This is a story of beer, barrels and unintended consequences, of renegade brewers, and of a pet project turning into a wild beast. This is the story of Barrelworks.
The accidental story of Barrelworks...
It began in 2005 with a few vessels of beer stashed into the voids between pallets of packaged beer in Firestone Walker’s cold storage warehouse. Officially, the program didn’t exist, but it grew quickly and became unruly, and today it numbers upwards of 1,500 barrels, making it one of the most extensive barrel-aging undertakings in the craft beer industry.
“There was no plan to it…”
The first few barrels were of whimsical origin, with the brewing team playing around with aging strong ales in retired bourbon barrels imported from Kentucky.
“There was no plan to it,” says Brewmaster Matt Brynildson. “It was just us brewers being brewers, experimenting with weird stuff after hours and trying to push the envelope. I can’t really say how we got here—it just got out of control, in a good way.”
Unanticipated demand proved to be the turning point. When Matt and his crew convinced brewery proprietors Adam Firestone and David Walker to legitimize the stowaway barrels in 2006, the result was an epic beer called “10,” the first in what has become an annual vintage anniversary blend of various barrel-aged component beers. The anniversary ale has since become one of the craft industry’s most acclaimed and sought-after beers. Fans continue to feverishly seek out these releases even after they are long gone.
“At the time, releasing a blended vintage beer aged in bourbon barrels seemed like a crazy idea, but it turned out that we were ahead of the curve,” David says. “The beer geeks were the first to ‘get’ barrel-aged strong ales like ours. They beat the drum and spread the word. These beers are still more of a cult item, but the cult is growing fast.”
“These barrels are like powder kegs…”
Of course, the brewers couldn’t just leave a good thing alone. Led by Masterblender Jim Crooks—a.k.a. Sour Jim—they also started making wild (sour) beers in barrels acquired from local wineries. In the Belgian Lambic tradition, one-off beers like Lil’ Opal and Reginald Brett were racked into barrels and inoculated with one or more cultures of Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus or Pedioccocus.
Suddenly there were two parallel barrel-aged programs—the original strong ales and now wild beers. “The wild beer program was the new red-headed stepchild,” says the red-headed Sour Jim. “I would have just a few barrels on racks between pallets in our dry warehouse, as far away as possible from the brewery.”
Far away because the little critters that create wild beers would wreak havoc if they were to escape into the main brewery, potentially having the same souring effect on the clean beers. “These wild beer barrels are like powder kegs—they can do a lot of damage if they’re not handled with care,” Sour Jim says.
With history now repeating itself, word of the wild ales began to spread. As they trickled out of the brewery, in canisters representing 1/6 barrel at a time, they soon began garnering industry attention. Craft beer bars all over the West Coast got word, and started calling the brewery to get their hands on the wild ales.
“These guys would trek up to the brewery, make a day of it, and all for one small canister of these beers,” Walker said. “We knew we had something.”
Which is where things stand now with the creation of Barrelworks, a new dedicated facility 105 miles south of Paso Robles in the small hamlet of Buellton. This 7,000 square-foot building will house nearly all of Firestone Walker’s barrel-aged gems, from the classic strong ales to the newer wild beers. A barrel facility of this magnitude is unprecedented in the craft beer industry.
“A cathedral of barrels…”
Barrelworks serves three compatible purposes—it fully segregates the wild beers from the main brewery in Paso Robles, for reasons explained; it gives the barrels a true home instead of being jammed into every nook and cranny of the brewery outbuildings; and it serves as a tasting and educational center for fans of barrel-aged beers and wild ales.
“Our wild program will now have a place where we can expand and explore all the intricacies of inoculating beers in the Belgian farmhouse method,” says Jeffers Richardson, aka the Barrelmeister. Jeffers was the original brewmaster for Firestone Walker and the originator of the Firestone Union oak barrel brewing system back in 1996. He moved on to a stint at Sierra Nevada followed by years in the olive oil business. He now returns to run Barrelworks.
“It’s crazy being back with Firestone Walker and especially in this capacity, running an innovative program where the sky’s the limit,” Jeffers says.