California beer drinkers are spoiled. Our state is home to both San Diego and the Bay Area — two of the most important regions to the current craft beer movement — as well as some of the country's most coveted fresh IPAs, barrel-aged stouts and experimental brews around.
And now to top it all off, one of the world's most celebrated mid-sized breweries (of course, also in California) has created an event that puts the state's enviable beer culture in conversation with that of the rest of the world, forcing attendees to think about both the local and global context of beer.
Though only in its second year, the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest is already an industry tradition that is as important for the brewers as it is for the some 4,000 lucky beer lovers who obtained tickets to last weekend's four-hour event.
With 40 breweries hand-picked by the Firestone Walker Brewery team to join them at the Paso Robles Event Center, the Invitational is one of the few opportunities for the world's best beer-makers to pour their wares in the same room as one another. And because a third of the breweries don't distribute in California — and many more are not readily available to Angelenos — it's also the only chance for many attendees to taste Midwest, East Coast and International brews on tap.
“I tell the brewers, 'Just come down yourself. Don't send your marketing people, this isn't a marketing event. We're not trying to sell beer,'” Firestone Walker's Matt Brynildson said during one of the “Behind the Beer” talks held during the festival. “We're just trying to enjoy the day.”
In addition to requiring that brewers attend and pour their own beers, Brynildson said the Invitational rules differ from most beer fests, in that they also ask that at least one of the offerings be something rare.
This meant that Yo-Ho Brewing's Masafumi Morita flew in from Japan with his unavailable-in-America Umami IPA. Gordon Schuck of Colorado's Funkwerks brought his Belgian-focused beers, none of which are distributed in California. And Indiana's 3 Floyds came with kegs of its coveted Dark Lord Imperial Stout, a beer so in-demand that the line for a sip stretched across the entire festival.
L.A. brought its IPA game with Golden Road's new Heal the Bay IPA and Beachwood BBQ and Brewing's Amalgamator, while across the park the owners of Birrificio Italiano gave out their massively influential hoppy lager Tipopils, a juxtaposition that showcased the diversity of styles and differences in brewing traditions throughout the world.
In tasting beers from around the world, however, there were constant reminders that while the market for craft beer is growing, its future relies on its idea as a local product.
Massively popular breweries like Sun King in Indianapolis and Cigar City in Tampa, for example, are unknown to casual California drinkers despite huge presences in bars across their respective states. And Southern Tier in western New York boasts a massive presence down the entire eastern seaboard, but rarely makes it west of the Mississippi.
Hearing the brewers talk about their rabid local fans (Sun King sells the majority of its beer within a 70-mile radius of the brewery) only made similar California examples seem more significant.
Firestone, for example, has more tap handles in Central California than any of the macro breweries, thanks in part to the 805 Blonde, a beer only served in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obisbo counties. And no matter where you live in L.A. now, there is either a local craft brewery within driving distance or a bar (divey or otherwise) that serves beer from Golden Road, Eagle Rock, Monkish or El Segundo — local spots that are quickly earning their keep among other West Coast greats.
Yes, the Firestone Invitational is a time to geek out and wait in line for beers from far off cities you may never drink again, but its aftermath will have you going home with a better appreciation of your own region's beer culture and a better understanding of how, at least in Los Angeles, how (happily) spoiled we really are.
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