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?
JR: We moved this down here for two reasons, firstly because if we wanted to expand, we had to move. We were off-site up there, but in a storage unit with a roll up door, so we knew we had to move, but really wanted to invest in this time-wise and expand. We also moved down here because we have dedicated space, we can expand and we can really explore. There's no risk [of infecting Firestone production beers] here. We're 100 miles away from the brewery so we can really experiment.
SI: What was in this warehouse before all these barrels?
JR: Actually, this building is a little bit of Firestone history. Our very first site–which we jokingly call it Area 51 because no body knew where it was–that's where I first started and this building was built to move the brewery into. About that time, though, is when the Paso site came up. We were going to have to invest in the equipment here, but then SLO Brewing closed and was selling off their brewhouse, which was ready to go. So this location has just been waiting for something like this. It was wine storage where local wineries would rent space to keep their packaged wines.
SI: You called the Barrelworks' bar “the blending center.” What does that mean?
JR: We call this the blending center because we have this great obsession with barrels, but we also have a great obsession with blending so with this space we can bring back that kind of art to brewing. And it's fun for people who come in here because they can get four samples and mess around, see what it's like. We suggest you make notes on each individually and then go from there. What you learn is that it's incredibly hard to blend for nuance. We found that brewers speak in exclamations and winemakers are about nuance. And when you learn about other blending programs like cognacs or in the Champagne region of France, the person who is revered is the blending master. The person who vints the wine it doesn't get as much credit as the blender. We have a blending master Jim Crooks; these [Barrelworks beers] are his babies. He's our quality control manager and the one in 2007 that first dabbled in this and kept it alive.
SI: What sour beers have you released to the public so far?
JR: None, officially. If you had a sour beer, it must have been at a special event because everything here is all small scale–a few kegs only. This collection started off in 2007 with eight to twelve barrels, so it's definitely expanded. I think the philosophy here is that Dave and Adam really allow exploration. Here we are, we're growing and we have this production increasing, but we're still allowed to be here and really explore some more creative avenues. Go back 16 years and if you were making any of these beers, you would have been thrown out with pitchforks and torches.
SI: How would a beer from here go into bigger distribution?
JR: We might put some out for a special event and if it builds traction, they'll say, “Let's do it.” Anything here is going to be limited release anyway. By the time we'll have our packing and bottling line, we'll be able to send more kegs out, but it will still be small batches. As we're growing the company up north, this is our way of remaining small. We're doing something very traditional. We're very technologically driven up north and this is stone age. Or maybe I should say “wood age.”
Firestone Walker's Barrelworks is located adjacent to the Taproom Restaurant in Buellton. It's totally worth the drive. Barrelworks hours, Fri.-Sun. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. For more information on Firestone Walker or the upcoming Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest (tickets go on sale Feb. 1), visit firestonebeer.com.
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