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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

Craft beer tends to be very communal. Fans get together for tastings and “bottle shares.” We often trade with people across the country for beers we might not be able to acquire otherwise. We also love our beer festivals. A well-conceived and well-executed craft-beer festival is a beautiful thing—even if you leave wishing you had been able to try yet more beers that you missed.

I love the Coachella Valley. I moved here in 1988, although it took a little getting used to. (We got here in August when it was 100-plus degrees.) I grew up hiking around the cove and enjoying its gorgeous views—and met many friends I still know to this day. That said … our local beer festivals can’t quite match the exemplary festivals found in other parts of Southern California.

I recently attended, for the fifth straight time, the Firestone Walker Invitational, at the Paso Robles Event Center. Most of you are familiar with Firestone’s quality beers. Even its 805—an American Blond, the beer style I despise most—is high-quality. Firestone has been a paragon of craft-brewing; the company doesn’t compromise, yet it continues to have success in the industry. It should come as no surprise that the eponymous beer festival is of similar mettle.

The “Invitational” portion of the festival’s name means exactly what it says: Firestone invites the breweries its management wants there. Some of those choices shift around. This year, some popular and upcoming breweries got their first invitations—including many from California. Monkish, Highland Park, Societe and Alvarado Street were among the first-timers. If you haven’t had a chance to drink any beer from these breweries, I very much recommend stopping in if you are anywhere within reach.

I began my day at The Bruery’s booth and decided I’d start off with a bang by getting a pour of the Double Barrel Black Tuesday with Tahitian vanilla added. Checking in at 20.5 percent alcohol by volume (that is not a typo), you’d think it’d be boozy, but the brewery based in Orange County has been making Black Tuesday and its variants for many years now and knows what it is doing. Sure, it was big, but it had some lovely dark fruit, chocolate, vanilla, oak, molasses and bourbon flavors. Later, I had the Bruesicle: Mango Fire, a blended sour ale with mango and habaneros. It’s a wonderful time when you can get so many different flavors in a glass.

From there, I set out to get some food in me so that I could last the entire festival. Happily, part of the ticket fee goes toward hosting many local food vendors. Did I mention that all the food vendors and breweries compete for the most festival-goer votes on the well-designed and useful phone app that accompanies the fest? This makes for some incredibly creative and delicious results. I first hit up a booth that made cold-smoked salmon tacos. This went well with the Pleroma Raspberry Creme Brulee sour ale that the Swedish brewery Omnipollo topped with soft-serve ice cream—a smart choice, considering the high for the day was 95 degrees. My other favorite food vendors included some amazing ahi wonton tacos from Firestone’s own Paso Robles restaurant; a bite of pork belly with a fava bean and blackberry puree atop a potato chip from The Hatch Rotisserie and Bar; and a simple but delicious bratwurst with sauerkraut, potato salad and three kinds of mustard from a vendor with a name I honestly can’t recall. Did I also mention beer was being served at this festival?

Walking around the grounds and listening to the various bands, I found some favorite beers as well. One favorite: The Rare Barrel out of Berkeley brought Alchemy and Magic—a golden sour ale with cucumber, juniper and rosemary aged in gin barrels. It’s so unique and absolutely delicious.

Yet another beautiful thing about the festival is that it’s often the brewers themselves out there pouring beers and milling around. I chatted with Rare Barrel head brewer Jay Goodwin (a former Bruery brewer) about the beer and his processes as I sampled it. He then poured me a taste of another oak-aged watermelon sour called Raging Waters. For me, it doesn’t get much better than that kind of immersive experience.

More favorites included a perennial pourer at the fest by the name of Beachwood BBQ and Brewing from Long Beach. My friend Julian Shrago and his crew make incredible beer; the Vanilla Fudge (which tasted just like the name suggests) and Brandy Barrel System of a Stout (a variant of his annual Coffee Imperial Stout with spices) were both winners. Beachwood’s sister brewery, Beachwood Blendery, was pouring a number of its brilliant sours alongside Julian’s beers. The muscat grape sour was phenomenal.

I’ve come to rely on Revolution Brewing from Chicago to bring some of the best barrel-aged beers at the festival every year—and this year, the brewery outdid itself with a double-barrel (bourbon and rye) cherry version of the gorgeous V.S.O.J. Barleywine, and a coffee version of the barrel-aged imperial oatmeal stout called Cafe Deth (pronounced Deeth, after brewer Josh Deth and the beer off which it’s based, Deth’s Tar). They were even willing to mix the two for amazing results.

This year’s biggest discovery was a brewery out of Greeley, Colo., called WeldWerks. Five beers were on tap, and all were very well-done. It got my vote for best brewery, and I will be trying to find its beers by hook or by crook. If I were to pick only a couple to showcase, they’d be the Peach Pie Berliner weisse (a light, tart wheat ale), and the Mexican Medianoche imperial stout, aged in Woodford Reserve rye whiskey barrels for 20 months and then further aged with cinnamon sticks, cacao nibs and vanilla beans.

There are so many more beers I could talk about, with so many more experiences, but I think you get the point. The Firestone Walker Invitational is a superior beer-festival experience that I will never miss so long as I am able to make it; if that includes bending heaven and earth to do so, I will. This festival should be a template for any local Coachella Valley festival. The atmosphere at the Invitational is such that breweries that don’t bring their “A game” or that run out of beers early are put on notice publicly … and deservedly 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

Spring is in full bloom—and so is beer-festival season!

Beer weeks and festivals celebrate the culture and community of craft beer and give fans options to enjoy new and special brews—and there are a lot of these special events coming up in places that are fairly close by.

The Brewers Association celebrates American Craft Beer Week May 11-17. You can enjoy this craft-beer celebration just about anywhere: Many craft-beer establishments are celebrating with rare beers, dinner menus or specials.

During ACBW, celebrate with Angelinos at the sixth annual Los Angeles Vegan Beer and Food Festival (www.veganbeerfest.com). It takes place Saturday, May 16, at Rose Bowl and will feature a vegan smorgasbord, the best of the region’s craft beer and live music. It’s put on by Tony Yanow and Nic Adler—the same guys who brought craft culinary selections to Coachella. Tickets cost $50 to $80 and include unlimited pours of more than 100 beers from 65 breweries, as well as access to food that can be purchased from 40 vendors.

The first Paws for Rhythm and Brews will be held Saturday, June 6, a little closer to home—at the Idyllwild Nature Center (www.arfbeerfest.com). Proceeds go to the Animal Rescue Friends of Idyllwild (ARF), a grassroots rescue group on the mountain; tickets are $25 in advance. Paws for Rhythm and Brews is also holding what’s believed to be the first homebrew competition in our neighboring mountain community; registration closes on May 24, and winners will be announced at the festival. Not only can you escape the desert heat for a weekend; you can help a great cause. ARF’s mission is to rescue animals that have been abandoned or lost, or whose owners are no longer able to care for them. Janice Murasko put together the fest with her husband, Robert Hewitt.

“All of our dogs are kept with foster families, so we don’t have a kennel. All of them go with different fosters until they’re adopted,” she said. “We do have a small cattery; we can have up to 10 cats at a time. … We survive on very small grants, donations and fundraisers. … We have a veterinarian who comes up once a month, because there are no vets on this mountain.”

So it’s a great cause, and a great time as well: There will be awesome barbecue, live blues, a stein-holding contest, and wine for those who don’t drink beer. There will even be free shuttles from town to the event!

A bit bigger and farther away: LA Beer Week is returning June 20-28. Festivities begin on Saturday, June 20, with the LA Brewers Beer Week Kickoff at a new location: Exposition Park’s south lawn. Tickets are $45 and selling fast. If you miss out on the kickoff event, there will be more than 200 events spread around various bars, restaurants, retailers and breweries during the week.

I recently spoke with acclaimed brewer Victor Novak, now with Golden Road Brewing, about LA Beer Week. The Los Angeles brewery recently announced plans to open a second location, in Anaheim.

“I love doing outside events,” he said about LA Beer Week. “… We have great sales people, but it’s not the same as having a brewer on site at a festival for someone to talk shop and give people more detail on how the beer is produced.

Golden Road will be brewing its seasonal IPA, Heal the Bay. Proceeds go to various environmental projects in Southern California. Novak will also be brewing a special brew for a Star Wars-themed “May the 4th Be With You” event: The Hudson Porter, an imperial porter with rye, will be transformed to Java the Hudson after Novak and his team add vanilla beans and cocoa nibs, and later coffee, to the brew. Novak is hoping they will have some available for L.A. Beer Week.

“To have the brewer presence there, I think, is huge,” he said. “(Events) are not only fun for us; it is nice to interact. We’re a great community. Now we see the other brewers, and get people’s feedback on what we’re doing right then—good and bad. If they have an issue, I’d rather they tell me, than read about it on Beer Advocate or something.”

Also: A bucket-list beer festival would have to be the Firestone Walker Invitational, held in Paso Robles on Saturday, May 30. Even brewers like Novak love it. Unfortunately, it’s already sold out, so mark your calendars for next year.

“If someone were able to get hold of one (ticket), that is the must-attend,” Novak said. “It’s so huge and so hard to get into, as a brewer and an attendee. It’s beautiful up there, and you can go wine-tasting. It’s classic California.”

If you’d rather head farther south, don’t miss Escondido’s Stone Sour Fest, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday, June 28 (www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1171599). A $49 ticket includes a commemorative glass, 15 3-ounce tasters and more than 100 amazing beers from which to choose. I’ll be there with a bus full of Coachella Valley locals. Pucker up!

In August (keep your eyes open for the exact date), keep a look out for the Blue Palms Brewhouse Seventh Anniversary in Hollywood (www.everfest.com/e/blue-palms-anniversary-los-angeles-ca). It’s one of the coolest beer parties in So Cal.

Lucky for us, there are plenty of events at which we can enjoy a variety of Southern California beers. Of course, every day is a good day for beer!

Published in Beer