Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Brewing A Passion for Craft Beer in Wine-Country

Firestone Walker Brewing Company

Paso Robles is probably best known for its numerous wineries, however anyone who enjoys craft beer these days assuredly knows that Paso Robles is also home to the Firestone Walker production brewing facility.  Over the last few years, Firestone Walker has been the winner of an astonishingly high number of medals at both the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup.  Most well known for the Double Barrel Ale (DBA) and Pale 31 pale ale, Firestone also produces some fantastic bigger beers like Parabola (an Imperial Stout), Abacus (an English Barleywine), and its Anniversary series (each year, a unique blend of several different beers and beer styles).  One of my favorites is the newly bottled and released Pivo Pils, a hoppy Americanized Pilsner that is dry-hopped with a "new" hop varietal, German Saphir - the hop adds a citrus and lemongrass bite to a clean, light-bodied lager.  Firestone Walker's beers are fairly well-distributed to most of the country, and the beers are generally readily available.

Visitor's Center

Our visit naturally started in the visitor's center, a small gift-store and taproom that sits in the front of the Firestone Walker brewery facility.  The visitor's center is outfitted with fourteen taps featuring Firestone Walker beers, and visiting guests can taste three ounce samples of Firestone's lineup, including beers that you will not find outside of the brewery.  For example, the Taproom Brown was classic representative of the English Brown Ale style, and was definitely crisp, clean, and flavorful -- a standard for all of Firestone Walker's beers.  If you find a beer you like, six ounce or eleven ounce pours are also available.   The visitor's center was also pouring Helldorado, a golden Barleywine featuring El Dorado hops.  This standalone beer is not released, but it serves as a component in the blended beer that was the Sixteenth Anniversary Beer released last year.

The Brewery

The tour was typical of your standard brewery tour.  We were walked through the quality control department (a cool looking lab) and heard a little about the history of Firestone Walker.  The brewdeck is the focus of the brewery, and the ninety-barrel system is set up as a tribute to the water, barley, and the hops that are combined together in this part of the brewing process.  It is impossible not to appreciate the technical beauty of the equipment that Firestone has installed -- the setup is dedicated to producing massive volumes of the highest quality beer using traditional step-infusion processes.  The standout of the tour, and the true differentiators of Firestone Walker from other breweries, is the Union fermentation system that sits oddly placed amongst a forest of stainless steel tanks.  Firestone's flagship beer, Double Barrel Ale (DBA), is produced from a blend of 20% beer that is fermented in the oak barrels of the Union system, and 80% beer fermented in stainless (hence the name, "double" barrel).  In the visitor's center, the unfiltered version of DBA was being pointed on Nitro, and that was a real treat. An incredibly different beer than the standard DBA that you see on tap at countless bars.

The only disappointing aspect of the tour was the fact that both the kegging and bottling lines were up and running, and the noise in the cavernous facility was mildly deafening.  This made the entire tour a bit awkward and it was difficult to ask questions and interact with the tour guide.  And although the tour guide was friendly and energetic, he was not as knowledgeable about some specific information relevant to Firestone Walker and Firestone's beers as he could have been (but, it was only his fifth tour).  The noisy brewery only added to some of the awkwardness of his presentation.  Overall, I have always wanted to see and tour the facility at Firestone Walker, and the tour delivered - truly one of the most impressive production breweries that I have visited.

The Taproom

Following the tour, we headed over to the Taproom for some more beers and some sunshine on the outdoor patio.  The peacefulness and serene atmosphere of a comfortable summer afternoon was a stark contrast to the noise and industrial machine vibe of the brewery and visitor's center.  I enjoyed a Proprietor's Series flight, featuring Wookey Jack, Double Jack, Proprietor's Reserve (a terrific porter), and the DDBA (an imperial version of the DBA, incredibly boozy with immense bourbon characteristics and vanilla undertones).  We then sat down for dinner once the kitchen opened, and I enjoyed a full pour of the Pivo Pils with the grilled salmon.  The food was incredible for a brewery restaurant, probably as good if not better than the food offered at Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens.

Firestone Walker was an overall excellent visit.  The brewery is state of the art, the beers are technically perfect, and Firestone offers a diverse range of its take on classic beer styles.  Firestone reinterprets each beer style, making each beer its own, while staying true to traditional and techniques.  The beers are nearly flawless, and I will always be confident in choosing or recommending a Firestone Walker beer.  Even more noticeable than the attention to brewing detail, was the passion for the craft that was exuded by nearly everyone who I interacted with -- from the server's in the visitor center, to the energetic tour guide, to our bar tender in the Taproom.  The people were friendly, knowledgeable, and genuinely cared about Firestone Walker and about craft beer.  I can only foresee continued successes, innovation, and growth from Firestone, especially with Matt Brynildson at the helm of brewing operations, and with David Walker as an active owner who clearly has a passion for the art and science of beer.

Check out the well-done Firestone Walker website or follow-along on Twitter.

Live the craft.  Cheers.

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