Brewer Brynildson thrives on abundant wine connections
at Firestone Walker Brewing Company

 

Wine and beer connections are alive and well at California's Firestone Walker Brewing Company according to brewmaster Matt Brynildson. And a lot of wine connections there are.

Co-founder Adam Firestone's family has been making wine commercially for nearly 40 years. Although they sold their namesake Firestone Vineyards winery and label back in 2007, other family members still own and operate the Curtis Winery in Santa Ynez. Even today, both Adam Firestone and his brewery partner (and brother-in-law) David Walker live on vineyard properties.

Their brewery sits in the midst of serious wine country. The Paso Robles AVA in the Central Coast region is well-known for producing quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Rhone and Italian varietals, and Chardonnay. Over 170 wineries dot the countryside, including many family-owned boutique beauties.

Renowned wine critic Robert Parker even predicted in Wine Spectator a few years ago that the best properties of Paso Robles and the Central Coast region would soon be as well known as the big names in Napa Valley. No two ways about it, Paso Robles has become a top echelon wine destination.

To the delight of beer lovers, however, while wine may be its primary industry, the smell of brewing is definitely in the Paso Robles air.

Firestone Walker Brewing Company, located at the edge of the city of Paso Robles, has thrice been honored as Champion Mid-Size Brewery and Brewmaster at the prestigious World Beer Cup (2004, 2006, 2010). It's beers are frequent medal winners in major craft beer competitions. But it wasn't always that way.

Brewery evolves over 14 years

Matt Brynildson enjoys talking about the brewery's history. He says that originally the brewery was located at the Firestone winery in Santa Barbara County. In 1996, when the brewery was established, brewing was the owner's second passion. The winery came first.

"The original brewery was kind of an outbuilding on the Firestone Vineyards' property," recounts Firestone Walker’s personable brewmaster Matt Brynildson. "It just sort of grew organically from there. When I came along they had basically maxed out their brewery down there on the vineyard property."

Around the turn of the new century, the brewery was producing about 5,000 barrels a year. From the beginning Firestone Walker focused on drinkability, on sessionable beers. Brynildson believes this is connected both to the owner's winemaking past and to the beers they personally liked to drink.

After a day of winemaking, beer was what they wanted to drink,” he says.

Local focus an Old World approach

The Santa Barbara region had strongly embraced their product, likely in part because of its connection to the Firestone winery. At that point it was far and away the number one craft beer brand in the Central Coast, Brynildson notes. 

In 2001 Firestone and Walker decided to move their brewery to Paso Robles so they could expand production. They purchased an existing small brewery, renovated it and added new equipment.

"In those days we were still very locally focused," says Brynildson. "It’s an Old World approach to the business—really focusing on the local market. It wasn't until a few years ago that we even distributed outside the state of California."

Moving from local to national stage via the UK

Just how did they move from a popular local brewery to become one of the most revered craft brands in America? It had its genesis in a peculiar beer fermenting system inspired by an old traditional British brewing method. But they took a rather circuitous route to get there.

“So they’re winemakers," relates Brynildson, "and they decided they wanted to use the old Chardonnay barrels to make beer in them. It will be this cool little program that we’ll come up with—reusing wine barrels—and it will be this interesting connection to the wine industry."

A quaint idea, but fate intervened. Making beer in Chardonnay barrels didn’t exactly pan out as they had hoped. The critters found in the used wine barrels didn't cooperate, microbiologically speaking, since they weren’t trying to make a Belgian sour beer. So they started looking at brewing more realistically and began investigating how they could incorporate barrels into the fermentation process but still make the clean, fresh ales that they loved.

"That’s when they thought of the Burton-on-Trent barrel fermenting method, which had been used in the UK for over 100 years." Brynildson tells. "The whole idea of our union fermentation—using oak barrels as the fermentation medium—is really focused on that tradition."

After some time in R&D, Adam Firestone and David Walker patented their version of the system, which they called the Firestone Union. They use exclusively new American oak—65-gallon, medium and heavy toast barrels. The Burton-on-Trent system in the UK uses completely exhausted oak getting no taste from it. Firestone Walker wanted to add the oak flavors. In doing so, they developed a truly unique American brewing system.

The product of the Firestone Union is their DBA or Double Barrel Ale, which is a deliciously clean, romantic, slightly-aromatic English-style pale ale with just a kiss of oak (with its vanilla and smoke hints). But that kiss elevates the brew's complexity so it becomes a beer like no other. The regularly distributed version of DBA contains 20% oak-fermented and 80% stainless steel-fermented ale. At the brewery tasting room, however, you can try a 100% barrel-fermented version.

Firestone Union features oak fermentation, not aging

While a lot of American brewers are putting beer in wood these days, they are using oak to age the beers.. They are typically laying down big beers in barrels for a long time to pick up oak flavors that way—and looking to gain critter flavors, sourness, or wine or distilled spirits flavors from used wine or whiskey barrels. The Firestone Union is a distinctly different approach.

As opposed to aging its Double Barrel Ale in wood, Firestone Walker does only the primary fermentation in oak barrels.

“More like you would do a barrel-fermented chardonnay," explains Brynildson. "Short contact time, but a vigorous fermentation in the oak. Then we push it from the barrels into a stainless steel tank for cold stabilization. We clean the barrels and start another fermentation. So every seven days we’re turning these barrels over and doing a new ferment in them."

Firestone Walker typically gets about 20 to 30 fermentations through a barrel before removing it  from the union system. Most of the used barrels end up in Firestone Walker's and other brewery's traditional oak aging programs.

The move into barrel aging

Even with all the used barrels around, it took Firestone Walker a while to add some of those bigger, more common oak-aged beers to its product line up. The first ones finding their way their way into the production were specialty and limited-release ales. Brynildson says that originally Firestone Walker didn't want to confuse the market by producing the more common oak-aged beers. They wanted to emphasize their unique use of oak to ferment DBA and not confuse the issue. A few years ago, however, things began to loosen up.

"For our 10th Anniversary Ale (2006) we started playing around with doing some oak aging," says Brynildson. "Now we’ve done oak aging in every barrel format we can get our hands on."

In addition to their special anniversary releases, their Parabola Russian Imperial Stout, Abacus Imperial Stout, Velvet Merkin Oatmeal Stout, and others spend some time in oak. The beer world has definitely taken notice too. Firestone Walker's 100% Barrel-Aged Velvet Merkin Oatmeal Stout took the gold medal in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Beer category at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival, while the regular Velvet Merkin took a Silver at the 2010 World Beer Cup. Velvet Merkin is aged in used Bourbon barrels.

It’s our anniversary, let’s have a blending party

Every year now Firestone Walker produces a special anniversary beer that is released in November. Brynildson says that over the course of a year they brew a number of small batches of strong beers and lay them down in all sorts of different barrel formats. These include brews like barley wines, Russian Imperial Stouts, Imperial Brown Ales, etc., most of them clean straight-ahead beers.

As Brynildson explains it, each year around grape harvest time, a very special event occurs at the brewery.

“We have 5 or 6 of our favorite Central Coast winemakers come in, and we pull lots from all the barrels that we have produced over the course of the year, We sit the winemakers down in a room together, and we let them create the blend for that year’s anniversary beer.

“It’s our way of partnering up and learning from the local wine community. They get super excited about it. In fact there’s almost a wait list of winemakers who want to get involved. Who knows blending of a barrel product better than a winemaker?

“Using the winemakers to blend utilizes one of winemakers’ key strengths—blending— that’s not normally found in beer making.“

Market response has been great. The anniversary beers have sold out very quickly. Collectors even resell them on the secondary market for higher prices. Hmm, sounds a bit similar to some wines, doesn’t it?

And don’t forget the wine barrels

Brynildson says they have also done some aging exclusively in wine barrels.

"A couple of years ago we made a interesting beer called Lil Opal. It was kind of a predecessor to our Solace summer seasonal ale, which is basically a wheat beer based on the Belgian farmhouse ale style."

For Little Opal, Firestone Walker began with a rather light, approachable farmhouse ale and then did a secondary fermentation using Saison yeast while holding the beer in used Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay barrels that they had collected from Central Coast winemakers.

“It was amazing how willing they were to donate barrels to the cause,” says Brynildson. "It’s amazing how interested the local winemakers are in the brewing process and in helping us out in a few of our projects."

They used well over 100 barrels and the beer spent about two months in wood. Because they used fresh wine barrels and did not wash out the wine, the beer picked up a lot of wine character, actually more than it picked up oak.

“It really was an interesting beer that picked up some of these wine characteristics that I really like," Brynildson adds.  "I don’t doubt that we’ll make Lil Opal again.

“That's what’s so fun about brewing; there's so many different directions to go and so much experimentation that can be done.”

Brewer–vintner bonding

“We learn this whole different language of wine that brewers are not necessarily in touch with,” adds Brynildson when talking about his cooperative ventures with vintners. “It’s super interesting to me.”

As the lone production brewery in the midst of 170 Paso Robles area wineries, Firestone Walker also benefits from having many winery workers as good customers. As the old saying goes, it takes a lot of beer to make a great wine.

Brynildson often meets with a group of winemakers for blind tastings. They pick a style of wine and everybody brings a bottle. They taste and discuss.

“I’ve been kind of accepted into the world of the winemakers,” he says.

It’s clear Brynildson really enjoys his job.

Wine connections really can make it in the brewing world

Firestone Walker is a great testament to brewing creativity with a wine heritage. Its success is continued through a commitment to experimentation and fun. American beer consumers are much better off for this business strategy. That the brewery has earned Brewery of the Year honors three times since 2004 is a truly remarkable feat when you consider all the superb regional craft breweries out there today. Firestone Walker pale ales and specialties are certainly at the top of the craft.

Today, Firestone Walker is no longer the small, locally-focused microbrewery that began in the winery outbuilding in 1996. It has grown to become a strong regional craft brewery producing around 60,000 barrels a year. Its beers are now distributed in many Western states and are moving east, already reaching New York, New Jersey, Virginia and more.

Firestone Walker is also a must see during one’s wine country vacation. The Paso Robles brewery tasting room is open daily from noon to 7:00 pm. Complimentary brewery tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 and 3:30 pm. Weekday tours are available by appointment only. The full-service Firestone Walker Taproom Restaurant in Buellton, CA is also open daily for dinner and for lunch and dinner on weekends.

Go to: Firestone Walker brewery profile page

 

PHOTO KEY

Top: The tasting room is to the left of the brewery entrance.

2nd from top: The Firestone Union barrel fermenting system.

3rd from top: The high-tech computerized brewhouse.

4th from top: Brynildson stands among the stainless steel tanks.

5th from top: Winery tasting rooms are a growing part of the Paso Robles landscape.


Photo Credit

All photos by Wine Country Beer except for the two Matt Brynildson photos that are from Firestone Walker Brewing Co. and used with permission.

Brynildson

BRYNILDSON ON TRENDS

“They say oak is the new hoppy. Everybody’s playing around with oak aging and souring beers.”