Here in Texas, most drinkers haven’t gotten to taste or even hear about Firestone Walker. That is all going to change as Firestone Walker’s beers sweep into Texas. They’ve released in the Austin area and are slated to release in The DFW Area in March or April. Last week, myself and Rasy Ran were allowed to see a little bit of Austin for a day with Co-Founder David Walker as he personally spear headed the Texas release of Firestone Walker. Even with his extremely busy schedule, David Walker found time to sit and discuss Firestone Walker, its origin in the California wine culture and its beers.
When and how did you get into brewing?
“There is very little planned in my life. I suppose because my partner came from a family that was in the artisanal wine business we understand the concept of individually crafted wines and the riddle of a small enterprise. I wasn’t a home brewer. I came at this from a Willy Wonka perspective. The concept that ‘the place that you work has steam coming out of the roof’ to me is really cool. It’s real; you can touch it, you can taste it, you can see peoples’ smiles when they drink it and there’s a genuine human connection with what we do. And I like that….
So that’s why I went into brewing. I had a notion that was what it was about. I was right.”
How did you and Adam start talking about brewing?
“Initially it was my partner, Adam Firestone, that said we should start a brewery. It was as light hearted and as deadly serious as that. I chewed on it for a while and agreed; it was literally as simple as that; sitting in a truck after breakfast one morning.
We’re like any small start-up. It begins with an idea, a couple of individuals and just a lot of belief in what you’re trying to do. When we started, the craft beer brewing revolution was still unsure. In fact, in the mid-90s people got tired of breweries that didn’t make a lot of sense to them. There were some die-hard, solid guys that have been brewing beer for 20 years, like Sierra Nevada and so forth, who really had kept the thing together. Then there was a whole other generation, like ourselves, who showed up and helped out. Now, here we are today. There were 400 breweries in America when we started and it’s close to 2500 with several hundred on tap this year. It’s absolutely brilliant and very exciting from my stand point, to look at all the new brewers out there. For years, we were just out there doing this weird thing in this remote barrel room in a vineyard and now I come to Austin and people know who we are. I mean it’s like ‘@#$%, we’ve done something important.’ I can go to my grave saying ‘Hey, you know what? I’ve done something interesting.’”
Did you have much experience with craft beer before Firestone Walker?
“No, I didn’t. There really wasn’t that much of a craft community at the time. There was a home brewing community. Gents like Ken Grossman were engineers and great brewers, but they were out on their own. The movement wasn’t as successful as it is today. Our discussions with 99% of the people, was ‘I don’t like to drink dark beer. Do you have any light beer?’ which is extraordinary coming from the Wine World. Have you ever asked for ‘light’ wine, why would you ask for light beer? What’s the difference here? That was the world that we started our brewery in. ‘Hey I’m drinking a beer the TV add says its from Australia. So it must be hip and groovy.’”
Despite all those requests for light beers, you kept moving forward. Did your previous experience in the wine regions of California influence the way you brewed beers?
“The American wine movement 40/50 years ago is similar to the craft brewing movement. You went from the number one selling wine in this country being something like Ripple (an inexpensive “Bum Wine”) to having several hundred wines in a store like this (Spec’s) now.
That’s the same evolution. Even now, 90% of the beer drunk in this country is Light American Lagers or European Lagers. What else out there is so overwhelming generic, other than the oxygen that we breathe? I mean ketchup or tomato sauces all taste the same.
It doesn’t surprise me now that all of the sudden people are waking up to the fact that there are different flavors of beer. From Wild Ales down to Bourbon Barrel Aged beers to something as elegant as a Bavarian Weißbier to a great English Pale Ale to an American IPA, a ballsy IPA that is really changing the beer world.”
How has the wine country and culture affected Firestone Walker’s development?
“One thing we realized is that if what you make is not of the highest quality then the customer eventually snuffs it out. You can have the grooviest branding, but if quality isn’t the best the customer will ultimately abandon what you’re doing. So that’s what I suppose being from the fine wine background taught us. By that I mean; the brewery needs to be the best it can be. You’ve got to have the best equipment. If you can’t afford the best equipment, don’t expand and wait until you can. Have the best people, pay them well. If you can’t afford to pay them well then don’t employ them and don’t expand. Move forward in a methodical fashion with quality as your guide.
The other thing is a visionary behind the beers; in our case its Matt Brynildson, who’s a partner and our Master Brewer. He’s very much like a wine maker but in a brewery. In many wineries, the winery owners build the estate and then they put a wine maker in the middle of it and say ‘Right! Make magic.’ That’s what we’ve tried to do as a brewery. We created a brewery and put Matt in the middle. I think a lot of breweries forget that. They have nameless brewers brewing against a recipe. The brewery says ‘Just brew the thing and don’t change!’, whereas, our brewer very much drives the vision of the beer. That’s a culture that’s quite at home in wineries or great restaurants where the chef in the kitchen drives the menu. That sort of independent spirit is very much what we are.”
With that independent spirit, is Matt able to experiment more?
“Oh yes! We have such a wide range of interesting beers. In many cases there’s no rhyme or reason for a beer other than Matt decided that’s where we were going. That’s also pretty symbolic of the craft brewing community because everybody is brewing something interesting. I would suggest that classically, brewing was 90% science and a very small amount of creativity. That goes back to the German Tradition of ‘We will make lagers and they will be one way.’ Which then migrated over here and that’s the way big brewers think.”
Where do you think craft beer is headed?
“I think it’s going to be difficult to justify more than half of the shelf space for one style of lager beer from 2 breweries (ABI and Miller Coors). There’s going to be a lot more choice. American Lagers will still dominate the market, but they just won’t dominate it as much as they have. Currently its 90%. Could it, in 20 years, go to 70%? If it did that, it would as dramatically change the face of the American brewing landscape as much as prohibition did. There would be 10,000 breweries and big regional brewers everywhere. It would be interesting.”
What makes Firestone Walker’s beer different?
“Our beers you can sum up with the 3 Bs: blending, barrels and balance. Those are three things we focus on with our beers.
The barrels play a big role with DBA’s primary fermentation. We also use barrels for aging in “our bigger beers like Parabola, Sucaba, Double DBA, Velvet Merkin and our Anniversary beers. These all come out of our Bourbon Barrel Aging Program, which is fairly significant. And now we’ve come full circle where we’re working on secondary barrel fermentation with our Wild Ales.
In terms of Balance: we always try to achieve balance. We don’t want to shock anybody with the beer. Sometimes maybe we should ,to wake people up to who we are, but in some ways we find it goes against the grain for us. Our main focus, for a long time, was on Pale Ales. We wanted to perfect the art of Pale Ales. We got really, absurdly focused on that for a while. English Pales Ales, we wanted to make those in the traditional styles. Then Matt developed Pale 31, which is a California Pale Ale. The most awarded California Pale Ale. Hey we’ve won Best Mid-Sized Brewer in the World 4 times at The World Beer Cup and I think it’s mainly because of that beer. Then Union Jack, an American IPA….which then led us to Double Jack, which is an imperial version/double IPA, and Wookey Jack, our unfiltered Rye IPA. Very Pale Ale focused.”
Would Firestone Walker have been focused on the Pale Ale styles if you hadn’t been in California?
“It was an organic evolution. We made DBA, the English style Pale Ale, because that was the style we liked. Then Matt came in and created Pale 31 and it became such a success that people began to say ‘You guys make great Pale Ales.’ The way we were set up as an ale brewery and the way our taste sensibilities were, it made sense to explore that style right to the bitter end.
Obviously, we’re now in other areas. I think our Barrel Aging Program that Matt kicked off 8 years ago is pretty cool. There’s a large number of barrels in this program and we’re constantly adding warehouse space to accommodate for it. And there’s never enough beer to go around. Sky’s the limit for these beers. That’s one of the brilliant things about the Willy Wonka factor, you can do whatever you want.”
That makes us think that when we come to the brewery tour there will be a river of beer.
Yeah, and oompa loompas.
And to finish, here is a rundown on the first set of Firestone Walker beers in Texas.
Double Barrel Ale (5%) English Pale Ale
“It’s the first beer we made. Because we were essentially associated with a winery, we integrated oak barrels into our process. Most brewers threw oak out a long time ago because it was unstable. We wanted to make an English Pale Ale in the classic traditional ways that they were made. In Britton they made them with burton unions which were linked oak barrels. So we created a union of our own. We used clean, American oak, medium-toast barrels, and still do to this day. About 20% of DBA is fermented in that and then blended back with DBA fermented and conditioned in steel.”
Pale 31 (4.9%) California Pale Ale
Pays homage to California’s creation as the 31st state. “This dry-hopped California Pale Ale represents the bold yet approachable spirit that embodies our state.” Pale 31 has a light, floral hop aroma. Four time gold medal winner at The Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup. Overall, it sounds like a good, sessionable beer for a summer day at a Texas pool.
Pivo Pils (5.3%) Pilsner
“Everything we love about classic German Pilsner with a hoppy Bohemian twist. Pils is a bright straw colored lager beer with playful carbonation topped with beautiful white foam lace. Delicate lightly toasted malt flavors underscore noble German hop character. Hallertau-grown Magnum hops deliver the lupulin foundation while generous amounts of Spalter Select hops bring floral aromatic and spicy herbal notes. As a twist on the traditional Pils, we dry hop with German Saphir for a touch of bergamot zest and lemon grass. A refreshing, light-bodied and hop-driven Pils.”
Sucaba (13%) Barley Wine
Voted #1 Barley Wine on BeerAdvocate for 2011. “Big boozy bourbon and American oak aromas combined with soft chocolate malty undertones. Complex malt flavors framed in oak, with hints of dark chocolate, vanilla, tobacco, coconut and just a touch of dark cherry. This is definitely a sipping beer, best served in a brandy snifter.”
Union Jack (7.5%) American IPA
“Abounds with hop aroma and character. In fact this well balanced, west coast IPA is double dry hopped, giving it more and more of the grapefruit, citrus hop aroma and flavor it is known for. Overall it utilizes over four pounds of pacific-northwest hops per barrel.” Not a bad sounding IPA!
Double Jack (9.5%) Imperial version of the Union Jack
Winner of Bronze, Silver, Gold and 1st Place prizes. “Double Jack IPA is our first ever Imperial IPA. It features a big malty middle to cloak the high alcohol and mouth puckering hop bitterness. Huge tangerine, grapefruit and juicy fruit aroma blossom over the herbal blue basil and malt earthiness of this aggressive beer.”
Velvet Merkin (8.5%) Bourbon Barrel Aged Velvet Merlin (Oatmeal Stout)
2010 and 2011 GABF Gold Medal Winner. “This is our Velvet Merlin Oatmeal Stout aged in Bourbon Barrels. This beer goes into the barrels as a roasty dark chocolate, coffee accented mild mannered stout and comes out transformed as a milk chocolate, smooth dark cherry, vanilla and coconut infused masterpiece. We are incredibly proud of this beer and it seems as though it was always meant to be a barrel aged brew.”
Wookey Jack (8.3%) American-Style Black IPA
2012 GABF Gold Medal Winner “Wookey Jack is our first foray into the dark outer world of black IPAs. Rich dark malts and spicy rye careen into bold citrus laden hops creating a new dimension in IPA flavor. This brew has been left unfiltered and unrefined to retain all of its texture and character. At 80 IBUs, Wookey Jack is gnarly on the outside yet complex and refined on the inside.”