Erin Peters
Alex Villicana, of Re:Find Distillery, and David Walker, of Firestone Walker, discuss the art of craft booze. Credit: Erin Peters

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.