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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

Here's to the corkscrew—a useful key to unlock the storehouse of wit, the treasury of laughter, the front door of fellowship, and the gate of pleasant folly. —W.E.P. French

Paso Robles’ Firestone Walker Brewing Company seems to have taken the words of W.E.P. French to heart, as evidenced by brewery’s fantastic barrel-aging program, called Barrelworks.

Firestone Walker Brewing is in the midst of rapid expansion. In late 2014, the brewery plans to open a taproom restaurant, pilot brewhouse and craft beer hub on Washington Boulevard in Venice. I first learned about these plans last year, when Firestone gave a group of Los Angeles beer bloggers (and me!) a sneak peek at their expansion plans, which also include the new, but already popular, barrel-aging program in Buellton.

The Firestone Walker folks—including co-founder David Walker—in May took beer journalists on a second trip to Paso Robles and the Central Coast; it’s about a five-hour drive from the Coachella Valley.

The trip’s first stop was at the place where Firestone began. At so-called Area 51, we were surrounded by 50 acres of land and grapes. I sipped beer on the back of a flat-bed farm truck, passing rows of vines glistening in the sunlight. I gave a nod of acknowledgement to the lamas and a scarecrow that were hanging out on the side of the dirt road.

This is the site of Firestone Walker’s original brewhouse. We were soon greeted by Andrew Murray, of Andrew Murray Vineyards, the current tenant. He happily handed out a crisp and fruity white wine called E11even; it was delicious in the hot afternoon sun.

Walker and Jeffers Richardson talked about Firestone Walker’s humble beginnings. “This is where it all began” said Jeffers, one of Firestone Walker’s original brewers and the director at Barrelworks. Walker joked that their beers weren’t always delicious.

We were led back to camp after the tour for a wonderful group meal. It’s here that we were introduced to Bretta Rosé, a deliciously puckering blend of fresh raspberries and Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks Bretta Weisse beer.

Firestone Walker’s master blender, Jim “Sour Jim” Crooks, explained the beer’s genesis.

“We’re down in Barrelworks in early 2013, and Jeffers and I were kinda like mad scientists: ‘What could we do to make this beer really interesting?’” Crooks said.

Crooks started cold calling fruit farmers and vendors. He got in touch someone at Driscoll’s up the road. The call went well: He said he ran out yelling, “Jeffers! You won’t believe this! We just landed 1,000 pounds of raspberries for free!”

The result is a gorgeous, complex and expertly balanced beer. Following this little lovely was an experimental wine-beer hybrid called Zin Skin.

“Essentially, what the Barrelworks does it connects us back to that weird, artisanal beginnings that we so enjoyed,” he said. “It’s a complete folly. There’s an interesting cross-section of wine culture and beer culture.”

Sour Jim continued to talk about their sour discoveries and the roots of the operation. In 2011, David Walker toured Rodenbach brewery in Belgium. He came back to Jim and said with a giant grin, “I figured it out. I know what you’re doing! We’ll make it like something no one’s ever done!”

In 2012, things fell into place. By the end of 2012, Barrelworks went from 28 barrels to about 450 barrels of beer.

“What we’re doing down here is so craft; it’s so artisanal,” said Sour Jim “It is like roots. It really comes back to the roots of making beers, a lot of the lineage of lambics and sour beers. These are historic beers, a lot of them.”

Jeffers added: “The brewers are learning a lot from the wine makers. Barrelworks takes you back to cellaring, pre-Industrial Revolution. Barrelworks is a creative endeavor that is following and learning practices that have been missing in brewing a long time—but not in the wine industry.”

The next day, we traveled to Paso Robles, home of Firestone Walker Brewery. After a delicious lunch, we experienced a tasting session led by lab analyst Norm Stokes.

Norm and the Firestone team prepared an array of off-flavor Firestone tasters, either from increased aging or off temperatures. We tasted beers that had been aged three, thirty and 300 days. This “sensory analysis” exposed flavors not normally craved—cabbage, latex paint, butter and vinegar.

Head brewer Dustin Kral then led the group through the Firestone brew house. David Walker explained that the brewery walks a fine line, staying artisanal but growing to the levels that the public is starting to demand.

Soon, we were on the road again, traveling down another amazingly picturesque country lane in Paso Robles to a wonderful boutique winery that has also found a way to craft high-quality vodka, gin and other liquors via their free-run juice, called saignée.

Villicana Winery owners Alex and Monica Villicana distill the “prize juice”—as Monica refers to it—that is cast from the first grape crush to create damn-near-luxurious liquors. The result is Paso Robles' first craft distillery, Re:Find.

“We bought 80 acres of dirt basically here in Paso in 1996,” Monica said, explaining the operation’s beginnings. “Between the two of us and our family and friends, we planted 13 acres of vines. … We make nine different wines in our 13-acre vineyard. Everything is pretty much estate here. We only produce about 2,000 cases annually.”

Here’s how that prize juice becomes delicious liquor: They collect the juice and bring it back to the winery. They ferment it into a high-alcohol rose. The high sugar fermentations produce glycerol, which has a heavy texture and sweetness. They then start a four distillation process.

“Distilling is about isolating the good alcohol and getting rid of the bad alcohol. … It’s in the second, third and fourth distillations that we really start to do the distillers’ craft to get the clean alcohol and introduce the vodkas and gins that we’re producing here,” Alex said.

If you haven’t visited Paso Robles, you’re missing out on a romantic California charm that envelopes you with magnificent rolling hills, artisan culinary cuisine, seasonal craft cocktails and, of-course, award winning craft beer. It’s great to see forward-thinking companies, like Firestone Walker and Re:Find, exude quality and collaboration in a stunning, old world setting.

Published in Beer