Firestone Walker Brewing Company has been setting the standard for American craft breweries for years. Four time winners of the coveted mid-sized brewery of the year award at Great American Beer Festival, Firestone Walker continues to grow at a pace that regularly exceeds the rest of the craft market. For such an accomplished brewery, it would be understandable if they got comfortable and complacent, basking in their success. But that’s not how it’s done at this Paso Robles, California brewery. They take it upon themselves to retool and reload long before they need to. It’s this type of forward thinking that makes Firestone Walker the cutting edge, preeminent example that many other breweries aspire to be. Impeccable balance, uncommon complexity and complete drinkability are the goals when any beer is designed at Firestone Walker.
Best in class
Achieving widespread success with beers such as Pivo Pilsner, Union Jack IPA and 805, these beers are viewed as the classic examples of the styles they represent. Once Union Jack gained national notoriety, it spawned a whole series of beers known as the Proprietor’s Reserve Series, a series that included Double Jack, Wookey Jack and Opal Saison. These beers, in their own right, had quite a following, but are no longer in production; a testament to the forward thinking of the Firestone Walker team, led by owners (and brothers-in-law) David Walker and Adam Firestone, as well as Brewmaster extraordinaire, Matthew Brynildson.
Out with the Proprietor’s Reserve Series and in with two new concepts. Luponic Distortion is a rotating series of IPAs, all brewed with a consistent malt base but with each member of the series dosed with a different bouquet of hops. With a new Luponic brewed every 90 days, the series is meant to showcase the freshness of the experimental hops used. Many of the hops used in this series are so new they haven’t even been named yet, settling for temporary names such as “Experimental Hop 1234.”
The base beer is flavorful, but the bread crust-like malt is meant to support the hops which are clearly the stars of the show. At 5.9% ABV and 59 IBU, the beer is light enough to let the hops shine brightly without any heaviness on the palate. Up to six different hop varieties can be used in the dry hopping process alone! (The dry hopping process is where hops are added after fermentation to produce aromatic qualities without imparting any additional bitterness to the beer.) There is no end in sight to this rotating series of beers; in fact they were given three digit numbers, starting with 001, because this series may go on indefinitely due to the countless number of hop combinations available in which to experiment.
Leo vs. Ursus
Another interesting and adventurous undertaking is the Leo versus Ursus series of beers. This series represents the heart of Firestone’s culture, which for 20 years has been forged by often opposing forces in pursuit of the perfect beer. Leo v. Ursus is a chronology of beers that shift stylistically with each limited quarterly release. These are bold and often intense, hoppy beers, but always with balance in mind. Brewed at their pilot brewery known as The Propagator in Venice, California, this series gives the brewers the freedom to experiment on a smaller scale in pursuit of that perfect beer.
The first member of this series is Fortem, a sneakingly subtle 8.2% ABV unfiltered Imperial IPA that isn’t out of place in a conversation with the world famous Pliny the Elder. Subtly balanced with complex newer Northwest USA and German Hallertau hop varieties, supporting malt flavors and pleasant soothing alcohol, Fortem delivers huge flavor, while still showing balance in a rustic presentation. Any hop lover will undoubtedly find this beer on their short list of favorites. Adversus, the latest member of the series, is also an imperial IPA with a pilsner malt base, an interesting twist that gives the beer its lighter color and body.
Speaking of Pliny the Elder, it was Firestone Walker that brewed this renowned beer for their friends at Russian River Brewing Company while Russian River was installing a new brewing system in 2016. It shows both the level of respect, as well as trust, that the two breweries have for each other for Russian River to let their beloved masterpiece be brewed by anyone other than themselves. The two breweries collaborated on another beer for last year’s Brewer’s Invitational Festival called STiVO, which brewer Matt Brynildson called the “love child” of their Pivo and Russian River’s outstanding STS Pilsner. The beer did not disappoint.
A well timed investment in Firestone Walker by the Moortgat family, makers of Duvel, is one of the reasons all this expansion is possible. While the Moortgat family retains an ownership percentage in the company, David Walker and Adam Firestone remain the operating partners. Firestone Walker is run independently from the other breweries in the Duvel portfolio, which include Kansas City’s Boulevard, Cooperstown’s Brewery Ommegang and Belgium’s Duvel Moortgat. This additional capital not only helped to finance the new Propagator Brewery, it allows Firestone Walker to concentrate the time and resources on their award winning, high end beers.
Beer Mecca: The barrel aging room
As part of the Proprietor’s Vintage Series, Stickee Monkee (quad), Parabola (Russian imperial stout), Bravo (imperial brown ale), Helldorado (blonde barleywine) and Velvet Merkin (barrel aged oatmeal stout) are big beers that produce a literal and figurative buzz anytime they are available. Firestone Walker also specializes in the art of blended beers.
Annually, Firestone Walker produces an anniversary beer that is a blend of certain percentages of beers from its Proprietor’s Vintage Series aged in hand selected oak barrels. The end resulting Anniversary ale is not only extremely sought after, it represents the best of what the brewery has to offer. Each year the percentages and beers used in the blend change, making each anniversary something special and unique. The anniversary beers started in the brewery’s tenth year with the aptly named Ten, and this year marks the tenth year of the series with the release of Twenty. All beers in the Proprietor’s Vintage Series pack a punch (most over 12% ABV range) so, like fine wine, they age extremely well and typically improve after proper storage of at least a couple years.
Every year in June Firestone Walker invites the world’s best brewers to participate in their very own Invitational, a beer festival that sets the standard for what a festival should be. This festival did not disappoint with brewers not only representing the far reaches of our country, but also having representation from brewers as far away as Germany, Italy and New Zealand. It was a party enjoyed by all, with Firestone Walker not only being a gracious host, but firmly entrenched right in the middle of all these world class breweries, a place they have definitely earned. As someone who has had the honor of attending this event twice, I can say from a personal perspective that it sets the standard for all brew festivals, which comes as no surprise because it’s just the way Firestone Walker operates.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally written in June 2017.