I first came across Firestone Walker at the 2015 Rainbow Project where they produced an amazing collaboration brew with the Wild Beer Co called Violet Underground, a wild sour beer which was a combination of a barrel aged Californian Raspberry wild ale mixed with candied violet petals and a mixture of proprietary yeasts from both sides of the Atlantic. So when I found out that I was going to Santa Barbara on the west coast I got on the search engines and was delighted to find out that the Firestone Walker Barrelworks facility was located in Buellton a short bus journey away.
Firestone Walker were founded by Adam Walker (a British expatriate) and his brother in law Adam Firestone. Together they have managed to successfully combine classical brewing techniques with the innovation for which the American craft beer scene is renowned. They currently have tap rooms in two locations in California, Paso Robles and Buellton and a third soon to be opened in Venice California.
After being lucky enough to secure a trip to the central west coast and knowing about the reputation of the American craft beer scene I soon started my internet searches and found out that I was going to be staying reasonably close to the Firestone Walker Barrelworks, a tasting room and blending centre which features beers from their wild ale program and rarer offerings from their barrel ageing program which can only be found in the brewery tap rooms. As a fully fledged convert to the wild beer movement I just had to make sure a visit was on the cards. After a few messages back and forth with Jeffers Richardson the director of the Barrelworks we managed to arrange a visit where the Assistant Manager Ryan Putney showed me round and made time for a chat.
The Barrelworks has been operating for about four years and has been open to the public for approximately three and half of those years. Their main focus is on traditional Belgian styles with a modern and innovative twist. The wort for the beer is transported from the Paso Robles facility to Buellton for fermenting with their own proprietary strains of yeast and bacteria in a range of barrel sizes made from primarily French oak with some of the beer aged in American oak so that they can get the optimum level of woody, earthy flavours into the final beer by blending. Depending on the desired final flavour profile of the beer they are aged for a variety of times and then blended to create some truly complex offerings for patrons. The decision behind which beers to blend is a collaborative effort between four people, the two master brewers, the cellar manager and the front of house. They each perform the tastings blind and unaware of what each other has chosen to ensure that there is no bias and that everything is driven by quality and flavour. The flavour tasting ensures that each person is aware of what characteristics are desired, be it Brettanomyces funk or Lactobacilis acidity. They then taste all of the barrels from one batch to select the which ones can be blended to give the product they are after and additionally put back to bed those barrels which are not yet ready for this process.
As well as there being the wild beer programme they also barrel age some of their stronger beers and barley wines and these are also available for the public to try. As a fan of wild beers trying this style was the main focus of my visit. Part of the concept behind the Barrelworks tap room is to act as an education facility to the public, so that they know what can constitute a wild beer and what flavours to expect from each beer on offer. I was fortunate enough to try the following:
2014 Lil' Opal - Barrel aged Saison - A Brett saison aged for 12 months in 75% French oak and 25% American oak barrels to give this a funk filled oak flavour with some mild acidity and refined spice and fruit.
2015 Sour Opal - American "Gueze" style Ale - Not strictly a Gueze by definition but it hard to think of a more appropriate classification. This is created by blending both young and mature beer which has been aged in barrels with plenty of microbes to give this beer yeast and wood derived vanilla, coconut and toasted nutty flavours, complimented with citrus.
2015 Agrestic - American Wild Red Ale - Starting life as DBA (British Pale Ale) and then aged in 87% French oak and 13% American oak barrels with a collection of microfauna, followed by blending 8 to 24 month old beer to create a beer which is dry on the finish and has tannin characteristics complementing lemon flavours and microfauna yeastiness.
Walker's Cuvee - Flemish Red inspired wild beer - A reddish-brown Flanders inspired beer dosed with what is described as a 'generous' dose of bugs and allowed a secondary fermentation of 6 months in 2200 gallon French oak foeders. The beer is then transferred to a French oak port barrel and then further aged for another 6 months. This is rich with red berry tartness and married to earthy oak and funk. Tough to describe but superb!
2015 Bretta Weisse - Berliner Weisse Style - A tip of the cap to the traditional beer of the German capital. This style of beer was dubbed ' The Champagne of the North' by Napoleon. It is characterised by pale malt and low hop character with the addition of some Brett to the mix giving yeasty, soft cereal, oak and tropical fruit flavours to the beer.
Bretta De Oro - Wild American Ale - This beer is fermented with two types of raspberry, golden and sunshine, which are locally sourced from the Santa Maria valley. This is the base of the Violet Underground collaboration with Wild Beer Co for the 2015 Rainbow Project. It has great acidity which is tempered by the sweetness of the raspberries which also contains green apple characteristics and all with an undercurrent of Brett funk. My personal favourite of those listed here. I can't wait to try and replicate this at home, it is one serious beer which is truly craft.
2015 Bretta Rose - Raspberry Wild Ale - A Bretta weisse which is acidified and aged in French oak puncheons for ten months. 1500 lbs of fresh raspberries are then added to the mix and a secondary wild fermentation then takes place for a further six months. The result is packed full of raspberry, incredible acidity, funk and is clean and refreshing.
I have to say a massive thank you to both Jeffers Richardson and Ryan Putney for helping to not just make this visit happen, as well as making the time to ensure that I got to ask all the questions I had. Their level of commitment and passion for beer is infectious and can only help convert more people to not just Firestone Walker but the wider craft beer scene, especially incredible wild ales! The Barrelworks facility is something truly special and should be celebrated and visited by anyone who is a beer fan and in the Buellton area. Long may their success continue and I hope to see some of their beer in the UK again soon!