Over the years the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest (FWIBF) has become known as one of the premiere beer events to take place along the west coast. Over fifty breweries are hand-picked by the Firestone staff and invited to the Paso Robles Event Center to bring their best and most obscure beers. The festival sells out within minutes each year and tickets are near impossible to get. Since many of the brewers are coming from the other side of the country, if not the globe, they will stay in the Paso Robles area for the weekend, creating two days of beer and celebration. For this weekend each year Firestone plays host to some of the best breweries from around the world and the experience they put on for the visiting brewers and participating media members exhibits the quality and care that they place in each beer.
Let the beer begin
The festival was held this year on Saturday, June 3rd, 2017 and fortunately, being part of the media, I was able to join in on the weekend-long festivities. The weekend began on Friday with a brewery tour with owner David Walker. Last year on the tour, David walked us around the brewery and described the expansion that had just started getting planned earlier that year. He even pulled out the engineering and architectural plans to give us an inside glimpse to what the brewery was going to look like after the expansion. When we arrived this year, the expansion had just been completed and the new brewery was set to open the following day, in time for the festival. It was incredible to get a first look at the new space and see the transformation from vision-to-reality.
Their previous expansion had been completed in 2012 and Firestone almost immediately maxed out the brewing equipment after it. This new brewhouse will be able to handle the incredible growth the brewery is going through and allow them to grow for years to come. The new system incorporates large scale processing equipment like a massive centrifuge that precisely clarifies the beer without using the standard plate and frame filter systems that accompany most craft breweries. The motor that spins the rakes in the mash tun was the largest I had ever seen in a brewery and one of the most impressive pieces of equipment on site.
The tour ended with us in the barrel room where we got to sip on Firestone’s Sucaba Batch 19 and Helldorado and breathe in the bourbon-soaked air in the room. A group of us grabbed a beer in the Firestone Walker Taproom Restaurant before heading off to the Beer Media Bowlapalooza where we spent an hour or two bowling, talking, and of course, sipping on Firestone beers. The evening (officially) came to an end with the Brewers BBQ and concert held in the event center. The evening is supposed to finish there, but never does, as many of the brewers are staying in an on-site camping area where everyone heads over to keep celebrating. The Bruery and The Rare Barrel brought cases of bottles to open up and the evening went on with a blur of obscure sours and rich barrel-aged beers.
Nearby, a Firestone keg truck has a handful of taps that pour a constant stream of Firestone beers from its side. Other brewers will bring their own bottles and cases of beer and put them in the back of the truck where people can just root around and grab any bottle that interests them. Last year the evening ended with some brewers starting an 80’s music dance off and this year it was the Italian brewers who started the dance party. No matter who starts it. The evening usually ends with dancing, beers, and a lot of cheers.
The Festival Begins
After an evening of talking about and drinking beer, it is nice to take a quick break from it before jumping into a full day of beer drinking. Each year Firestone starts off Saturday morning with Bloody Marys and breakfast burritos. The Bloody Marys are spicy and refreshing and the burritos are hearty and sustaining, making for a winning combination, and the right way to begin the day. After getting our fill, a group of us headed over to get the first taste of some of the epic beers being poured at the festival this year.
For me, one of the biggest highlights of the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival is the international brewery tent. Since each brewery is invited by Firestone, their selection of breweries exemplifies Firestone’s appreciation for the entire beer industry and not just the newest, hottest breweries that are getting all of the latest press. This is best witnessed in the international tent where you will find a blend of new and upcoming breweries from around the globe as well as historic, classical European breweries. Mahrs Bräu Bamberg GmbH from Germany brought an unfiltered pilsner that was both elegant and bold with a definitive noble hop aroma and delicate but chewy malt character. It was exciting to see Oud Beersel at the event this year. This classic lambic brewery from Belgium is a personal favorite and they brought their long respected Oude Geuze and a newer Bersalis Sourblend. The Oude Geuze is in the traditional style with flavors of apricot pits, olive brine, a touch of funk, and a firm bitterness. The Bersalis Sourblend is lighter and fresher with crisp malts, a lemon peel aroma, and a lactic, tangy snap in the finish.
Omnipollo from Sweden was pouring their Anagram Bourbon Barrel Aged Blueberry Cheesecake Stout that incorporated an iced beer granita that was placed in the liquid, making a refreshing concoction to drink in the heat of the day. 8 Wired Brewing from New Zealand brought a 2015 Wild Feijoa Sour that had a hint of white pepper and must to the fruit aroma that perfectly reflected the tropical, lime peel-like character of feijoa fruit. Their Cucumber Hippy Berliner had a brisk flavor with the cucumber character lightly done. Also in the international tent was Leo Leo Gelato who had crafted over a dozen gelato flavors using different beers from a wide range of breweries with flavors like sour blonde vanilla or brown ale with butter pecan. The decadent gelatos made the perfect accompaniment for the cool beers and hot weather. Throughout the festival, restaurants from the surrounding area provide a variety of different small bites that allows guests to have a nibble of food as they explore the vast sea of beers at the festival. From Fish Gaucho California Mexican & Tequila Bar serving up tacos to Big Bubba’s slinging some BBQ, there is a nice range of food to choose from, providing a good balance for the amount of alcohol people are consuming.
Certainly the biggest draw of FWIBF is the overwhelming list of heavy hitter breweries. Many of those featured at the festival are among the most popular breweries in the world and each brewery makes sure to bring their A-game with not only one-off and rare beers but special tappings and bottle openings taking place at specific times throughout the day. Finding a bottle of Black Tuesday from The Bruery is difficult enough but it is even more of a special occasion when you get to taste a pecan pie version of Black Tuesday. The brew featured a slightly charred and subtle pecan character to the normal smooth bourbon and chewy chocolate liqueur flavor of Black Tuesday. Allagash Brewing Co. had bottles of James Bean, a special edition of their popular Curieux, a Belgian-style triple aged in Jim Bean barrels, that uses cold pressed coffee to add a pleasant fruity roastiness to the beer.
Russian River Brewing Co. always draws a crowd and was serving their classic double IPA, Pliny the Elder, and the rare, but popular, Beatification. I was excited to see their lesser known blonde ale, Scratching Post, at the event. The beer had a clean malt character and fresh, herbal hop aroma that reminded the drinker of why Russian River is considered a master of the hoppy beers. Avery Brewing Co. has an amazing array of canned and bottled beers available in many states however in our area we don’t often see their more rare sour and barrel-aged brews. Their Apricot Sour had a bright acidity with an aroma of freshly picked apricots. Honestly, it is hard to capture the litany of impressive beers that were served at the festival. It is not just the immense amount of high quality beers that makes this one of the best festivals along the west coast, but the thoughtfulness (like plenty of misters and air coolers) and care to detail that Firestone brings to the entire experience that makes this festival one of the most sought out beer events each year.
Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, June 14, 2017