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Gather ’round, kids, and I will regale you with a tale of a lion and a bear who came together many years ago for one purpose: making beer.

It all began around 1995. The big microbrewers at the time were Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams, while long-gone up-and-comers like Pete’s Wicked Ale were also making a splash. Most people had no idea what a stout or an IPA was. The aforementioned bear’s name is Adam Firestone, member of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and their vineyards; the lion is his brother-in-law David Walker, an Englishman who wanted a taste of home while living in California. Both were in the wine industry before opening Firestone Walker Brewing Company with a humble 24-barrel system. In 2001, they were able to buy out a professional-size facility from SLO Brewing Company (even though it was actually located in Paso Robles), which had filed for bankruptcy. It is still home to Firestone Walker Brewing Company, but with a wee bit of expansion through the intermittent years.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

On a gorgeous late spring day before the start of the annual Firestone Walker Invitational, I was honored to be escorted throughout the brewery compound by none other than the lion himself, David Walker. He greeted us private-tour recipients individually, introducing himself and then calling for us to walk across the street to the Visitor’s Center to begin the tour. Equipped with safety glasses, we marched upstairs to the top of the newly installed, $15 million brewhouse, with 200-barrel tanks, one of which is solely used to make the best-selling 805 Blonde Ale in 24-hour shifts, and which was under construction when I was there the year before.

After explaining the origins of the brewery and its journey from 24 barrels to what is projected for 2019 to be 500,000 barrels (1 barrel = 31 gallons), he led us down into the belly of the brewery, through a space at the bottom of some of the tanks and into a cold room where a labyrinth of pipes terminates. This is the older part of the brewery; Walker emphasized this by leading us into their old walk-in cooler that they kept in operation to remind them of their humbler origins. These are typically my favorite parts of many brewery tours due to the alluring smell of hop pellets all around—and this was no different.

Onward we trod into the next building in the compound. This one contained the packaging lines where the machinery moved ceaselessly to get the product into bottles, cans and boxes. David walked over to the canning line and grabbed cold cans of the latest in their Luponic Distortion IPA series for everyone in the group. This was great timing, as the beers we’d grabbed before the tour started were gone. (If you’re not envious of me yet, just keep reading.) We met a legendary character of Firestone’s history, Miguel Ibarra. After introducing Miguel (with a wry smile), Walker held up his hands—which had nine digits rather than the usual 10. Miguel joined him in showing the same amount. Everyone was clearly in on the joke, seeing as how Walker spent the next few minutes summarizing the ways in which Miguel operated the earliest incarnation of the brewery virtually on his own, sleeping on location between shifts.

Further back in the same warehouse was a series of barrels interconnected via tubes. This is part of how the DBA (Double Barrel Ale) is made. It takes as its inspiration the tradition English cask ales, and Walker freely admits it was a way he could get the proper experience of his beloved Bass Ale closer to home. Other beers surpassed it in popularity over time, but you can still find it in their taprooms in its unfiltered state if you wish to sample it for yourself.

Next, we bypassed a long row of pallets of empty cans stacked about two stories high and entered the next building in the series, containing finished packages of their beer in various forms. It is here we stumbled across the path of brewmaster Matt Brynildson, who was coincidentally looking in on his Oaktoberfest barrels in the same room. Matt told us how they were doing a traditional lagering of their Märzen over the summer. Happily, he stayed with us through the next processing room and into a truly magical place: The Barrel Room.

A brief word about Firestone’s barrel program, straight from my brain and taste buds: It’s insanely good. From the barrel-selecting progress (overseen by Eric Ponce), to the masterful blending of their vaunted Anniversary ales, and the choices of beers that enter the barrels, it’s no surprise you can easily identify a barrel-aged beer from Firestone by taste alone. I promise you: This is no easy feat, and they are proud of it.

Finally, we walked up a flight of stairs to our tour’s termination. I asked how many actual barrels they had in the room, and Walker replied, "At the moment, about 2,000. But at the most, we’ll have only 3,000 at any given time. Despite our growth, we like to be able to keep a close eye on every barrel we have on hand and its contents." Brynildson then added that no one is allowed to move any barrel unless the aforementioned Miguel Ibarra is informed. It’s no wonder you can taste the character in any of their barrel-aged beers.

The tour ended with the opening of some bottles of their Napa Parabola. It’s a version of their Parabola imperial stout blended together after aging in various red wine barrels. What’s surprising is how much of the chocolate flavor in the beer is brought out despite what I expected to be a wine-dominated flavor.

Finally, Firestone does a collaboration every year to commemorate their incredible Firestone Walker Invitational beer festival. I discussed my 2018 visit in a column last year, and I make it a point to get tickets and go every year. This year’s beer was with Cigar City Brewing out of Tampa, Fla.: Los Leñadores is an imperial brown ale aged in high rye bourbon barrels and infused with African and Brazilian hardwood spirals. It was teeming with almond and pistachio flavors to go with the nutty, chocolate flavors of the beer.

Suffice it to say, I was impressed by the tour and continue to be impressed by Firestone—and that was only the beginning of my festival weekend. I told you the envy was coming.

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

Prime barbecue season is upon us—and barbecuing lends itself to Mexican food.

I’ll never look down my nose at Mexican mass-produced beer—it’s better overall than American mass-produced beer, in my opinion—but an even better sensory experience can be had with Mexican cuisine if you step up the beer game. To put it bluntly: You can do better than beers where the ads instruct you to put a wedge of lime in the bottle. (Why didn’t they just add that when they were brewing?) But I digress.

Instead of just listing pairings of entrées and beer styles, it would be more helpful to summarize some of the most-common ingredients in Mexican cuisine, and explain why they might be better partners with certain types of beers:

Corn: This is a staple in both Mexican food and beer. That distinct corn flavor and sweetness make Mexican beer styles an obvious choice for pairing. A lot of Mexican beer (excluding the brews from the excellent Mexican craft breweries burgeoning at the moment) consists of German-style pilsner with corn; the darker stuff is Vienna lager with corn. Corn adds sugar to a beer with almost no body, making the finished beer drier, and usually imparting at least a hint of corn flavor. The Belgians have been doing something similar with candi sugar (made from beets) to dry out their stronger beers and make them devilishly drinkable.

Pork: German beer was basically designed around the stuff, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find more natural pairings than pork and most German styles. This has to do with malt: Many German styles call for malt to be kilned in such a way as to create melanoidins. Melanoidins are what give you that distinct browned-bread character—the same flavor you can get from searing pork or beef (not to be confused with caramelization). I think you can see why, say, a German bock is a no-brainer for pairing with pork.

Cheese: I mention cheese more for its texture than anything. (This is not to say that traditional Mexican cheeses are necessarily mild.) This one is more about mouthfeel, and crisper or higher-strength beers (or both in one, perhaps) will help scrub the palate. This is equally important with the next ingredient …

Beans: Frijoles are a massive staple, and mouthfeel is again the most-important factor to consider here, as there are also likely to be other flavors to deal with in any particular dish that includes or comes with beans.

Chiles: I am a huge fan of spice, and there are some very noteworthy things to take into account when pairing beer with spicy food. The first is that alcohol accentuates capsaicin (the stuff that makes chiles burn), and so do hops. This does not mean that you should never pair a triple IPA with spicy chicken tinga, but it does mean you should be aware that you’re throwing a bit of gasoline on that fire when you do. Malty, less-crisp beers help here, so consider English styles when up against spiciness. It works for Indian cuisine, too.

Now that we are armed with some fundamentals, let’s tackle actual pairings with specific dishes. One thing I haven’t covered yet is seafood. Ceviche is one of my favorites; while refreshing on its own, it can be exponentially so when paired with the right beer. A Belgian witbier and a German hefeweizen are both great choices. A citrusy pale ale is also not a bad idea, but beware of oily fish, as hops turn that flavor combination into metallic unpleasantness.

Carnitas is another beautiful thing to behold; I already mentioned one pairing (bock), but a Munich dunkel lager will do just as well.

Good chicken mole is hard to come by locally (if I am missing out on a place where they do it right, please contact me), which is a shame, because a nice porter or dry Irish stout will do wonders with it. Craft breweries have long caught on to Mexican chocolate flavors; you can try pairing with one of those, but instead, I recommend supporting the mole flavors and letting them do that work with your beer. Along those lines, if you’re looking to try something lighter that can still match the intensity of this dish, try a German schwarzbier: It’s a black lager that shares some darker beer flavors of chocolate, coffee and dark fruit, but without any roasty quality, and with a bit of a fire-extinguishing effect if the mole is up there in spice.

A few parting thoughts, before I send you on the path to sabor. One is that it is generally a good idea to match intensities with beer/food pairings. Another consideration is whether you want to complement, contrast or combine. This takes much more explanation, and the best way to do that is to read up on the subject. I wrote a column a while back on pairing beer and food that covers some of it, but if you want more depth, I would highly recommend Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide From the Pairing Pros by Julia Herz and Gwen Conley, or The Brewmaster’s Table by Garrett Oliver, one of the very few master cicerones. Both are great guides and are very good at getting you to be more mindful when it comes to pairing any beverage with food, never mind beer.

The next time you have a chance to enjoy a Mexican dish, forget the typical Mexican lagers, and swing for the gustatorial fences. And, hey: Even if your pairing lets you down, you still have beer and Mexican food to comfort you. ¡Salud!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

An object in possession seldom retains the same charm that it had in pursuit. —Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61-113), author; imperial magistrate to Roman emperor Trajan; nephew and adopted son of the famed naturalist (among other titles) Pliny the Elder.

Almost two millennia later, a man named Vinnie Cilurzo began brewing what came to be considered the first double IPA, in nearby Temecula at his small brewery called Blind Pig. Cilurzo’s name for this beer was Pliny the Elder and was based on a wives’ tale of sorts that the historical Pliny had discovered and named wild hops (lupus salictarius, which were not actually hops, it turns out). The beer itself was undeniable: Despite being brightly dank, catty, citrusy and piney from the generous amount of hops added both during the boil and after, and being 8 percent alcohol by volume, it was all well-balanced with the beer’s malt foundation. “Deadly quaffable” would be how I remember it being when I first tried it.

Cilurzo eventually moved his operation up north to Santa Rosa and renamed his brewery Russian River Brewing Company. His beers, Pliny the Elder especially, have retained a hype that is impressive and mostly deserved since Elder was first brewed in 2000.

Imagine the hype, then, that developed for a triple IPA version of the beer, which Cilurzo dubbed Pliny the Younger: It was 10.25 percent ABV, copper in color, with even bigger hop flavors and a more-substantial malt backbone to match. This beer became legend for the very small amount brewed and allotted to select locations, mostly throughout California, in February.

I experienced the fervor some years back when I went with a group of my Coachella Valley Homebrew Club friends to the now-sadly defunct Barley and Hops Olde World Family Tavern in Temecula. After waiting in line for 30-60 minutes and drinking one of Russian River’s many gorgeous wine-barrel-aged sour ales, I finally got my allotted 10-ounce pour. This was about six years ago, but I remember it being very intense, with citrus and pine aromas and flavors, properly balanced out by the malt. It was hard to distinguish from a hoppy American barleywine—but it was a very nice beer. However, I have a weird habit of bringing much of the overall experience, including the hassle of obtaining the beer itself, to my opinion of a beer. So … was all the hoopla worth the chance to taste this beer?

I chose the word "chance" not incautiously: In many instances, you can find yourself arriving early at such events to find that many people arrived far earlier—with the beer running out before your turn. I experienced this at The Salted Pig gastropub in downtown Riverside a few years ago, and it drove home the point that I ought to figure the time and effort spent to obtain an experience into the overall equation. This is not to denigrate anyone involved, be it Russian River, the venues that serve Pliny the Younger, or the people for whom the equation “four hours waiting in line + one pour of Younger (and often other RR beers) = worthwhile." I just want to make a case for the overall overrated nature of the beer.

In many beer circles, that previous statement is blasphemy. Truly. Pliny the Elder is far more available today, and it is still treated with the utmost reverence, to the point that when it’s available in the Coachella Valley, there are certain people who will hoard it. In the not-so-recent past, Elder was the Holy Grail as far as beer traders were concerned. You could get many prized beers for the right amount of it. However, between Russian River Brewing’s upgrade to a more-expansive brewhouse in Windsor, and the sheer proliferation of amazing double IPAs, Pliny the Elder’s trade value has declined. Might we see a similar decline in the general circus surrounding Pliny the Younger? Well, I have tasted three imperial/triple IPAs that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone that are just as good (if not better) as Younger—all made in Southern California.

Let’s start in Long Beach with Beachwood Brewing’s Hops of Fury, and then move south to San Diego with Societe Brewing’s The Roustabout. Traveling east down Interstate 8 from there puts us at Alpine Beer Company, where their Exponential Hoppiness, while once brewed in much smaller amounts and less easily obtained (but easier than Younger—and in bottles!), has been made for more than a decade.

A perfect illustration of this point is the speed at which Pliny the Younger sold out at the legendary Toronado San Diego. All three of these other beers were also on tap—and still are as I type this, two days after Younger went on. I would be the guy that skips the nuttiness and happily gets pours of the other beauties relatively hassle-free. (Also worth a mention on the "alternative to Younger" front are Melvin Brewing’s 2X4 and Revision Brewing’s Dr. Lupulin, both of which are big, beautiful, hoppy beers that can be found at the right times of year at our local Total Wine and More.)

The reason I chose this topic now is the fact that for the first time, the Coachella Valley has seen not one, but two tappings of this iconic beer. A tapping of Younger at La Quinta Brewing’s Old Town Taproom has already happened (alongside a plethora of other RR beers I’m more excited about, frankly), and another might have also happened at Eureka! Indian Wells. I went to the former tapping at La Quinta (in the name of science, of course). I got there an hour early, having been conditioned by these events that this was already late. I was third in line, and I needn’t have really worried. That’s the charm of our desert beer scene, I guess. I will say that when I finally got my glass, it was brightly citrus and tropical (hints of guava and papaya), with some pine—a shockingly drinkable triple IPA. Yeah, it was worth waiting a little bit for, but had it been more than that, I could have been at peace with missing out.

Those who view me as a "Debbie Downer" will be ecstatic to know that I think this these tappings are a very good sign for our local beer scene—as are the first local sightings of Beachwood Brewing and Beachwood Blendery beers. I’m personally more excited about the beers that will come from the latter breweries, but from what I’m told about Russian River’s new brewing facility, I’m definitely looking forward to what they do next.

Life is short, and it’s important to put a value on the time and effort that goes into any endeavor. Does everything balance toward the positive? Did the object of your desire retain the charm that it had in its pursuit? I sincerely hope so.

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer