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.

 

Beer Birthday: Jay Brooks

Today is the 57th birthday of beer writer Jay Brooks. His guidebook, California Breweries – North (Stackpole Books), came out last year (even though we started our respective tomes around the same time.) Jay is a veteran beer writer (Celebrator Beer News, All About Beer, BeerAdvocate, etcetera etcetera) whose column Brooks on Beer appears in the San Jose Mercury News. He has contributed to the Oxford Companion to Beer as well as Playboy Magazine. He is the co-founder of SF Beer Week (and it breaks my heart missing it even if it was because I live in a foreign territory now). To anyone who follows the brewing industry, none of this is news. But for years, a convivial component of his Brookston Beer Blog has been celebrating brewers and those in the beer community on their birthdays. So please…join me in wishing Jay a very happy birthday.

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Outdoor Speakeasy: Me, Brian Lenzo from Blue Palms, Jay Brooks (whose blog I copied this from), and Meg Gill before starting Golden Road Brewing.

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Brewmaster Craig Cauwels, yours truly, the Beer Chef Bruce Patton, the birthday boy

 

Lagunitas, Heineken, and post-craft beer

urlToday’s bombshell news via Beerpulse, that Lagunitas Brewing founder Tony Magee sold half his baby to the Dutch beer conglomerate Heineken rings more like one of Bang Snaps (aka poppers or throw-downs). A bit startling since it landed at our feet, but it’s not like Tony didn’t warn us that he was throwing one our way for the last few weeks (via his Tumblr blog)!

My 2¢ on the matter: Good for you, Tony. Now that you’ve sold 50% of your brewing company, welcome to being semi-retired.

As Mr. Magee put it himself in today’s post that is required reading before anyone says one flipping word about this matter, he’s “55 years old going on 80.” I have a hard enough time going to the market to pick up a roll of paper towels and I’m 14 years younger.

Lagunitas is America’s sixth largest “craft” brewery. It’s reportedly valued at…are you sitting down?… One Billion Dollars. Last year they brewed some 600,000 barrels. Four years ago before the Craft Brewers Conference, Tony told me that the five largest craft brewers rake in 45% of the craft segment of the beer industry. That was before Yuengling’s status was reclassified by the BA’s board members as being “craft” despite the fact that they’ve always upheld the BA’s three pillars of craftdom: being small (only in comparison to the Big Two of ABI and MillerCoors), traditional (hello! America’s Oldest Brewery), and independent (it remains in the hands of the founder’s sixth and seventh generation descendants).

Soon, Lagunitas will have a third brewing facility online in SoCal after the original in NorCal and a second in his native Chicago. And soon, they will be brewing well over a million barrels a year, which is still well below the BA’s definition of small which presently stands at 6 million bbls. However, their definition of independent is no more than 25% ownership by a major brewing concern. Heinie is a major brewing concern.

Ostensibly, this means that the next time the Brewers Association announces craft beer’s market share, the numbers will reflect lower than anticipated numbers. It will be a setback for the goal of 20% market share by 2020 because they just lost the projected million barrels that even the thousand new brewpubs and nanobreweries combined can’t account for. But don’t you dare blame Tony for pursuing the American dream. Love him or hate him–and there are plenty of folks in each camp–dude’s worked his ass off. He deserves this success. And in his astoundingly articulate, erudite, and strategic manner, the Nietzsche-esque stoner “madman” from Petaluma has neither “come too soon” nor too late. His ship arrived at the exact right time. The industry will keep sailing with and without Lagunitas, a subsidiary of Heineken International, as this just further demonstrates that we are drinking in a post-craft beer world.

Feel free to mumble in the comments below.

Field Guide to Drinking in America Book Review

FIELDGUIDE.COVER_hiresThis is a book review about Portland author Niki Ganong‘s new book, The Field Guide to Drinking in America, but this is my blog so I’m starting with a story about me.

So I’m in Pittsburgh with a whole day to explore and drink up the culture. My primary beer stop was Church Brew Works, a righteous brewpub where parishioners, I mean patrons, break bread and hoist pints in a deconsecrated church. The other beer I really wanted to try wasn’t actually brewed in Pennsylvania, but I’d read it was newly available there. If Church Brew Works’ beers are a little slice of heaven, the other one would be a little slice of pizza. Mama Mia’s Pizza Beer. It’s a homebrew recipe using real pizza and ingredients that is contract brewed and bottled and, well, I just had to know. My hunt took me to beer bars and Italian restaurants, none of whom had heard of it. An internet search led me to a place that carried it and I GPS’ed my way to a beer distributor’s warehouse (different than the state-run liquor stores) where they had said pizza beer but they would not sell me a bottle. Instead, if I wanted it, I had to buy the whole case of 24 bottles.

In the end, I had 23 friends back home who were more than happy I went through the effort, but I wish I had a resource like Ganong’s new title, The Field Guide to Drinking in America: a Traveler’s Handbook to State Liquor Laws.

It’s the subtitle that gives this book from local Portland author Ganong its prime practicality. If you’re over 21, you’ve likely learned the ins and outs of your home state’s liquor laws. You know what time the bars close, where you can drink (slash: where you can’t), and if you can find your beer, wine, and spirits under the same roof or not. But when you’re traveling (which means, by default, when you’re drinking someplace farther from home), deciphering the regulations often causes some headaches. For example, how much does it suck being in Colorado, home to even more great breweries than Oregon, but not being able to find most of the beers you’re trying to track down because they’re above 3.2% alcohol by weight (yes, ABW, which is roughly equal to 4% ABV) so what you’re left with is specially-brewed/watered-down for Mountain State markets Colorado and Utah.

I’m not alone in these discoveries. A point made in the book’s intro about the head-scratching, state-by-state laws enacted following Prohibition, “Many a surprised traveler has been caught off guard by an unexpectedly early last call, a sad and liquorless Sunday, or the choice of 3.2% beer or nothing at all. Almost everyone has a story about this.”

Tips and factoids, including a handy-dandy list of “What you can do” and “What you can’t do” in each state that drink-seeking travelers would pick up from the Field Guide:

Vermont: You cannot purchase a second drink if you have not finished your first nor participate in a game or contest that encourages excessive drinking. (Sorry UVA underclassmen.)

Alabama: This Southern state has some of the restrictive liquor laws in the union (they one they’d probably like to secede from again). Of its 67 counties, 25 are dry, though not completely: private clubs are allowed to sell to consumers and each one has at least one wet city.

Louisiana: God bless Louisiana and it’s 24/7 bars and open container laws and drive-thru daiquiri huts.

Tennessee: More than a third of its counties are dry but that only prevents the sale of alcohol, not the bootlegging of it. Interestingly, those dry counties “tend to have higher DUI arrests than wet counties.” The Jack Daniels Distillery, the oldest in the USA, is in dry Lynchburg. Unlike when I visited, now visitors are able to buy a commemorative bottle of JD’s sour mash whiskey but only at the gift shop. Fun bit of trivia: Mountain Dew was invented in Knoxville and originally featured the character “Willy the Hillbilly” firing his shotgun, possibly at another moonshiner, with the tagline, “zero proof hillbilly moonshine.”

Colorado: You can’t buy Santa any beer over three-two to persuade him to add you to his Nice list, nor can you beg for booze.

Incidentally, readers might even pick up some points of interest about their home states. I learned that here in Oregon, I cant bring an unfinished bottle of wine home from a restaurant and that I cannot use a beer bong in a bar (or surf while drunk, not that I’m able to surf stone-cold sober).

Niki Ganong will be at Belmont Station’s Biercafe on Saturday, May 2 from 1-3 p.m. selling and signing copies of her book. She’ll also conduct a tasting of IPAs from across the country. Come sample her selection of some of the country’s best IPAs — including Boulevard’s just released The Calling IPA.

Punker than my wife and kid: a punk looks at 40, or, Season’s Greetings and a Happy New Year.

I never wore a black leather jacket. I never owned a pair of steel-toed boots. I never saw the Sex Pistols because I was one when they formed and barely out of diapers when they disbanded, but I’m punk enough to know that when they reunited after I graduated college that they were fucking rotten sellouts. By the same token or possibly I mean on the flipside, my first car was my mom’s Volvo station wagon. My parents are still married after almost fifty years and the only time I ever ran away from home I left a trail of tangerine peels so they could find me if they wanted, but it ended once I got around the block. I earnestly love Tom Jones’s music.

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Then/Now. Top: Clean-cut Dirty 30s. Bottom: Haggard but Sporty 40s.

The list of ways in which I’m not punk outweighs any itemization of my punk rock credentials. Those include starting, writing, publishing, and distributing a punk rock zine as well as having several years of the Punk Rock Bowling Tournament in Vegas under my belt.

While my stage-diving days are disappearing in my life’s rear view mirror, I hope they’re still down the road and around the bend for my son who is about to turn three. My wife is counting down the hours til she joins me in our forties. She claims she was into punk during her adolescence, but I’m sorry, knowing some of the words to that one Suicidal Tendencies song and loving that one Social Distortion song doesn’t really qualify. This exclusionary way of thinking is, I realize, the intersection of the punk/hipster Venn diagram.

I used to wear a long-sleeve pink button-down shirt with pinstripes in elementary school, selected a pink paisley tie to go with my three-piece, pinstripe suit I wore for my Bar Mitzvah, and in my wardrobe of awesome patterned shirts, the solid pink one nearly garners the most comments. I mainly bring this up because my wife and I are sad to hear our son say, more than figuratively out-of-the-blue, that he doesn’t like the color pink. Only girls like pink. During his transition into toddlerhood while we lived in Amsterdam for the past year, he used to love the color. Gender stereotyping is a learned American behavior. We plan to show him to that boys liking pink is punk. I mean, it’s preppy, too, but for toddler boys, it’s clearly anti-establishment.

What does any of this have to do with anything? Nearing the end of the year I get reflexive. I usually write a year-in-review type thingy. But my goal is to spend very little time on Facebook during the last days of the year and more time in the flesh with friends and family not being distracted by my stupid-phone. But it’s a big one since, as mentioned, I’m now in my fourth decade. I’m older than Kobe Bryant who’s on Year-One of his two-year Senior Citizen’s farewell season.

Since I already put much of 2014 into the hindsight machine during a series of posts outlining the top 10 ways Amsterdam life differs from Portland life (or really how European culture varies from American), here’s the recap in chron order:

1: Bikes and English.

2: Insouciance. Aka: café culture.

3: Playgrounds and parents.

4: Dog citizens.

5: Urban vs. natural beauty.

6: Trains/public transportation.

7: Seasonal creep and spiciness.

8: Beer! (finally)

9: Stroopwafels.

9.5: Koffie/coffee.

10: Violence, mainstream media, and doom. Aka: why we never should’ve left Europe.

So that brings us up to date. I’m very happy that my book is finally done and out and being well-received. I’m also very happy that the bulk of my launch promo events are done and can stop haranguing people into coming out (though naturally I have more lined up for January in Portland, Hood River, and Corvallis so far with the whole state coming soon thereafter). But mostly, I’m very excited about what 2015 will hold. I’m excited for Izzy to start swimming and skiing lessons. I’m jazzed for the music fests we’ll attend wherever they may be but they WILL be. I’m pumped to find out if my forties will be better than my thirties since, honestly, they were better than my twenties. I hope Wifey continues loving her new job at her work. I hope Izzy stays a “goofball,” which he will if nature and nurture have anything to do with it. I hope to find myself in more exciting and beautiful places that I’ve never seen before like I did throughout 2014. (I already know to are on the list: Patagonia and Florida.) And I hope all you guys have a fucking awesome year ahead. Sorry, my punk roots still show sometimes.

So here’s to the newborns, the babies turning into toddlers, the new breweries, the old breweries, new friends, new tunes, new resolutions, and a Happy New Year.

P’roast to Collaborative Coffee Beers!

When does a collaboration beer between two brewing companies only include one brewery? When the partner brews coffee (CraftBeer.com, Aug. 2012). More and more, coffee beers are brewed with help from a craft brewery’s local roaster who likely understands their individual needs and personalities, for the ultimate friends with beanies.

Though hops often do the heavy lifting for beer’s aroma and flavor, when coffee is added, it contributes quite the pick-me-up.