In this 25th anniversary year of Firestone Walker, we are chronicling our unlikely journey in an oral history form. Join us as we look back at the curious, passionate and, at times, precarious path that led us from there to here.
This chapter begins with the move of our brewing operations 80 miles up the road to the wine country town of Paso Robles, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along Highway 101. Here, after outgrowing their original shed-turned-brewery, Adam Firestone and David Walker purchased a turnkey brewing facility with considerably more elbow room.
There was still more bootstrapping to be had, but it was now on a bigger scale—and with higher stakes.
SCALING UP IN PASO: 2001 – 2006
2001: Adam and David acquire an existing brewing facility in Paso Robles, and inherit a virtuoso brewmaster—Matt “Merlin” Brynildson—by happenstance. Matt had been working for the resident brewery, and he was still kicking around the place trying to keep the foreclosure bankers’ hands off his beer.
“When Matt walked into our lives, that was a turning point—the perfect brewmaster at the perfect time.” –The Lion
“We made around 12,000 barrels at our original brewery and ably so. True, you couldn’t lock the place because we had tanks in the parking lot and hoses running through open doors, but we had figured out how to make it all work. Paso seemed so huge and complicated. We soon discovered that while it was five times larger, it lacked some of our equipment, particularly in the lab, so we jumped on that. Our first chapter was chaotic, but we were always committed to quality, and that would continue in the new brewery.” –The Bear
“There was enormous fear about scaling up the brewery. We were a capital-intensive business competing with brewers thousands of times bigger than us. We had to grow to compete and we had to compete to survive. I look back on it and can only think it was youthful pride that kept us going back to the bank and believing we would eventually be big enough to be relevant.” –The Lion
“My first meetings with Adam and David were fascinating, especially when we discussed the Firestone Union barrel fermentation program. I basically called it out as potentially smoke and mirrors, assuming that I wasn’t going to be asked to continue the program in Paso. They very sternly explained to me that it was real, it was a critical element of DBA and that it was a non-negotiable part of the process. It took a little while for me to wrap my head around it, but after a few rounds of filling the barrels, watching the beer fermenting and tasting the results, I was hooked and the magic was revealed to me. Barrels remain at the core of our program and are firmly instilled in our brewing DNA.” –The Brewmaster
2002: Windsor Pale Ale is reformulated by Matt and rechristened Firestone Pale Ale (and, later, Pale 31) amplifying its increasing renown as a pace-setting California pale ale. Firestone Pale Ale / Pale 31 would go on to wine countless awards, as well as the designation of “Best Pale Ale in the World” by Men’s Journal.
“My first beer recipe for Firestone Walker was reformulating Windsor Pale Ale into Firestone Pale Ale. I had some experience with the style and was eager to introduce some new hops into the mix. I really wanted to create something West Coast inspired yet unique, since we were brewing in the shadow of the greatest pale ale brewer of all time, Ken Grossman and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. I decided that the beer had to be lighter in body and dry hopped. It needed to have that signature hop-derived top note that stood apart from everything that was being made at the time. It required me climbing up on top of the fermenters at night to add the hops through a very small port using a plastic funnel, not made for the purpose. It seemed crazy at the time, but now we wouldn’t imagine making the beer any other way. Of course, we have refined the process a bit since then.” –The Brewmaster
“At one point we were so desperate to secure a wholesaler who refused to return our calls or listen to our pitch that we FedExed him an envelope with a check for $25k. Enclosed was a note saying that if they took a meeting, that check would be a down payment on our willingness to help promote our beers and support their sales efforts. We never received a note, call or any recognition that there was interest; the check was simply destroyed and never cashed. It was at that moment I realized how tough a mountain we had to climb and how indifferent the world felt towards us. Today we are the largest craft brewer in that wholesaler’s territory – sweet justice.” –The Lion
“The 2003 earthquake taught us much. Mostly it taught us that tanks should be properly anchored. Once the ground started shaking, all those tanks started moving and their glycol lines did little to slow them. A scary day. We were lucky. The damage was limited to broken water lines, dented tanks and falling glass.” –The Bear
2005: Matt begins aging beers in retired bourbon barrels, in anticipation of a special Anniversary Ale release the following year—and thus the Vintage Series was born, with iconic beers such as Parabola to follow. The first Anniversary Ale proved to be a hit, despite scandalizing many with its $10 price tag for a 22-oz bottle.
“When Adam and David asked me to create something special for our 10th anniversary, it finally seemed like the right time to look at barrel aging a big, over-the-top barleywine or stout for the occasion. We received some barrels through a friend with connections to Kentucky distilleries and started formulating a series of big beers, each one being racked into freshly dumped bourbon barrels. It was a small endeavor at first and we leaned heavily on our winemaking neighbors to help us understand barrel aging and the art of blending. It was an enlightening experience which culminated in our Anniversary series and some of our most interesting beers.” –The Brewmaster