Wayward Wine takes a wine break for beer during our tour of Paso Robels wineries. Although Paso finds fame from its wines, Firestone Walker Brewery has seen tremendous growth in their 20 years. An English expat and his and American brother-in law started at the Firestone family vineyard in Los Olivos in 1996, moved to Paso in 2001, expanded twice since then, adding a sour program in Buellton. We visited just after they partnered with Belgian Duvel. Their new found wealth built a canning line. They are now California’s fourth largest brewery.
We don the plastic goggles of Californian safety regulation. Our young guide manages decently, if vaguely, to walk us through disjointed room after room and fill in questions. Firestone looks tidy, casual, but big.
Firestone still dances that fine line of being a 150,000+ barrel brewery with nationwide distribution, while still having a closet for a lab and a sparse handful of people working the floor. But looking around, we only see men with varying amounts of facial hair. Bored with fermentation questions, we breach the gender question. Aside from the bar and lab, its a man’s world…sigh.
But Firestone’s beers maintain a house style often lost when breweries expand. They taste quite hoppy, herbaceous even, but they balance bitterness adequately with ample, caramelly malts, and rich English esters. They have each foot firmly in England, Europe and the US. Their PIVO: a hoppy Pilsner, tastes snappy, bright, green, yet lightly honeyed and medium bodied thanks to lagering. Their Union Jack American IPA gleams with powdery pine, grapefruit, and lime, but malt sweetness keep these in line.
Part of Firestone’s secret is their barrel program. This is where Adam and David began.
Barrels gurgle away at the heart of the warehouse, surrounded by massive stainless tanks and bay doors. These 227 liter casks ferment Firestone’s Double Barrel Ale, Pale 31, and others. Although our guide muddles this, Firestone is one of two big breweries in the world to utilize Burton Union fermentation. Basically, pipes cycle fermentation foam out and keep beer in the barrels. Invented in the 1830’s, it avoids air filling head space, keeps healthy yeast in production, and ferments evenly and consistently.
We try their 2015 Russian Imperial Oatmeal Barrel Aged Stout: Parabola. It is silky black velvet ink. The body feels huge, alcohol warm, yet decently structured, that if sipped slowly, you can survive its onslaught of toast, coconut, vanilla, and dark cacao.
Their snazzy bottling and canning line ends our tasting. Hungry, we cross an alley to the steel and timber restaurant, where more beers and food await us.
Firestone Walker is well worth a visit. On a hot (i.e. normal) Paso day, I would stick to their light beers such as 805 or PIVO. They make fantastic, rich, monsters that win awards, but seem hard to work into one’s daily drinking rotation in such a climate. Their beers are emblematic of the West Coast but without forgetting that hops and malt must balance each other.
Next Monday, we return to the gravel back of Paso Robles’ wineries.