It had been three years since I—or anyone else, for that matter—attended my favorite beer festival.
Since 2012, Firestone Walker has been inviting its friends in the brewing industry to Paso Robles to sample beers from all over the world. On top of that, local food vendors hand out samples of their fare to help soak up the beer being poured. A couple of talks are usually scheduled, where attendees can listen to the brewers themselves talk about what they do, or a particular style they love brewing—while being poured samples of the beers being discussed. In short: It’s a beer nerd’s paradise.
According to the collection of cute little tasting snifters in my cupboard, the first one I attended was in 2015. I have not missed one since.
After the expectedly long line to get in, my friends and I grabbed our glasses—and a little bamboo plate with a hole to hold said glass—and we were off and running. A veritable murderer’s row consisting of Green Cheek, Beachwood, Omnipollo, Bale Breaker (a brewery I had not heard of before this) and Alvarado Street were all in the shade and pouring tons of great beer. I got a pour of Green Cheek’s Crushing Is Relative Czech-style pilsner, because I have full confidence in whatever they brew.
As I sipped, I said hello to an old acquaintance in Julian Shrago, head brewer of Beachwood Brewing, whom I hadn’t seen in the three long years since the last festival. I also got a pour of Cactus Coolship, from Beachwood’s sour-brewing Beachwood Blendery. It’s a spontaneously fermented ale with pineapple, kumquat and apricots. I parted ways so as not to hold him up—and also because there was so much festival left.
Alvarado Street was next up, and I chose the Land and Sea Extra Pale Ale, which was packed with one of my absolute favorite hops, Nelson Sauvin. I skipped over Bale Breaker for the time being, sampled a bit of a friend’s pour of a rich imperial stout with bananas (to which ice cream was added at Omnipollo), and moved along to the next bank of tents.
Pinthouse Brewing from Austin was next. Their Lasso West Coast Pils was my choice, with two of their other offerings being hazy. The “West Coast” or “California” pilsner seems to be a new way of saying “India Pale Lager,” which is (usually) just a German-style pilsner dry hopped with non-traditional Noble hops. This one was dry-hopped with Strata and Amarillo, and I am glad I tried it, because I’ve only heard good things about Pinthouse (including their pizza) and have never been to Austin to enjoy their beer.
Then I rolled the dice with a kölsch from Portland-based Gigantic Brewing. Thankfully, the beer was delicious. So many lagers and lager-like beers! Please tell me this is becoming a full-on trend—because I’m all in.
Cerveceria Antares, from the Argentinian coast, had another lager to try—but with a twist. At 11% alcohol by volume, the 20 Años eisbock was a hell of an introduction. The brewery actually celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018, but the beer’s rich fruity malt flavors and serious warmth in the finish allowed it to be stored for four years with no trace of age.
In a nearby booth and from a nearby country (Brazil), Cervejaria Bamberg takes its name from the German city that specializes in rauchbier, for which grains are malted using direct wood fire. Their version of a rauchbier was subtly smoked with a Brazilian wood, and resembled the beechwood used in Bamberg traditionally. The bock underneath still shone through, though, so it was clear they took what breweries like Schlenkerla do to heart.
A barrel-aged sour ale with peach and maple syrup from Crooked Stave put me in a state of impressed shock that those ingredients could work together so well, as I waited in line for two incredible al pastor tacos from Los Robles Cafe.
Onward to the area where one of two talks was being held. Hosted by The Brewing Network’s Justin Crossley, the discussion’s topic was the latest in hops and their use. Throughout the discussion, beers were poured by various volunteers. The Bale Breaker Homegrown Hazy IPA was offered while the brewer talked about Cellarmaker Brewing as his inspiration for “West Coast hazies”—a hazy IPA with the mouthfeel and drinkability of a West Coast IPA.
Later, my friend Rafa asked what each member’s “desert island” beer would be, and the answers were split between IPAs and pilsners. This is very telling, because both are difficult styles to do very well—and are great measuring sticks for a brewer.
Some other notables I sampled were Bagby Beer Co.’s extremely authentic schwarzbier; a gorgeous blend of 2016, 2019 and 2021 of Lost Abbey Brewing’s gueuze, called Mother of All Gooze; Balter Brewing from Australia had a killer XPA and a lager with aggressive New Zealand hops; and my favorite for barrel-aged beers (which I get to try at this festival every year)—Deth’s N’ Roses, from Revolution Brewing, an imperial stout aged in Four Roses and Heaven Hill bourbon barrels for a combined five years. I repeated how much I loved their barrel program to Marty Scott, who oversees it all, and told him I will do so every year I see him there. Effusive praise is not even enough to repay the man for the olfactory experiences I’ve had at that booth.
On one of the interview panels mentioned earlier, Firestone’s head brewer, Matt Brynildson, explained why they started this festival. He said he was at first very reluctant to do it when approached by a local lawyer with the idea. He would only agree if he could invite all of the breweries he wanted to, put them up, and treat them like royalty in a weekend full of events. (There are VIP events on the Friday and Sunday surrounding the fest.)
Another great Firestone Walker Invitational in the books, and it felt like it had never skipped a year.