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 email@example.com.