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Robb Report Vices

Brewery Profile: Firestone Walker

Bailey S. Barnard

Like many American craft breweries founded within the last two decades or so, Firestone Walker started as the dream of two craft-brew enthusiasts. In 1996, brothers-in-law Adam Firestone and David Walker opened the brewery in Paso Robles in Central California, near some of the area’s top wineries, where it has continued to partially ferment and age its beers in 60-gallon oak barrels. Barrel fermentation and aging was a rare practice for American breweries at the time, although it has since become a more widely used production method. Firestone Walker originally focused on pale ales, but today it offers a large collection of craft brews ranging from pilsner to barley wine, and the brewery remains a pioneer in the use of barrels.

In January the company opened a 7,000-square-foot facility to house all of its barrel-aged beers brewed with various strains of wild yeast, which often has a pleasant souring effect on the beer. These beers need to be kept separate from those aged with traditional yeast strains to avoid contaminating them. The beers brewed with these wild yeasts are currently only available at this facility, called Barrelworks, which is located next to the Firestone Walker Taproom restaurant in Buellton, Calif. The rest of Firestone Walker’s brews are available in bottle—though many of the releases are produced annually and are only available for a limited time—as well as in bars and gastro pubs throughout the country. (www.firestonebeer.com)

FEATURED BEERS

Pivo Hoppy Pilsner is the newest release from Firestone Walker—it hit shelves in May—and it is the brewery’s first pilsner. This beer puts a hoppy American twist on a classic European pilsner. A grain bill composed entirely of German Weyermann malt gives the beer a crisp pilsner base and pale-golden color, while German Magnum hops lend clean but bitter notes, with low-acidity Spalter Select hops providing delicate floral aromas. Firestone Walker differentiates this pilsner from more traditional examples with the dry-hop addition of German Saphir hops to give it some lingering citrus and zesty notes. The Pivo Hoppy Pilsner is clean and refreshing but not without body; it is perfect on a summer afternoon.

Style: Hopped Pilsner
ABV: 5.3%
Price: $10/six-pack
Availability: Year-round

In recent years, many American craft breweries have introduced double (or imperial) IPAs to their lineups. These beers tend to have a high alcohol content and a malty base, which the brewers balance with plenty of hops. Many double IPAs suffer from an unbalanced amount of hops, which can make them overly bitter. With the Double Jack, Firestone Walker has achieved one of the most adeptly balanced imperial IPAs we have ever tasted. The three Cs of hops (Cascade, Columbus, and Centennial) are all readily apparent on the nose and palate, with Amarillo and Simcoe hops providing wonderful citrus aromas—all perfectly balanced with the beer’s rich, malty base. Notes include lemon zest, grapefruit, pineapple, wheatgrass, rosemary, and basil. Fans of big IPAs will adore this brew.

Style: Imperial IPA
ABV: 9.5%
Price: $8.99/22 oz.
Availability: Annual/limited release

For the Double DBA from the Proprietor’s Reserve Series, Firestone Walker doubles the strength of its flagship DBA pale ale and ages it for 10 months in new American oak barrels and ex-bourbon barrels. Because of its huge gran bill, which consists of traditional pale-ale grains plus some darker and chocolate malt, the beer is technically classified as a barley wine, though Firestone calls it an imperial special bitter. A healthy dose of bittering hops help balance the beer’s rich malty characteristics, which include sweet yeast breads and toffee, while late-addition Golding hops and a round of dry hops give it some delightful floral notes and hints of dried apricot.

Style: Barley Wine (Imperial Special Bitter)
ABV: 12%
Price: $16.99/22 oz.
Availability: Annual/limited release

In 2006, to celebrate its 10th anniversary, Firestone Walker debuted an oak-aged strong ale dubbed simply 10, which marked the first release in its now 7-year-old Anniversary Ale series. Last November, Firestone released the XVI Anniversary Ale. To create this beer, the brewery hosted a friendly competition in which it invited a number of local winemakers near Paso Robles to blend Firestone beers and then do a blind tasting to determine the winner. The vintners from Saxum winery submitted the winning blend for 2012, which became the XVI. This beer is a blend of eight different Firestone Walker ales from 226 oak barrels, many of which previously contained liquor, including bourbon, brandy, and even tequila. The result is a black, syrupy beer that offers notes of malt, butterscotch, and oak on the nose, with flavors of chocolate, molasses, and mocha. This rich and heavy beer is best enjoyed after a meal with friends and family. Firestone Walker plans to release the next Anniversary Ale this fall.

Style: Blended Strong Ale
ABV: 13%
Price: $22.99/22 oz.
Availability: Annual/limited release

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