On Saturday, Sept. 27, Firestone Walker Brewing Co. celebrated the end of LA Beer Week with their third annual Wild Ride. In a 1964 Series 2A Land Rover named Olivia, they delivered kegs of specialty sour beer from their Barrelworks brewery in Buellton to four different bars throughout Los Angeles County. From Burbank to Long Beach, they pulled up, tapped kegs, poured beers and chatted with drinkers.
Co-proprietor David Walker was the driver, in a Barrelworks T-shirt and jeans, while Barrelworks Director Jeffers Richardson was both comic relief and wingman, tucked into the passenger seat in an aviator cap, goggles and harem scarf.
“Ever since my grandfather owned one of these Land Rovers, when I was growing up in England, I wanted one,” Walker said, as we pulled onto the PCH. “The idea for the Wild Ride was to separate the sour beers from the ‘real’ brewery. Olivia is contaminated like the beer, and the idea conjured images of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride so it just seemed right.” What better way to close out Beer Week than riding between kegs in the back of a Safari truck across Los Angeles? Here are a few things we during our own wild ride.
4. Breweries should rethink their approach to marketing.
How can breweries effectively reach consumers? The craft beer industry has focused more on brewing beer than advertising it, but as craft beer's market share eats away at commercial beer, the landscape for consumer attention is going to get a lot more competitive. For an innovative product you need an unconventional approach: Call it experiential marketing.
New Belgium’s Tour de Fat traveling celebration of “all things bicycle,” including their flagship Fat Tire amber ale, has been bringing beer drinkers and cyclists together for an environment soaked in branding for almost fifteen years. Similarly, Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Across America series this summer merged a collaboration case of beer with festivals across the U.S., culminating at the brewery’s new location in Mills River, NC.
The Wild Ride was nowhere close to the scale of these events, but what they do share is a brand-engaging marketing tactic. Don’t just make a product for people to consume; build an event they can experience and a culture with which they can identify.
3. L.A.’s beer scene is as diverse as its population.
The Chinatown Kick-Off Festival on Saturday, Sept. 20, was a preview of L.A.’s diverse beer scene — including hipsters, hop heads and hip hop heads, who could claim ethnic heritage ranging from local Chinese residents to second generation Latinos.
On the Wild Ride each bar along the route was unique thematically, but each location was also host to an incredibly different group of drinkers. Tony’s Darts Away in Burbank had the “beeriest” crowd, with industry folk mainly in attendance. At Library Ale House in Santa Monica, West Side residents and Venice regulars stopped in to meet their new neighbors, as many were aware of Firestone Walker’s Taproom coming to Venice in 2015. Naja’s Place in Redondo Beach was prime territory for beach-goers and party people and bore little resemblance to the nightlife crowd at The Federal Bar in Long Beach.
The age range was fairly consistent — mid twenties to early forties — but attendance at these bars stretched far beyond the stereotypical bearded white men who dominate the beer landscape in other cities. Working professionals geeked out next to “self-employed” surfers. What brings this wide spectrum of people together? It’s the beer.
2. Sour beer is here to stay.
This is not news if you’ve spent any time at beer festivals or kept up with your local beer bar. Sour beers tend to have a polarizing effect on drinkers: Some love the bright acidity and occasional barnyard funk, while others find the acidity too harsh.
The line-up that Firestone Walker delivered on their bar hop included Lil Opal, Agrestic, Lil Mikkel (brewed in collaboration with Mikkeller) and Bretta Weisse. Other notable sours appeared at the Chinatown Kick-Off Festival of Beer Week on Saturday, Sept. 20, including Vacation with Brett from newcomer Highland Park Brewery and My First Rodeo from Brouwerij West. Pours of Atomic Kangarue — a collaboration between The Bruery and Smog City — lubricated Brewers Karaoke on Friday, Sept. 26. 38 Degrees Ale House featured an entire Flight of Funk at their Flight Night Saturday, with four distinctive sour beers.
Sour beers are made so by a controlled “contamination” of wild yeast and/ or bacteria. Any combination of Brettanomyces (wild yeast), and Lactobacillus or Pediococcus (both bacteria) are used to make sour beer. These “bugs,” as they're affectionately called, can build surprising aromas and complex flavor profiles.
1. If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.
“The brilliance of this event is that I enjoy it. It’s earnest and authentic,” David Walker shouted from the driver’s seat. We were barreling across the Vincent Thomas Bridge suspension bridge in San Pedro. “The other thing I like about the Wild Ride,” Walker continued, “ is that you're physically tired at the end of it, and grimy from the city.”
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The whole event could have seemed pretty gimmicky if Walker and Richardson weren’t having so much fun. After 30 miles saddled on a twelve-inch leather bench next to a plastic storage bin filled with kegs of wild beer, “road weary” took on a whole new meaning. The exhaust fumes were nauseating and knocking about with kegs was dizzying.
Somewhere along that iridescent green bridge, above thousands of stacked shipping containers, the basic fact of the day came into focus: making high quality beer and competing for brand recognition in an industry that's tripping over itself with new growth is an enormous struggle. What to do? Take beer seriously. Just don’t take yourself too seriously while you do it.