By D.J. Paul
On Monday December 12, 2011, Belmont Station welcomed David Walker, co-founder of Firestone Walker Brewing Company into their Beircafé for a casual meet and greet. Belmont Station proprietor Carl Singmaster dug deep into his cellar, offering up a three-year vertical of Firestone Walker’s Anniversary Series. Being poured that evening were Anniversary XIII, XIV and this year’s XV. This was a very rare opportunity to sample the past three variations of Firestone’s yearly-anticipated Anniversary Ale. While sampling my flight David Walker worked the Beircafé like no other. He took the time to introduce himself and to answer questions at each table and person sitting at the bar.
A little after 7 p.m. David stood up near the front window of the Beircafé to address the crowd that had gathered. He spoke a bit about Firestone Walker’s history and stated some interesting facts about their beer and brewery. One particularly fascinating fact learned is that 85% of Firestone’s sales occur within a 100-mile radius of their brewery in Paso Robles, CA. We also learned that their Abacus Barleywine from their Reserve Series would be renamed this year to §ucaba. Yes, Abacus spelled backwards with a section sign, §, being used in replace of the S. This is a result from a winery, ZD Wines, which produces a Cabernet Sauvignon with the same name. To avoid legal action Firestone Walker changed the name of their barley wine.
After David completed his roaming of the room we went next door to Belmont Station’s Bottle Shop to ask him a few questions about his brewery that is now 15 years old. Here’s the interview:
So you began Firestone Walker with your brother-in-law Adam Firestone back in 1996. How did you two decide to start the brewery?
David Walker: I’ve been asked this question before. There was no sort of a-ha moment. We just sort of thought it would be a good idea to have a brewery. It was sort of like I want to buy a little boat to go fishing. It was a very sort of strange thing. And because of the characters we are. We said ok lets give it a go. My partner Adam came from the wine business. He’s very familiar with wine making and small wineries and taking bare land and turning it into beautiful wine. So the concept of a brewery to him wasn’t anyway supernatural.
Were you personally involved in the wine business?
Were either of you brewers when you started the brewery?
DW: Neither of us were brewers.
So you decided to hire from outside?
DW: Yeah in fact it was as I was explaining earlier we decided to start a brewery. I actually found a brew house in a junkyard in LA, brought it back up to the brewery. I then went up to the graduating class of Davis in 1996. I literally grabbed the roster of students graduating. I cornered one of the students with the more interesting names, a guy called Jeffers Richardson. I talked him into coming to help us out since he had nothing to do that summer. He stayed with us for four years, so he was our first brewer and Matt (Brynildson) was our second. Matt was actually coaxed out to the Central Coast by the SLO Brewing Company. And then they went BK. So he was stuck. And then we bought the brewery off the bank, just the physical brewery, not the brand.
Was Matt Brynildson one of the influences for you purchasing that brewery?
DW: No, we had no idea. Literally Matt was camping under one of the fermenters. He was actually, typical of Matt, was more worried about the beer than his job. He just moved his whole life from Chicago to the middle of nowhere. And he brewed all of this beer and they went out of business. He had all of this beer sitting in fermenters and he had to keep it rolling. And literally he’d break into the building to look after the fermenters. Matt was very much a vagrant at the brewery. When we discovered he had the keys to the kingdom we were like “Matt you need to come work for us.”
So this year you are celebrating a milestone, 15 years in business. Congratulations! Is this the growth you expected with the brewery?
DW: No, absolutely not.
So what did you envision with the brewery?
DW: Something a little bit more pedestrian. Something a little bit more regional. Certainly nothing as this sort of national emergence of interest in beer. You know when we started the brewery we were going up against Foster’s. And I just sort of assumed that would be what the rest of our life would be like is going after Foster’s handles.
Your Reserve Series is what keeps a lot of beer geeks happy.
DW: It keeps us happy at the brewery too.
I know that there is a lot of money involved and resources spent in barrel aging.
DW: Huge amount.
Have you figured out a cost analysis on barrel aging?
DW: Actually you know what that’s a great idea. I should do that. We don’t. Our most expensive beer I think is $20 on the shelf. We probably have to sell it to the wholesaler for, I’m not sure, like $10 or something. By the time it gets to the consumer it’s about doubled. And it’s probably not a huge moneymaker. But it does a lot for people to understand who we are as a brewery. And we couldn’t pay for that publicity. People taste it and they want to know more about the brewery.
There is a lot of cost that the common beer drinker does not understand all of the labor involved.
DW: Well I mean these beers are aged for two to three years. We move these barrels around and are running a cellar just like a winery. Keep them cold, then you blend them and then you rack them off. It’s all just a handcrafted process. It’s just not a production environment at all.
One of my favorite beer festivals in the county is the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers held in Chicago. Have you ever attended this event?
DW: I have not, our beers have. Matt tends to get the Chicago gigs for obvious reasons.
I know this year you had four beers at that fest.
DW: He did. Matt got married this year so I’m not sure if he will be going back to Chicago as much cause his heart is now in California. He use to go back often to Chicago since that is where his family is and friends are and so forth.
Recently I just read about your new 805 Blonde Ale, do you have much to say about this?
DW: No, not really. It is all designed around our one wholesaler in the 805 area code. The 805 area code is so insignificant that its one of the only area codes that has not been trademarked Miller or Anheuser Busch. It’s our local environment. So we have a blonde beer that is sort of a crowd pleaser and we thought we’d make it available to try and bring in yet more consumers into the craft as sort of an entry level beer and then back into some of are more interesting beers.
Are you taking the Goose Island model with their 312?
DW: Oh absolutely. There is a big difference between Chicago and Santa Maria, California.
So you are going to use it as more of a gateway beer?
DW: Yeah, absolutely.
This year you won your 3rd Brewery of the Year Award at the Great American Beer Fest. How do you view these industry awards?
DW: Ah, they’re very important. Hahaha. You know we’ve been extraordinarily lucky in the fact that the beers that we make are awarded. There are a lot of great breweries out there that make beers that don’t fit into categories and so they don’t make medals. Luckily our beers that we make fit into sort of good strong categories. I don’t think a makes a sort of difference to the consumer. If we were a winery and got a 95 in the Wine Spectator we all would go home for the rest of the year. As far as breweries are concerned it doesn’t make any difference at all.
Do you feel that it is a small market share that even knows or understands what the GABF is?
DW: Yeah, I think most people it doesn’t make a big difference.
Do you use it for marketing strategies?
DW: Well yeah, we put the GABF medals on whatever we can but it doesn’t make any difference.
Moving on, I read online about an event that Firestone Walker hosts called “From the Barrel”. Please tell me more about this event.
DW: Yeah, it’s a great event. It’s for locals just down the road from the brewery. And it’s basically built around our barrel-aged beers and we invite a bunch of other breweries like Russian River, Tomme Arthur comes up or at least his brewery’s beers come up. A bunch of good local California breweries come up and bring some interesting beers to the Paso Robles area and it sells out. It’s really great.
Do you have the dates for From the Barrel for this coming year?
DW: Awe I don’t, I’m sorry. We are actually doing, its sort of interesting, a Firestone Walker Brewing Company Invitational Brewfest on the same weekend as Savor on the east coast. Matt has put out the word to a bunch of different breweries from all around the world and they’re coming. It’s going to be a really interesting event.
Well that is all I have. Thank you for taking the time to speak with Brewpublic.
DW: Thank you, thank you very much.