At this point, I’m not sure how much more you can write about the surpassing quality of the beer lineup at the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival.
It’s been clear for years to just about anyone who attended the Paso Robles, CA event that beyond the oppressive heat, it’s pretty much the ideal festival. By cutting out the dross and streamlining the concept to include only those 50-some breweries that the folks at Firestone Walker think are among the best in the world, you’re left with an ironclad guarantee of quality. If anything, it should make attendees more confident about trying beers from breweries they’ve never heard of before, because no one is at this festival by accident.
As I have been for the last three years, I was again struck by just how unique this lineup of beers could be, offering taste experiences I haven’t had replicated anywhere else—not at the Great American Beer Festival, not at Dark Lord Day, not anywhere. I walked away equally impressed with a multitude of blended sours and massive imperial stouts as I was with a handful of unfiltered pilsners, and even a humble hefeweizen.
It’s always a tough choice to figure out what kind of beer deserves “first of the day” status. I believe that at my very first Firestone Walker Invitational, back in 2015, I found myself somewhere in the vicinity of the Three Floyds booth and figured “Well, it’s not every day you get to drink some Dark Lord at 11 a.m., right?” This, believe it or not, was likely not the wisest course of action.
Something like Intinction, on the other hand—that’s far more appropriate for this task. This beer is interestingly referred to as a “sour pilsner,” aged in Sauvignon Blanc wine barrels with Sauvignon Blanc grape juice and brettanomyces, and it bears the complex nature of combining its barrel-aged elements with a style that doesn’t usually see much in the way of barrel-aging or souring. At 7% ABV, the base beer can hardly be referred to as proper “pilsner,” and it’s not as if noble hops are a particular takeaway—although there is a subtle earthiness throughout that melds nicely with the funkier aspects of brett. However, the wine barrel shines through beautifully, creating a beer with gentle tartness, bright acidity and fresh, lightly tropical notes of white wine. It’s an approachable, positively “sunny” wild ale that lingers with the fresh character of peaches ‘n cream. How could you possibly start a long day at a hot, outdoor beer festival any better?
It’s amazing how quickly you can go from knowing nothing about a brewery to being incredibly excited about them. Such was the case with Green Cheek, a name I’d never even heard before the customary brewers BBQ on Friday evening, the night before the festival. Engaged in a conversation about IPA’s, and speaking with some people from California, I opined that some of my favorite, non-hazy IPAs from the West Coast were from Anaheim’s Noble Ale Works.
“Then you need to try Green Cheek!” came the reply.
Turns out, former Noble head brewer Evan Price has teamed up with former Noble CFO Brian Rauso on a new brewery, and they’ve taken their knack for gorgeous, pristine IPAs alone with them. Radiant Beauty describes itself as “West Coast IPA,” but you can probably get away with saying that on just about any style of IPA that isn’t hazy these days—this one certainly doesn’t pack the malt balance or bracing bitterness that people once associated with the term “West Coast.” What this beer does have is one of the most gorgeous hop noses I’ve smelled in ages—a bright, sparkling, impeccable bouquet of citrus zest, stone fruit and white grape. Moderate bitterness and a hint of residual sweetness forge a perfect balance between drinkability and structure, and perhaps more than any other beer at the festival, I just wanted to drink more of this stuff. Absolutely one of the best IPAs out there today, and proof of why you should always, always be trying new things from young breweries—you never know when you’re going to find one like this.
The smile-prone men of Green Cheek Beer Co.
This is one of those beers that I knew I would definitely be tasting as soon as I saw the name. We are huge fans of the flagship Funkwerks Saison—it’s among the best, most perfectly balanced and archetypal executions of classic Franco-Belgian saison that you’ll find anywhere in the U.S., and it finished at #2 out of 116 beers the last time we blind-tasted saisons. So yeah—you take that beer and you add the funky complexity of brettanomyces to the party? Sign me up for that.
As I hoped, the result is sublime. There’s a grassiness and an earthiness present here, and the funk/light oak of the foudre, which fades into bubblegum sweetness. Fruit notes crop up from start to finish—tart apples, grapefruit citrus and tropical passionfruit. Like a lot of Funkwerks beers, this bottle is about complexity and subtlety rather than bombast and volume—this is contemplative saison. It begs thoughtful examination, to the point that I’m almost sad I was drinking it from a tiny glass at a beer festival. I look forward to revisiting this one in a much larger glass.
The question of Side Project at the FWIBF isn’t so much whether you’re going to try some things at their booth, but how many selections you’ll be trying. They bring so many and rotate them so often (that will happen when there’s a massive line bleating for beer) that every half hour you stop by, there seems to be different selections available. I could name half a dozen different great sours/mixed culture beers they had available in 2018, but instead let’s talk about a concept that was new to me: “Shared.”
The easiest way to explain is to write this seemingly ridiculous sentence: Side Project has a side project now. Yes, as already happened once before with Perennial Artisan Ales, there is now another, even smaller, even more limited “brewing collective” that exists within Side Project, headed up by two Side Project brewers, Brian Ivers and Tommy Manning. Shared beers are meant to give Side Project brewers some freedom to pursue other brewing interests that might not usually fall under the Side Project banner. In the case of Coffee Shop Vibes, that means imperial coffee stout.
And lordie, what a stout it is. This bourbon barrel-aged variant is a massive, bruising beer that weighs in at 15% ABV, but drinks considerably easier, I should probably note. It’s a massively rich beer with huge flavors of bake shop fudge, dark berry jam, toasted marshmallows, molasses and mocha. It’s positively “Dark Lord-esque” in terms of stature and intensity—and it will no doubt be just as sought after.
The minimalist Shared logo.
The more wild ales I’m able to sample from Trillium, the more I come to an unexpected conclusion: For all the attention that they get for their hazy IPA’s, I’m pretty sure that fruited sours are the thing that this brewery does best. Why this side of the brewery never seems to elicit much public debate, I’m not really sure, because entries like Fated Farmer are beers that should make Trillium quite proud.
This variant of Fated Farmer (they all have different fruits) features Massachusetts peaches, and does so with a certain grace. It’s not a completely over-the-top fruit juice explosion by any means—there’s just enough recognizable stone fruit that is backing up a profile that is quite funky and complex. Barnyard notes mingle with delicately sweet fruitiness, slight notes of vanilla and a night-perfect level of tartness. The beer nails the delicate balance between palate-refreshing sourness and sheer drinkability, to the point that I could imagine drinking one of these on a patio in the summer heat just as easily as I could at the dinner table. It’s dry enough to have with dinner, and sweet enough to match up with dessert. It’s perfectly calculated, all around.
There was, suffice to say, a whole hell of a lot of hazy IPA at this year’s FWIBF. There were also a lot of good ones, but the truth of the matter is that the style doesn’t really hold up very well to tasting one after another—there are simply too many of them that taste similar to one another.
When in doubt, though, there’s a certain type of hazy IPA profile that I find myself liking best, and that’s the one that was captured most beautifully by Beachwood. Rather than the intensely grassy and vegetal notes that eventually come to dominate a lot of breweries’ DDH (and triple, and quad) IPAs, I’m more drawn to the clean, juicy, crowd-pleasing sweetness you find in a hazy IPA like The Fogfather. This one is unabashedly a juice bomb, dripping with orange juice and pineapple sweetness—you can practically feel the juice dribbling down your chin. Only afterward does it fade into pleasantly grassy and dank flavors, but they don’t dominate the proceedings. If I’m going to drink an entire serving of NE-style/hazy IPA, it’s probably going to be one in this vein.
The Firestone Walker Lager cart arrives to cool things down.
If there’s one brewery that almost always deserves longer lines at beer festivals, it’s Jackie O’s. Midwestern beer geeks know that these guys are making some of the best barrel-aged beer (in a number of different styles) in the country, but it’s taken a weirdly long time for the word to get out on a national stage. Still, it’s starting to feel like people have caught on to their greatness, and a berth at FWIBF is only part of the evidence.
Lest we forget, Jackie O’s made the #2 barrel aged stout we tasted in a field of 144 as a blend of multiple barrel-aged stouts, so it’s understandable that I get excited when I see a new blended beer from them. The oddly named “Hockhocking” is a blend of three different mixed fermentation saisons, aged in wine barrels, and I can only assume that the whole is more than the sum of its parts—it’s either that, or each part is also ridiculously good on its own.
This one is quite tart while still staying on the refreshing side of the spectrum, a puckering blend of funk-driven wild ales that is kissed with a bright pop of grapefruit zestiness and lingering flavors of oak. Big, assertive flavors are married in a way that doesn’t seem random in the least, which is a quality shared by all the best of these Jackie O’s blended beers.
Right next to the Jackie O’s stall you’d find Sante Adairius paying tribute with one of the greatest four-brewery collaboration projects imaginable: A blend of mixed culture wild ales from Jackie O’s, Side Project, Tired Hands and Sante Adairius themselves. I mean, come on—that’s hardly fair. That’s a veritable mixed culture saison dream team, the likes of which the world has never seen.
How to even describe the transcendent result? It’s a beautiful, bold, assertive blend of beers, one that pops with pronounced fruit favors of melon and white grape, along with moderate-to-high tartness. The result is at once funky and rustic, but elegant and nuanced. This is exactly the kind of beer that makes the sommeliers of the world stand up and take notice of what is happening within the world of American craft beer, and specifically within American wild ales. You could put it side to side with anything from the wine world and be unable to find an equal in terms of sheer complexity and nuance. I’m not sure what more one could ask for.
I’ve had a lot of memorable, strange beers from The Rare Barrel over the years. They excel at pursuing rabbit holes of flavor profiles that most other breweries would pass by—quixotic attempts to build transcendent flavors out of combinations that most professional brewers would simply decide don’t belong together. This was one of those times: A golden sour ale, aged in gin barrels with cucumber, juniper berry, rosemary.
To be sure, I’ve had a handful of beers attempting to replicate this kind of idea. Everyone loves the idea of “gin and tonic,” after all, and the earthy spice of rosemary is an obvious combination with the piney freshness of juniper. But to combine all of those elements in the way that Rare Barrel does here—and to do it with each being so bold, so vivacious, but still drinkable—that’s the really amazing thing. This is a stupidly successful experiment, to the point that I can’t even believe it works as well as it does. It’s like nothing so much as a perfectly balanced bottled cocktail—refreshing cucumber meets aromatic pine needles, rosemary essential oils and an assertive kiss of tartness. Each individual element of it is simultaneously quite assertive and yet in perfect balance with the next. I can’t even imagine how difficult a feat it must have been to find that exact balance, but kudos to The Rare Barrel for pulling it off. This was one of FWIBF’s most impressive flavor combinations, without a doubt.
I’ve written in the past about the mastery demonstrated by New Zealand’s Garage Project when it comes to presentation. Their beer stalls at festivals like FWIBF are less “beer pouring stations” than they are mobile art installations, and it begs such an obvious question—why don’t more breweries take this kind of care into the presentation of their beer in a festival setting? Yes, Garage Project also happens to make delicious beers, but it’s undeniable that the sheer spectacle of getting certain drafts at their booth is half of the attraction.
Case in point: Two different beers at this year’s FWIBF, the “Yuzu Rising Sun” and Cockswain’s Courage Double-Barrelled Porter. The former is a layered sour, in the tradition of other delicious layered beers that Garage Project has served in previous years. This time, a tart, golden yuzu sour sits at the bottom of the glass, topped by a candy-sweet raspberry sour. Tilting back the glass to consume both at once, the result is a crowd pleaser that pops in terms of both tartness and sweetness—pink lemonade-esque, if you will—that also gave the fest its most Instagrammable glass. Let’s just say there’s a reason why that photo is leading off this list, right?
My heart, however, belongs to the Cockswain’s Courage, an immense 12.8% imperial porter brewed with vanilla and raisins, and aged in bourbon barrels. Before serving, and in order to live up to the absurd “tastes like war!” tagline, the men of Garage Project were actually jabbing a hot poker into each tasting glass to achieve a “flash caramelization” effect, before handing that glass to the taster. The results were absolutely fascinating—the quick frothing of the beer’s foam produces a telltale aroma that smells unmistakably like marshmallows toasted over a campfire, followed by plenty of hot fudge and mocha. It’s an outstanding beer on its own, but coupled with the presentation, it was one of the most captivating reasons to get in line at the festival.
I can’t be certain, as I couldn’t exactly see every part of the festival grounds at once, but Creature Comforts was certainly the first brewery that I noticed had completely run out of beer on Saturday afternoon, which says something as to the demand level they were experiencing. It’s no wonder, then, that Firestone Walker chose them as partners in this year’s annual collaboration beer. What they came up with was Mother’s Milk, an 11.6% ABV, sublimely rich imperial milk porter, aged in rye whiskey barrels with a pinch of sea salt.
On my first sip of this beer, I couldn’t help but be immediately reminded of one of the other FWIBF events from a couple of years ago, which paired Firestone’s Nitro Merlin Milk Stout with cookies from Brown Butter Cookie Company. Mother’s Milk is more or less like that—except within the confines of a single glass. Creamy and rich, it immediately evokes molasses cookies and salted caramel, along with milk chocolate. Hiding its booze pretty damn well, it begs for a scoop of vanilla ice cream if any beer ever has. It’s that perfect tier of dessert beer that manages a sense of decadence without relying entirely on residual sugar in order to do so.
If there’s one trend on the festival grounds that was welcome to witness in 2018, it was a wealth of pilsners … many of them unfiltered “zwickel” or “keller” beers, which was that much better. There’s honestly plenty of different beers that you could slot into a position like this, from Alvarado Street Brewery’s, which came flowing from a tap built into the side of a jet ski, to superlative examples from Mahrs Brau, Oxbow and others. And yet, we’ll just give a shout-out to the beautiful unfiltered pilsner from Highland Park, which playfully points out the reality that most of the beer consumed in America is still (very, very loosely) supposed to be in this style.
America’s Preference is more or less an American version of a classic Czech pilsner, bursting with plenty of Saaz hop character. Floral and herbal hop notes contribute the subtle bitterness that any really good pilsner should probably possess, while a soft mouthfeel and hint of minerality (almost a salinity to it) enhance both complexity and drinkability. If all pilsners could be this genuinely good, then “America’s preference” would actually be justified.
The dudes of Alvarado Street, literally pouring beer out of a jet ski.
Ah, and while we’re on the topic of unfiltered pilsners, I simply couldn’t bring myself to move on to something else on the list without talking about at least one more. This hop-forward entry from Braufactum was one of the most interesting offerings I’ve had from a brewery that is actually based in Germany—almost a German implementation of the American attitude toward hop rates, even in German-style lagers.
The result is unusual, but it works beautifully. I’m not certain what hop varieties are at play in this beer, but its character is significantly more piney and “woodsy” than I’ve experienced in most noble hop varietals, coupled with more familiar florals/herbal notes. The piney/green quality it captures is almost reminiscent of juniper, however faintly, which makes a lovely combination with crisp, crackery malt. There was definitely a more pronounced focus on lagers at FWIBF this year, and many of those entries were great pilsners. In fact, perhaps for the first time ever at this festival, it felt like there were quite a lot of people there excited about a beer style like pilsner.
But wait, it wasn’t just pilsners that were repping craft lager styles at FWIBF this year! One of the best aspects of the Firestone Walker booth, in my humble opinion, is the presence of disregarded taproom exclusive styles like this humble schwarzbier—beers that any other brewery wouldn’t bother lugging across the country to be at a festival. Case in point: If there was another schwarzbier somewhere at this festival, I certainly didn’t see it.
Schwarz is one of my favorite German lager styles—right there with dunkel, and sharing a lot in common—but its delights never seem to have been fully grasped by a lot of American drinkers. They’re beers that appeal to not only lovers of dark beer but lovers of crisp and easy-drinking session styles, combining the roast and nutty characteristics of English and American porter with the low ABV and drinkability of German lagers. The best examples, like this one, are wonderfully dry and approachable beers that still contain plenty of cocoa nib-like nuttiness. That Firestone would even bother bringing a few kegs of this to the festival demonstrates a commitment to beer styles other than the ones that tend to generate hype at beer festivals, and I admire that.
Another style one doesn’t usually see breweries bother with at a festival like FWIBF—hefeweizen! This one is made all the more strange by the fact that it’s not a German or even an American brewery, either; Thornbridge is actually from the U.K. Regardless of the point of origin, though, this is a pretty superlative example of hefeweizen/weissbeer, which can sometimes feel like an endangered species in the American craft beer scene these days.
Versa is my favorite kind of hefeweizen, which is to say one that eschews an overwhelmingly spicy/clovey character in favor of a more subtle spice profile and plenty of banana bread sweetness. Bready, doughy, yeasty malt character and a pillowy soft texture set the stage for hints of pepper and clove, along with dessert banana sweetness. You can’t ask anything more from a hefeweizen, one of craft beer’s most undersung beer styles.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more beer writing.