Shove it up your Nice hole

Preface/Foreword: I have no idea when I wrote the following! It’s mid-June, 2021 and I just found a mini trove of unpublished blog posts in a newly-found Drafts folder. I don’t remember writing it but I DO know I’ve voiced my hatred for the word “nice” countless times. The post is woefully unfinished; woulda loved to know where I was going with it. But for posterity’s sake, I’m hitting the publish button now. Noice!!

Oh really, you like a nice hoppy IPA or a nice jammy Pinot, do ya? That street dog’s gotta nice snap? That Penang curry’s got some nice heat? Do you flipping hear yourself?? For one thing, when and why did the word “nice” become a substitute for very? (Which is very much one of the dumbest words one can utter and it’s no coincidence that Trumpy uses it… very much.) And more importantly, who Wouldn’t want whatever it is they’re enjoying to be nice? Who the hell would want a so-so beer or a meh wine? Perhaps you think it sounds more polished or hip than saying “good,” but if so, you’re damn wrong. It’s vapid. It’s meaningless. Nice is nasty

Hell, while watching a video about Chinese street food Jianbing by Eater, the eater used the following phrases: “a nice crunch, a nice texture, a nice variant.” He then said, “nice, bright purple cabbage…there’s a nice, sharp ginger flavor.”

My pick for #FlagshipFebruary? My local DBA

I was honored to be invited to write an essay for the inaugural #FlagshipFebruary campaign.  In my essay about Firestone Walker DBAclick here–I open with a quote on craftsmen and craftsmanship by legendary designer Charles Eames. But here’s his quote that served as a bookend.

In 1957 Eames declared that the title of craftsman “places a tremendous responsibility on those who claim it.” He then referenced a fellow architect named Mies van der Rohe who Eames claimed once said, “I don’t want to be interesting. I just want to be good.”

Those are fitting words for DBA’s epitaph, yet DBA will never die. Not DBA’s somewhat fierce, perhaps nostalgic, decidedly local fans (myself included) have anything to say about it.

Op-ed about craft beer quality and consistency

Beer quality vs consistencyIn John Holl‘s op-ed (non-anon I might add; so brave!), he lays out an argument that “craft” isn’t synonymous with good. Obvi. But–and I say this with love and admiration for John Holl* as well as others fly this flag–he seems to conflate “consistency” with “quality.”
“At Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis brewery, trained professionals sample the Budweiser brewed at each of the company’s 12 U.S. locations, making sure that the liquid tastes exactly the same. Customers shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the Bud brewed in Newark, N.J., versus the one in Fort Collins, Colo., or Fairfield, Calif.”
He continues:
“…we shouldn’t diminish the skill that goes into making tens of millions of barrels of the same beer each year, at multiple locations, each and every one without defect.”
OK, so here are my two main issues. Chiefly, I absolutely do not care if a beer is consistent in its flavor profile. What I mean by this is: I don’t need a beer to taste consistent because beers like Bud/Bud Light, Coors Banquet/Coors Light, or Heinie/Heinie Light are definitely identical, yet (IMHO) vapid. What I do need is for said beer to be consistently good!

 

Take Orval. This brewery, perhaps as the antithesis of these local guys across the US that pump out dozens of different beers a year and some are never to be replicated, defines the concept of craftsmanship. They make one thing and make it well. But sometimes the lemongrass profile rides higher than the sourdough. Sometimes I get more nectarine than white peach. But whoa-nelly, it’s always glorious. I do not believe I’ve ever enjoyed the same Orval twice and that’s even before considering splendidly cellared bottles. The hops that go into it are allowed to reflect seasonality of the crop. The yeast cells, like the beer, are alive! Granted, there are no fungible American craft breweries that fit this model or approach, but I can give concrete examples of beers from tiny players that bear the same brand name on the label though the liquid always varies (yet is always very good. Off the top of my head: Ale Apothecary Sahalie, Third Window Walkabout, New Belgium La Folie, Double Mountain Devil’s Cuvee Kriek, Craftsman Triple White Sage, Scratch Tonic, and, even among larger-produced beers, say, one you’d find in canned six-packs, Ft. George Vortex IPA seems to change with the weather but I’ve never had one less than deliciously stellar.

When a beer is made this way and allowed to be presented with unique character, it’s like seeing the Foo Fighters or Springsteen or Florence + The Machine. You never want your favorite band to put on a shitty show, but you also don’t want the setlist to sound exactly like the last time you saw them. Drinking Bud is like seeing Nickleback, but worse, because it’s seeing Nickleback lipsynching to a homogenous, immutable pre-recording.

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Please don’t ding me for infringement. Just illustrating a point on a blog.

Oh, and by the way, the last time I had a Coors Light (which wasn’t that long ago), I thought the bartender accidentally pulled a pint from the apple juice tap instead of the beer tap, and this was in Colorado. It was the result of acetaldehyde, which most likely meant the lager was rushed to market (because beer in lagering tanks means beer not being sold). So all that fancy, expensive lab equipment in Golden, Colo. (and Milwaukie and St. Louis, etc) is great for keeping the liquid widgets uniform in much the same way Hostess makes Twinkies uniform but that didn’t keep Hostess from running into trouble a few years back. This is the very nature of the problem of Big Beer: they view beer not as a canvas but as a commodity. I’m not saying all craft beer is art, but I am saying all macro beer is artless.

 

Please do not take this is a knock against John Holl (*or even John Hall. I mention this because my favorite comment posted on Holl’s op-ed reads, “he has drank a lot of beer, he is a professional! Didn’t you google him? He founded Goose Island Brewery in 1988 eventually selling it to AB InBev in 2011.” If only the commenter/Googler deduced his homonymous error). Nor is this intended to be an attack of the mega beer factories. If people enjoy the taste of those beers, that’s their prerogative. It’s also cheaper and I’m a bit cantankerous about the price creep we’re seeing in much of the craft beer segment. I certainly agree that there are some quality issues in the small-craft sector and that they can be damaging to the larger craft industry. But inconsistency in and of itself should not be viewed as a flaw like diacetyl or oxidation.

Brewery Buyouts Follow Me to Santa Barbara: Epic Bought Telegraph

I remember when AB-InBev bought Goose Island, but that wasn’t terribly shocking since Goose was already part of the Craft Brew Alliance family, which itself was minority-owned by ABI. I remember when the house of Budweiser bought 10 Barrel out of tiny Bend, Oregon and THAT felt like a big deal. I was surprised that such a behemoth in the beer world was interested in an upstart crafty company in a remote pocket of Oregon. As the wheel keeps turning, we’ve seen major acquisitions (Lagunitas, Ballast Point) and some less earth-shattering ones (like when Heineken-owned Lagunitas bought minuscule but mighty Moonlight Brewing or Green Flash bought infinitesimal but incredible Alpine Brewing). So it is with today’s breaking news that Utah’s Epic Brewing, which already has a satellite brewing in Denver’s booming River North District, has agreed to purchase Telegraph Brewing based right here in Santa Barbara.

When I went to school here at UCSB in the mid-nineties, Santa Barbara Brew Co. opened during my senior year. The Brewhouse was a couple years from opening when I graduated. Heck, even Firestone Walker, which in 2015 was folded into the Belgian-owned Duvel-Moortgat, hadn’t started slinging its pale ales (to say nothing of its 805 blonde ale juggernaut). In other words, the last time I lived in this tropical oasis, it was a beer desert. As the Prodigal Gaucho returns, I have found a quaint little brewing scene (keep in mind I moved here via Portland a.k.a. Beervana). SB is home to six breweries (Telegraph, founded in 2006, being the third oldest and arguably the best). North a bit in Goleta there are four good breweries. Down in fire-ravaged Ventura there’s a mini boom going on where the eighth, Leashless, just opened. This reminds me, I hope the unfortunately-named Smoke Mountain Brewery is okay!

Having said that, it’s not exactly like California’s Central Coast is even a burgeoning beer Mecca. The Golden State’s already got San Diego and the Bay Area. Russian River put Sonoma County on the map while even late-to-the-table Los Angeles is now charging ahead as a boomtown. Heck, even East Coast centric BeerAdvocate is hosting its first Extreme Beer Fest-LA this weekend (that I hope to attend but those aforementioned wildfires will likely keep me from being able to make it). So one of the things I’ll be diving into in upcoming coverage is how, exactly, Utah’s four-time GABF winning brewery that produces 27,000 barrels a year singled out Santa Barbara’s six-time GABF winning tiny brewery. From a recent phone conversation with founder Brian Thompson—who I first met when I ambled unannounced into his fledgling brewery in 2006—I gathered he was feeling the heat of today’s beer industry logistics. But when faced with a rumor that his was the brewery listed on an industry board as being for sale, he shot down that notion! Perhaps hearing his name in the rumors got his own wheels turning. Stay tuned for more. And if you’ve never tried any Telegraph Beer, go out and buy some and see what Epic is already hip to.

Here’s the release sent out today:

 Epic Brewing Completes Purchase of Santa Barbara’s Telegraph Brewing Co.

Salt Lake City, UT— On December 6 th Epic Brewing purchased Telegraph Brewing Company, Santa Barbara’s first and original craft brewery, and has announced investment plans to expand Telegraph and broaden the brewery’s reach as an additional brand in the Epic family.

Telegraph Brewing has been operating in Santa Barbara since 2006 when Founder Brian Thompson opened his dream brewery, focused on high-quality, Belgian-inspired, uniquely-Californian beers produced with local ingredients.

“So much has changed in the craft beer world since I started Telegraph, back when hazy beers were just called unfiltered and there were fewer than 1,500 brewers nationwide,” Thompson said. “Today, with the number of breweries approaching 6,000, the craft brewing landscape is radically different. We are extremely proud of what we have accomplished, but the increased competition from the likes of AB-INBEV’s “crafty beers” as well as new startups is requiring everyone in the industry to recalibrate their plans for the future. Earlier this year I began looking for ways to strengthen our legacy, and entering into a transaction with Epic was the right fit, both strategically and culturally. This partnership will allow us to nurture our deep California roots, retain and expand our amazing staff, and continue to develop our brand in new and innovative ways. My team and I are excited that Telegraph Brewing will remain a small, independent craft brewery and at the same time have the support and drive provided by one of the nation’s most creative, fearless, and fastest-growing brewery.”

With Epic’s investment, Telegraph will not only continue brewing its well-respected beer, but will begin expanding its brewing operations. There are immediate plans to increase the production capacity and offer new packaging options, including several new 12-ounce cans under the Telegraph brand. Epic will also move seven of their foeders—large wooden vessels for aging sour beer—from their Denver brewery to Santa Barbara, enabling Telegraph to produce more of its award-winning sour beers. California locals can also look forward to a new series of modern IPAs including some juicy and hazy styles, which will be sold fresh from Telegraph’s brewery.

“It’s a long-term dream come true” says Dave Cole, Co-founder of Epic Brewing. “I fell in love with craft beer living in California and that love didn’t diminish when I moved to Utah despite the beer scene at the time. I feel like I’ve come full circle. We have been actively looking for great breweries to purchase for the past 18 months and bringing Telegraph Brewing into the Epic family is exciting. We are investing in the future of Santa Barbara and are thrilled to have a direct and local connection to the amazing California craft beer community, where we share so much history. To be part of such a well-regarded brewery like Telegraph is something I’ve always hoped to do and now it’s finally a reality. It provides us an avenue to combine our teams and build on Telegraph’s portfolio with our innovative vision. This couldn’t be a better fit – including some advantageous distribution overlaps that create opportunities to expand both brands across California and beyond.”

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Epic Brewing Company, LLC was opened in May of 2010 in Salt Lake City and expanded to Colorado in 2013. Epic is 100% independent and family owned and is known for its innovation of style and wood aged beers, currently producing over 27,000 Barrels a year. Epic is distributed in the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, New Jersey, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Virginia & Washington D.C., Washington, Wisconsin, & Wyoming.

Telegraph Brewing, Santa Barbara’s original craft brewery, sold its first kegs in 2006 and specializes in brewing uniquely American and Belgian-inspired beers. Telegraph uses 100% domestic ingredients and as many local ingredients as possible, capturing in each sip the unique culinary and agricultural traditions of Santa Barbara and California’s Central Coast. Since 2011, Telegraph has won six Great American Beer Festival medals and two World Beer Cup awards.

Breaking News/Broken Hearts: Tugboat is Sinking

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If this isn’t a familiar sight, you’ve been drinking beer wrong. (Photo: Brian Yaeger)

It’s probably fair to say that out of all the Portland beer geeks, no one loved the Tug more than I. And now, as of earlier this month, I’m not even a Portland resident and as of next month, Tugboat Brewing is, reportedly and most likely, closing.

This morning, my friend and long-time Tugboat bartender Linsel Greene, posted on his Facebook wall:

“It’s kinda out of the bag, so I think I’m clear to inform the public that Tugboat Brewing Co will stop pouring beers on August 30th. The bar is being forced to close and leave its location on Ankeny St. The ancient fleabag Stewart Hotel, which sits above the bar, suffered structural damage during a fire earlier this year. The Bureau of Buildings has stepped in and demanded an evacuation of all Hotel tenants. The company that insures the bar claims that the business is uninsurable in this location, and so the bar is going to close.”

Tellingly, Linsel refers to it as a “bar” and that it’ll stop “pouring beers.” That’s because, to most of its patrons, it’s a beer bar and not really a brewery tasting room. There are 18 taps and at best, house brewed beer springs from maybe four of them. In some people’s opinions, “at best” would mean none of them flow with house beer. Admittedly, it’s not exactly a shining beacon of award-winning brewing as far as recipes, technique, craftsmanship, cleanliness, stewardship, innovation, or flavor. And yet… it was my favorite Portland brewery for one reason. Well, for one and a half reasons. No brewery holds a candle to it for sheer ambiance. And that matters. It’s an aspect that most of today’s watering holes overlook. A few various IPAs and some reclaimed wood and some growlers converted to lighting covers (or Edison bulbs) are not tantamount to ambiance. Corn hole and a cheese board does not a brewpub make.

Tugboat (their comically official website is at www.d2m.com/Tugwebsite/ and for my first review, click here) effortlessly exuded a comfortable and convivial atmosphere with shelves aplenty of old books, well-worn board games, and always the cool jazz raining down from the speakers. Moreover, as a patron you could always, always find good conversations whether your fellow barflies were out-of-towners who only found the joint because they were staying at a nearby hotel or after-work types. And these would be conversations about interesting topics, not about beer. If you want to discuss the beer in your glass, you go across the street (that feels more like an alley) to Bailey’s Taproom or its even geekier upstairs bar, the Upper Lip. Don’t get me wrong. I love drinking beer in both of those rooms, too, and not just because the taplists are always infinitely better than Tugboat’s. But Tugboat co-owner Megan McEnroe-Nelson had a name for those customers: “Beer sniffers.” It’s true. They almost all sniff their beers quite a bit before they drink them. And likely Instagram them, too.

I’ll get back to Megan in a moment, but what of this Mr. Greene? In Oregon Breweries, I referred to him as “patron-turned-bartender, the Goldendoodle of beer slingers.” The dude really aims to please the customers. I don’t know where he’ll work next, but if it’s at a bar, the patrons there will be lucky to have him. Just don’t try to ask him what kind of hops went into that IPA you’re sniffing or what his favorite NEIPA is at the moment.

After operating for 24 years, owners Megan and her husband Terry, who’s also the brewer with no formal training, are powering down. Megan is an absolute doll. Her brunette bob belies her age; she’s 43 years old. I’m 43 years old. When I was 19, I was drinking Natty Light through a straw on Halloween because for my Papa Smurf costume, I’d made a beard out of cotton balls and didn’t think about how to drink through it. When Megan was 19, she helped launch one of the first of Portland’s second-wave of breweries. The Nelsons actually already worked at the shop at 711 SW Ankeny. First it was called Time For Fun where Terry restored watches. Then they converted it to Café Omega, y’know, for all your watch repair and cocktail drinking needs. That’s when they added the four-barrel brewing system. It was legal since her husband was over 21. That brings me back to Linsel’s post.

“The owners haven’t told me any plans to do something else with the name, and I don’t think there’s much likelihood that they’ll open another bar. I think Terry might be done moving kegs, and I can’t say I blame him.”

 

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I mean, does YOUR favorite beertender don a tophat? (Photo: Brian Yaeger)

So it’s not 100% confirmed that the Tug is closing, but the writing’s on the Facebook wall. In my book, I referred to it as “the most mysterious, misunderstood, and maligned brewery in Beervana.” Everyone knows where Bailey’s is and also where Mary’s (Bridgetown’s first all-nude club) but most folks don’t know about the brewery betwixt them. And the beer nerds who’ve been (many years ago and no sooner, no doubt, save for a few folks I’ve dragged there or were assigned to go for a blurb in WW’s Beer Guide) rarely find it as charming as I did. In a town that’s still very much all about IPA or newfangled, cockamamie ingredients, they didn’t realize that the best Double-Russian-Imperial Stout—Chernobyl—was right under their sniffers. It lumbers in at 14% ABV and exploded with tobacco and leather, immune to the flaws that a less cumbersome beer might incur. Because of its strength, they only serve it in half pints, hence why I said it’s the best brewery for one-and-a-half reasons.

 

To the fine folks of Beervana. You have 35 days left to enjoy your first half-pint in years or possibly ever. PLEASE enjoy an extra half pint for me!! I’m incredibly sorry that my plan to make it in before we moved at the beginning of July didn’t pan out. But I’m not going to get the last word in about Tugboat. I’ll use Megan’s words when she agreed to an incredibly rare interview since she’s quite averse to participating in the Portland beer scene since it has shown the Tug so little love. They don’t even participate in the Portland Craft Beer Festival and, to make this pill even more bitter to swallow, Megan had actually agreed to sell me a keg for Baker’s Dozen Festival last March which was going to be a coffee infused Chernobyl Stout, which would’ve made it the first-ever keg of Tugboat sold for off-premise but Terry injured his back during The Freeze last winter and didn’t get to brewing in time. Anyway, here’s what she about why they called their dinky little brewery about the boats that assist larger ships down the Columbia and out to sea.

“Like us, they’re not very fancy. They’re small, powerful, and hardworking. And a little bit salty.”
 

Too Much Beer!

Photo: Shannon Monson, c/o Girl & the Goat

In this op-ed for FSR (Full Service Restaurant), I tackle the topic of overly long draft lists.  From 31 flavors of ice cream to–more to my point–99 bottles of beer on the wall, consumers want what they want—so, why would any bar manager or restaurateur limit their patrons’ options? And yet, not to throw the good folks at places such as the Yard House under the bus, but the Irvine, California–originated chain with some 60 locations offers between 130 and 250 beers on its tap lists. Typically, no fewer than 30 of them are IPAs. And while bright, fruity West Coast IPAs are miles apart from chewy, richer imperial IPAs, I think the customer becomes bombarded by options and stands a good chance of not being able to zero in on the beer that best suits the meal. Put in idiomatic terms: Sometimes less is more.

How Firestone Walker Learned to Stop Over-serving and Ban the Bomber

bravo_12ozbottle_boxKudos to Firestone Walker Brewing! I just received a release (pasted at bottom) announcing, yes, the return of Bravo Imperial Brown Ale, but more importantly, the announcement about their decision to abandon the bomber and embrace smaller packaging. Publicist Sean Christopher Weir calls this, “The upside of downsizing.”

Brewmaster Matt Brynildson said, “It’s something that a lot of people have been clamoring for, and we decided to finally pull the trigger.” The primary benefit of such a move, the release added, is “the ability to enjoy a high-gravity, barrel-aged beer without committing to consuming a full 22-ounce bottle.” In conclusion and in Brynildson’s words, “The per-bottle price point becomes more palatable, and we can spread the same amount of beer farther so that more people can try it. It also makes it easier to drink one now and age another for later.”

This is EXACTLY what I first preached in the print pages and the webpages of All About Beer (beginning here. here,, and here in June, 2011 and with In Support of Small, AAB Vol. 32, Iss. 2 from May, 2012). Nips (or pony bottles) are a subject also covered by Punch Magazine’s Megan Krigbaum last August and veteran beer scribe Lew Bryson online at The Full Pint just a couple weeks ago. They’re even one of my silly Twitter handles: @WeLoveNips.

Now, Firestone’s move sees the company abandoning 22-ounce bottles for regular 12-ounce bottles, akin to downsizing from 750s to “splits” (375-ml). As the release notes, “A 12-ounce bottle is perfect for two reasonable servings.” While I’d personally love to see this movement lead to the full mini-monty—meaning traditional third-liter nips or between 166 and 250 ml—even the move into 355-ml like a twelve is a victory. It will result not only in more people actually being able to afford beers like Bravo and their stellar anniversary beers, but more people actually drinking them since we no longer will have to wait for just the right moment when just the right people are over to crack and enjoy it. After all, you are the right person and this move makes it feasible to enjoy with the best person you know: yourself.

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Paso Robles, CA: For the first time since its brewing inception more than a dozen years ago, Firestone Walker’s “Bravo” imperial brown ale is finally finding its way into the bottle, with a limited release set for early February across all Firestone Walker markets.

Along the way, Bravo ($9.99) launches the transition of all Firestone Walker Vintage Reserve barrel-aged beers from 22-ounce bombers to individually boxed 12-ounce bottles in 2017, to include longtime stalwarts such as Parabola and the annual Anniversary Ale.

Bravo: Back to The Future

Bravo was the first beer matured in retired spirits barrels by Brewmaster Matt Brynildson in late 2004, during the experimental stages of what would become Firestone Walker’s inaugural Anniversary Ale.

From day one, Bravo has epitomized Firestone Walker’s approach to barrel-aged beers. “At the time, most barrel-aged beers veered toward the sweeter side,” Brynildson said. “We wanted to make something more dry and lean that would really allow the true bourbon barrel character to pop.”

Bravo has remained one of the driest beers in Firestone Walker’s Vintage Reserve series of barrel-aged beers, and since day one has been considered a vital component in the annual blending of the Anniversary Ale, balancing out some of the stickier components.

“Coming out of stainless steel, Bravo is pretty bracing,” Brynildson said. “But when it goes into the barrel, it really mellows out, and the barrel character comes to the forefront.”

Another signature of Bravo is a lively malt quality that is maintained through Firestone Walker’s cold-storage of its barrel-aged beers. “It has this malt character that is surprisingly fresh,” he said. “There’s a ton of barrel character, and a lot of toffee and caramel. It has the flavor of things sweet, but without being cloying or oxidative.”

The Upside of Downsizing

Henceforth, all beers from Firestone Walker’s Vintage Reserve line of barrel aged beers will be bottled in the 12-ounce format, although total production of each beer remains the same.

“We’ve been thinking about doing this for a while now,” Brynildson said. “It’s something that a lot of people have been clamoring for, and we decided to finally pull the trigger.”

Brynildson noted that the primary benefit is the ability to enjoy a high-gravity, barrel-aged beer without committing to consuming a full 22-ounce bottle.

“With beers like this, a 12-ounce bottle is perfect for two reasonable servings,” he said.

He added, “The per-bottle price point becomes more palatable, and we can spread the same amount of beer farther so that more people can try it. It also makes it easier to drink one now and age another for later. It’s just a lot more flexible.”

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Draft: Craft Lightens Up

Funny where inspiration will hit. For me, it was at a G. Love concert at a music venue that serves beer from such dirty tap lines I’d vowed never to drink there again. Until I made a valuable discovery. Actually, it was a $2 discovery.

For an industry defined by its antithesis to cheap, macro light lagers, does its growth hinge on emulating that model?

Lush Life: Tiny Wolf and Portland’s Nanos

I’m forever deliberating over the impact nanobreweries can or do have on a city’s beer culture. For every Commons (nee Beetje) brewery in Portland or Hess in San Diego, there are seemingly a dozen more that think they can emulate that level of success. To find out what these nanobrewers want to get out of the brewing industry, and what they think can have to contribute, I went straight to the teensy-tiny sources in my August turn at the Mercury’s Lush Life column.

Firestone Walker Invitational Bassoon Festival

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Adam Firestone, 2005. Photo: Yours truly

Today, I’m heading down to Paso Robles, California for the 5th Annual Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival where more than 50 breweries (and thousands of beer nerds) across California, the country, and indeed the world will gather once again to become engrossed in beer (and beer culture). Yesterday, while listening to my iTunes on random-play as I worked, rather than a song a spoken word track started to play. My own voice. I was dictating notes to myself about afterthoughts from my 2005 interview with Adam Firestone.

I wasn’t a beer writer then. I was an aspiring one. I wasn’t drinking much in the way of bourbon-aged strong ales back then. But that’s OK because Firestone Walker wasn’t making them yet. Part of my notes-to-self was about the impending release of “Firestone Ten.” XX will be released later this year. So bear in mind—Firestone pun intended—that they brewery was working solidly in the pale ale realm still. No wild ales like SLOambic. No Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA. Not even Union Jack. That’s right. They hadn’t even unleashed their now-flagship IPA brand. Today, they’re still all about their Burton Union, er, Firestone Union method of fermentation that’s prime for making British-style pale ales that co-founder and Adam’s brother-in-law David Walker still prefers. (In a phone interview with David this past April he said of Double Barrel Ale, a British Pale, “I drink DBA every opportunity I can. It’s my favorite style.”)

As I sat there listening to the track, it was telling that Adam, when talking about not aging but fermenting beer in wood, told me that any brewer worth his salt would know better than to do that. Or at least challenge that, which is what Matt Brynildson did when he joined the brewery. Tangent: I’d also interviewed Matt in October of 2005. He discussed having brewed for SLO Brewing where he didn’t like having to make their Blueberry Ale not because it was fruity but because it wasn’t made with real fruit, just flavor additive. I attended UC Santa Barbara nearby—graduating months before Firestone Walker launched—and recall drinking and, dare I say, enjoying said Blueberry Ale (as a 21-year-old whose friends only drank beer that came in $35 kegs or 36-can suitcases). Matt also said back then that Oak is a flavor so it’s really beer’s “fifth ingredient.”

Back to the track. Adam likened their method of brewing to “being in the bassoon business.” I’m paraphrasing: “Not everyone plays bassoon, but if that’s what you do, and it’s a wonderful instrument, you really gotta throw yourself into making a good bassoon.” I loved that analogy. (And lemme tell you something. Those double-reeded woodwinds can run up to 30 grand, but you’re not getting out for under five thou because you’re not some podunk oboe player amirite?) What Adam meant—and the sentiment was echoed during my in-person interviews with David and Matt, too—is that Firestone Walker doesn’t make beer for everyone. Anyone can play the kazoo. They make the bassoons of beer. Elegant. Rich. Unique.

According to my dictated notes, Adam went onto say, “You don’t have to be all things to all people.” He divulged that, despite it being the era where Hefeweizens and Witbiers were the big deal in microbrewing (imagine if brewers today were trying to out-wheat each other or tout being the first to use an experimental varietal of grain), he was no fan of wheat. Nor of hemp seeds, which, if you know their history with Humboldt Brewing and Red Nectar Ales, is pretty funny. First met Adam behind the table while pouring at the 2005 GABF.

Beside the bassoon line, I had a compulsory discussion with Adam about his kid brother, Andrew, who’d been the star of an early season of The Bachelor. Yikes! But Adam had a really interesting take. “Just like the 70’s had 8-tracks and the 50’s had hula hoops, we have reality TV shows and those won’t be around in future generations, either. Like TV, previous generations were concerned with who shot J.R.? This generation is concerned with who’s the bachelor going to pick?” He added that the show brought great marketing might to the Firestone Winery. Less to the Firestone Walker Brewery. He also used the word fungible two or three times. Yeah, he dropped it during the course of conversation. I hardly read or hear that word, but when I do, I can’t help but think of Adam.

So that’s it. It’s crazy to think about what has transpired in the decade since, with me, with the beer industry and scene in general, and with this brewery in particular. Firestone Walker has amassed 47 GABF medals since 2002 and hasn’t had a single dry year. David really does all the publicity and public engagements. He’s simply very affable and charming. Of course he is; he’s British. But as Adam copped to me back in 2005, the two of them got along well, which Adam said is a testament to David’s character since he’s aware that he himself is not the easiest person to get along with. “Strong opinions.” So when his brother-in-law began prattling off about starting a “microbrewery,” Adam fortuitously said, “Yep, let’s do this.”

Below is the excerpt from Red, White, & Brew about Firestone Walking Brewing. At the time, they were the one brewery I intended to make a full chapter in the book but did not. The goal was to get the deep, inside story not of every brewery in America, but 1%. That’s why there are 14 chapters in the book. There were 1,400 breweries. I didn’t think there’d be 1,500 by the time the book came out, which, in 2008 had actually climbed to 1,574. If I were to write Red, White, & Brew today using that same approach, I’d have to write 44 chapters! Anyway, it’s not my best writing, but it was my humble start. Check out the part where we learn before Firestone made sessionable pale ales, a Firestone made non-alcoholic beer (from 1986-1990)! And as a bonus, I’ll start with a line not pertaining to Firestone Walker but that leg of my roadtrip around America’s breweries:

…In the Palm Desert it is the Sonny Bono Memorial Highway, in memoriam to the former mayor of Palm Springs who couldn’t ski the forest for the trees…

Months after I graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1996, a new brewery opened up nearby. It belonged to two brothers-in-law, Adam Firestone and David Walker, hence the name Firestone Walker Brewing. The Firestone name, of course, is well known, as tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone was a rubber baron. Harvey’s grandson, Brooks, used his inheritance to start the first estate winery in Central California. In turn, his son, Adam, while already president of the Firestone Vineyard, partnered with David. They have Adam’s sister, and David’s wife, Polly Firestone-Walker, to thank for bringing them together.

I didn’t discover Firestone Walker beer until I went to Denver. At the GABF’s Pacific Region section of the festival, I met Adam, tall and youthful, pouring his beers from behind his table. He told me about his dad’s side venture making, of all things, non-alcoholic beer in the late eighties. While serving as a Marine overseas, Adam pleaded with his dad not to fold the operation. But when brands like Miller Sharps and Coors Cutter were introduced, Brooks pulled the plug.

Soon thereafter, Adam returned, having done a tour in the first Persian Gulf War. After taking over Firestone Estates, he lit out on a scavenger hunt to track down old brewing equipment for his side project. Because it proved to be a success, now he’s got shiny new equipment. If only his kid brother Andrew had revealed as much about the brewery in “The Bachelor” reality series as he did about the winery and his own personal dalliances, the brand might have a broader reputation.

The vineyard, the brewery, and a new brewpub are spread across the Santa Ynez Valley along the Central California coast, 90 miles apart. The latter, the Taproom, is in Buellton, most famous for its split-pea soup—I kid you not. The pub is located near the tree that Thomas Haden Church crashed Paul Giamatti’s Saab into in the movie Sideways. Instead of chasing down wine, my destination was beer. Looping around the off ramp that circles the tree, I made my way off the 101 and into the Taproom.

I met David, a tall British bloke gracious enough to plunk down in a booth with me and discuss their initial, and failed, idea to make beer in the winery’s spent Chardonnay barrels. Instead, the brewery patented a method of fermenting beer in charred oak barrels. Aging beer in barrels isn’t that uncommon, but these guys are the only ones in America who use them in the fermentation process. Every brewery that uses stainless steel thinks these guys are crazy. But after you taste their Double-Barrel Ale, you’ll be a convert, too.

David slipped behind the bar and pulled me a few tastes including an unfiltered version of Double Barrel. I’m not much for discussing noses, legs, or bouquets, but this beer boasted some serious oakiness. My hat’s off to brewmaster Matt Brynildson, who earned Mid-Size Brewer of the Year honors at last year’s GABF.