Firestone Walker Brewing Company is a bit of a bipolar operation. On one side, the award-winning 16 year-old central California brewery has been rapidly expanding its Paso Robles facility to accommodate increased volume and consumption of its tried-and-true flagship pale ales, IPAs and stouts.
And on the other, there's Barrelworks -- an experimental wild-beer project and barrel-aged centric tasting room that opened to the public two weeks ago in a temperature-controlled warehouse attached to its Buellton restaurant.
Billed as a "cathedral of barrels," Barrelworks is the new home of Firestone Walker's live-beer program. While the Paso Robles brewery will continue to house the used spirit and fresh-char oak barrels used to make beers like Parabola and Double Barrel Ale, Buellton is now where some batches will be shipped to undergo secondary fermentation in a microflora-friendly environment designed to turn market-ready Firestone beers into sour, funky delicacies.
So while locals glug down pitchers of the brewery's Union Jack IPA and watch football at the main bar inside, beer nerds and interested flavor seekers can sip on rare, never-released Firestone Walker beers (including those from Paso barrels) and learn more about wild beers and traditional barrel-aging processes at Barrelworks.
Needless to say, we had to go see this beer Narnia for ourselves, so we made the short-but-scenic drive to Buellton recently to visit California's newest craft beer destination and drink at the altar with Jeffers Richardson, Barrelworks' barrelmeister.
Squid Ink: Jeffers, you were hired first to create clean barrel-aged beers and now you're making wild beers in barrels?
Jeffers Richardson: Yeah, David and Adam [David Walker and Adam Firestone are brothers-in-law whose families ran a well-known vineyard in Santa Ynez--they founded FWBC in 1996] had a treatise with their vision for Double Barrel Ale and they told me I had to figure out how to do it. I dabbled with oak staves, oak wood chips and what it came down to was the Union barrels I found while in England. When you first put a beer in them, you get the components from the oak--it's a raw, woody quality. But when you do a second maturation, it oxidizes and that's when you get the other components like vanilla, tobacco, coconut. And the longer it ages, that's when you get tobacco and leather too. But the irony is that I came on board to do clean barrel beers and now I'm back overseeing this.
SI: Why did you decide to call it a "live beer program"?
JR: Even though some of the beers turn out tart, we shy away from calling it a sour program because they're not all sour. If you go to New Belgium Brewing, they call [their similar program] "acidified beers," which is a great general term. For people who've not had wild beers before, some of the words used to describe them would be a turn off. Can you imagine if we used words like "sour," "infected"? You're going to drive somebody away. We think in terms that these beers are going into a wild, second fermentation with bacteria, but we don't even like to use that word, but it's the truth. Then you get a whole other set of flavors and you're extracting all sorts of extra craziness from the wood through maturation. It's sort of traditional farmhouse or agrarian brewing, if you will. It's what brewing was a couple of hundred years ago.
SI: What kind of barrels do you use?
JR: These are mostly wine barrels that used to have really fancy wine in it. But we're not so much interested in the wine. Other wineries won't buy these barrels after they've been used because the winery we use has a reputation for having a lot of brett [aka brettanomyces, the yeast that makes beer funky and tart and the bane of wineries everywhere], so wineries don't want infected barrels. But we totally do, so we got 200 of these.
SI: Is there one varietal of wine you guys prefer over others?
JR: Not at all. There are some Viognier barrels and Cabernet barrels. Some of these, we added Chenin Blanc grapes to it. The wine is great and picking up wood quality is great, too, but what we're really looking to do with this is to create an environment where microflora can flourish. I always look at it like a battle royale. It's a cage fight where we bring in all these different bugs and see what takes. We'll eventually develop some sort of house quality.
SI: How many different kinds of barrels do you have?
JR: The majority are wine barrels, but some are retired from the Union program and there are a few bourbon barrels as well. It's a mix of American toasted oak, Bavarian oak and French oak. Some are from local vineyards and some are from northern California. We continue to look for what is available and decide what we want to bring in. Usually, we source spirits barrels for our other barrel-aging program which happens at the Paso brewery, but some of these in here are third generation barrels.
SI: Why did you move these barrels away from the Paso brewery where the other barrels are?