pouring from the overhead speakers and revealed that the stereo was specially set up to minimize the low-end in the music.
“The barrels feel it.” He explained, implying that his wines liked a treble-rich environment.
It’s this attention to detail that elevates a winemaker or brewer to the level that Firestone Walker and Herman Story operates. It’s a love distilled into technique.
The numbered candidates were passed around for the final judging, and it was no easy task to pick a favorite. For once the room was quiet as the blenders tasted the 10 blends and submitted their secret ballots. When the results were tallied, a roar rose in the room.
For the first time in eight iterations of the winemakers blending session there was no clear winner. The vote was a three-way tie.
The smack-talk grew in intensity as a final taste-off was set up. The blenders grew more rowdy as the last of the pitchers were spread around the room and drained. Wagers were made on who the finalists were and who would be crowned before Brynildson returned to announce the winning blend.
Neil Collins and Chelsea Franchi of Tablas Creek Winery had unseated the two-time reigning champions from Saxum Winery and claimed the cardboard crown with their blend heavy on the imperial brown ale Bravo and barleywine Stickee Monkee.
Brynildson calls the final 14.5%ABV blend “full of soft chocolate and warm spice perfectly balanced by toasted coconut bourbon barrel notes and smooth creamy malt mellowness.”
There was a flurry of activity as pictures were taken and the tasting room was abandoned for a long table in the middle of the tap room restaurant and a boisterous dinner. There was a toast by Brynildson and Walker, and lively conversations touched on all aspects of beer and wine and passion. From winemakers-turned-brewers to brewers-turned-chocolatiers, from businessmen to artists (and one beer writer feeling in over his head), the group assembled by the Firestone Walker Brewmaster reveled in a job well done.
Reunited with my car and bolstered by the hotel coffee, I struck out southbound. There are 88 miles between the Paso Robles brewery and the “cathedral to the barrel” in Buellton, and it is a breathtaking drive. Of all the hackneyed hangover cures I’ve tried over the years, few approached the effectiveness of those 90 minutes of late-summer sun and open road.
My head clearing, I contemplated how to cover the experience. I felt a responsibility to express the energy and magic of the event.
But it wasn’t magic really. It was chemistry.
The brewers and the winemakers (and the beer writer) came together to collaborate and compete, and they created a beer unique in the craft beer world: A cuvee that is so much more than the sum of seven beers from over 200 barrels. Blending beer is not new, but Firestone Walker’s approach to their anniversary blends is novel, ambitious, and unmatched.
Winemakers, like brewers, are scientists and artists. And like all artists, brewers and winemakers thrive in communities. Paso Robles, just 200 miles from LA, is a crossroads of some of the best beer and wine that California has to offer, and Firestone Walker has actively nurtured and encouraged the cross-pollination of the two worlds that are often seen as at-odds.
Firestone Walker XVII was released during a party at the brewery on November 2nd, and the beer will make its way to stores (and the occasional tap) this month.
A version of this story first appeared in the November 2013 issue of Beer Paper LA.