51 breweries attended the third Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival (FWIBF) last Saturday, May 31. The Paso Robles event has quickly garnered a prestigious reputation because the breweries represented are meticulously selected from all over the world by Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson.
Last year was unbearably hot and high gravity beers idled. This year, sour beers were the trend and kept attendees peppy and refreshed. International participants included two New Zealand breweries, two German breweries and breweries from Italy, England and Japan.
From L.A. County, Beachwood BBQ and Brewing brought four beers, including System of a Stout and Amalgamator. Golden Road Brewing Co. also brought four beers, among then El Hefe Anejo - an imperial Hefeweizen aged in Anejo Tequila barrels. O.C. County neighbor The Bruery won the People's Choice Award and poured Hottenroth and Humulus Lager next to the rare Black Tuesday with pistachio and vanilla.
The ticket price of this festival is higher than most and it sells out fast. For good reason: It's the best beer festival we've been to, and we'll tell you why.
6. Distribution boundaries be damned
Southern California enjoys an amazing selection of beer from all over the world. However, there are plenty of breweries that haven't opened territory to this thirsty West Coast market because they focus on different regions or simply don't have enough product (yet). Brewing companies unavailable in Southern California that poured at the FWIBF include Southern Tier (NY), Cigar City (FL), Founders (MI), Three Floyds (IN), Revolution (IL), and Surly (MN). This is the reason so many brewers and beer industry folk love this event and one of the greatest reasons to get that general admission ticket: sampling beer you cannot buy at home.
5. The Behind the Beer sessions
Not every beer festival showcases brewers and brewery-owners who elaborate on what they do. The festivals that offer sessions don't have access to the line-up of talent the FWIBF showcases. If you don't have the time to ask questions or don't know which questions to ask, these discussions address a variety of topics, from brewing to distribution to ingredients. The Brewing Network and The Krush presented interviews with Pizza Port (CA), a sour session with Jester King (TX) and Crooked Stave (CO), Garage Project (New Zealand), Funkwerks (CO), Green Flash (CA) and 8 Wired (New Zealand).
4. The Food
Ticket prices include samples from over 20 Central Coast restaurants and cafes. If you eat early enough, you can get a satisfying quantity of exceptionally tasty food. Sliders, tacos and chili were all popular items, but it was the beer gelato from Leo Leo Gelato that we liked the most. Ten flavors of gelato substituted popular beers for water, often with a fruit puree. Russian River's Supplication with cherry, and their Blind Pig with grapefruit, were unstoppable combinations.
3. The Weird Beer
Garage Project, a brewery from New Zealand, received a lot of attention for their Umami Monster beer. The unusual style showcased the savory fifth taste by using kombu (seaweed), katsuobushi (smoked, fermented fish, like "fish bacon" says the brewer) and sea water. "We wanted to capture the rich, intense flavor of the fifth flavor sensation. We used an imperial brown ale with smoked malts then added kombu from New Zealand, a portion of seawater and bonito flakes," said Jos Ruffell, co-owner of the Wellington brewery.
"It could have been a horrible train wreck," countered brewer Pete Gillespie. "I think it's like that gum from Willy Wonka - it does so many things in your mouth. It's like a blanket, a duvet of umami at the end." The beer isn't for everybody, but we thought its salty, savory flavor was a surprising success because of the sweet malt balance. One festival-goer said, "it's good, I just couldn't drink a full glass." We say, fill 'er up.
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2. The Whales
In the beer world, "whales" (or "white whales" or "WW"s) refer to those illusive beasts of beer that are very difficult to come by, regardless of your proximity to the brewery. They earn a reputation of mythical proportion because they're released once or twice a year, in small quantities, to a huge demand. Thus they're often "hunted" through beer trades. More often than not, they're extremely high in alcohol, sometimes ridiculously so.
Many of these brews are available for sampling at the FWIBF - no harpoon required. This year we caught glimpses of The Bruery's Black Tuesday with pistachio and vanilla, Cigar City's Hunapuh, Founder's Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Mikkeller's Orange Yuzu Glad I Said Porter, Russian River's Beatification, Surly's Darkness, and Three Floyds' Barrel-Aged Blot Out the Sun., among other coveted rarities.
1. The Brewers
The greatest reason that the FWIBF is the ultimate beer festival is the brewers who attend. It's the one festival where the only people more excited to be there than the ticket holders are the brewers. Sales representatives and volunteers typically work local festivals, and brewer turnout at the Great American Beer Festival has been waning in recent years. The FWIBF is one of the only occasions built with the brewers in mind. Brewers go to meet their patrons, to make new friends and embrace old ones, and to taste exceptionally good beer, poured by the hands that crafted it.