The most decorated American brewery is probably not the one you think. It's not in Chico, San Francisco or Portland. It's a brewery in Paso Robles -- Firestone Walker Brewing.
There are numerous beer contests, but the most prestigious competition in this country is the Great American Beer Festival, which singles out the nation's best craft brews. In 1999, the festival began honoring breweries and brewmasters who won the most medals with the title of Brewery of the Year. Firestone Walker and its brewmaster, Matt Brynildson, won that honor -- in the midsize brewing company category -- in 2007, 2011 and 2013. It also took that title in 2003 for Nectar Ales, a label acquired from the former Humboldt Brewing Co., and Brynildson has a fifth top honor racked up: He won in 2001, when he was still with SLO Brewing, the brewery that now bears the Firestone Walker name.
Perhaps even more impressive: The biannual World Beer Cup added Brewery of the Year awards in 2004. In the five competitions held since then, Firestone Walker won that title in 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2012.
The back story
Adam Firestone -- whose family used to be in the tire business -- grew up among the vineyards of the Central Coast, but it was homebrewing that piqued his interest. Using discarded winemaking equipment, he made the first test batches of what would eventually become Double Barrel Ale; DBA is now the brewery's flagship beer. With encouragement from his brother-in-law, David Walker -- a transplanted Englishman yearning for better beer choices -- they partnered up and launched the eponymous brewery in 1996.
For the first six years, the brewery was all but hidden in a corner of the family's vineyard estate near Santa Barbara. To create their first beers in an English style, they concocted a modified Burton Union brewing system, dubbed the "Firestone Union," to ferment the beer in oak barrels, similar to the way it had been done in England since the 1830s. Today, the only remaining true Burton Union system is at Marston's in central England, making the Firestone Union system one of the most unusual in the world.
By 2002, they'd outgrown their homemade brewery. They bought SLO Brewery's state-of-the-art facility in Paso Robles, after SLO filed for bankruptcy -- and SLO's brewmaster, Matt Brynildson, joined the Firestone Walker team. The Chicago brewer had originally been trained as a chemist. His first job out of college was, in fact, as a hop chemist, doing research and development for the brewing industry. Deciding brewing was more to his liking, Brynildson went to the Siebel Institute of Technology, a brewing school, and spent several years brewing for Goose Island Beer Co. before heading west.
Because of his science background, Brynildson focuses on process and on consistency, so every beer they make is spot on, every time. The brewery's slogan is a "Passion for the pale," a nod to their first, still popular pale ales, such as DBA and Pale 31. But the slogan could just as easily be applied to Brynildson, whose creativity has made Firestone Walker the powerhouse it is today.
Pale ale and Feral One
In 2006, for the brewery's 10th anniversary, he brewed its first barrel-aged beer and began playing around with barrel aging, using a variety of different types of barrels, including bourbon, brandy and various wines. Those experiments have grown into a full-fledged barrel program with a very large barrel room dedicated to aging nearly 30 different barrel-aged beers.
In addition to those extreme beers, the brewery is set to release its most ambitious brew this week. Its first beer using wild yeast, Feral One is a blend of four of its beers -- Sour Opal, SLOAmbic, Agrestic and Lil' Mikkel -- that were aged for an extended period of time in American and French oak barrels. Get it as soon as you can; only 500 cases of 375 milliliter bottles were packaged.
A few years ago, I traveled with Brynildson to Burton-on-Trent, where he did a collaboration brew at Marston's. Brynildson has embraced our West Coast obsession with hops, as you'll see with a sip of Firestone Walker's wonderful IPA, Union Jack or the bigger Imperial IPA, Double Jack. But the English, who are traditionally more restrained with their hops, refused to use as many hops as Brynildson's recipe called for, which was an awkward moment -- although the beer ultimately turned out fine.
On the lighter side, Firestone Walker's more recent pilsner, Pivo Hoppy Pils, is one of the best-tasting American pilsners I've had in a very long time. It's a really excellent example of a hoppy pilsner, with both German and Bohemian roots. And the 805, a lighter blonde ale, is a great near-session beer. It's meant to be a local beer -- 805 is the Central Coast area code, one of the few not trademarked by Anheuser-Busch InBev after it bought Goose Island. One of Goose Island's most popular beers was 312 Urban Wheat, and ABI has since filed trademark applications for 14 metropolitan area codes, presumably with an eye toward creating local beers in those markets. This one, 805, was likely too small a market, so Firestone Walker snapped it up, almost as a joke, but the beer has proved to be one of its fastest-growing, and the company is planning on putting it in cans later this year.
If you have occasion to be in or near Paso Robles, be sure to stop by the brewery. The folks over there have a great tour available, and they've added a tasting room with a restaurant. There is a Firestone Walker restaurant, serving all its beers, in nearby Buellton -- and later this year, the company will be opening a pilot brewery and restaurant in Venice. The food is great, actually, and the beer is at its freshest, making it a one-of-a-kind experience for beer lovers.