From The Other Side Of The Taps: A Brewers Perspective On The Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest

Matt Brynildson on stage at the 2024 Firestone Walker invitational Beer Fest. (image courtesy of Firestone Walker Brewing)

Last weekend, I was thrilled to (finally) attend Firestone Walker Brewing’s fabled Invitational Beer Fest at the mothership in Paso Robles, California. No, I wasn’t selected by the fine folks at Firestone Walker to pour our beer, I was in attendance as a guest. I have spent the last dozen or so years hearing how the folks at this legendary Central California brewery put on the most amazing beer fest on planet. In addition, I’ve heard many inquiries like, “Why haven’t you gone?” and “Why doesn’t Alesong pour beer there? “

Well, the first is easy. Busy with life, family, and running a fledgling brewing company are just the start to my justifications. Not to mention it sells out in minutes. The latter question was very much answered this past Saturday when I reveled in the glory of Firestone Walker’s beer fest, from a strangely unfamiliar perspective, the customer side of the taps.

For the past 5 or so years, my wife’s former co-worker and great friend who moved from Eugene to the Central California Coast, has been asking us to visit and attend this fest in their “back yard”. They have continuously offered the tickets and lodging and all we had to do was arrive. Yet my high school aged children seemed to take priority, along with all the other things that happen at the beginning of June, namely Eugene Beer week and our own Anniversary party at Alesong.

The Firestone Walker team at the 2024 Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest. (image courtesy of Firestone Walker Brewing)

Now, I knew how good this brewery’s fest were, having been invited to the 2019 Terroir Project Beer Festival in Buellton, CA and the surrounding area. In fact, we hosted this fest at Alesong in 2022 as it became a revolving host for their Wine/Beer hybrid fest.  And I knew first-hand how hard it is to host both the brewers and the guests for the fest in any sort of manner similar to Firestone Walker.

Alas, the kids are now off to college, we pushed back our brewery birthday party at Alesong and my wife and I committed to go check it out first hand. The other bonus is that I could take a day or two to work in the Bay because I am currently serving as the Global Sales Manager for my brewery. Visit some accounts, drink some beer, do a tap takeover, then go to a kick-ass fest. The plan was set!

Now, I can give you a play by play of all the amazing things I did, and the breweries I visited (you haven’t stopped off at the multi-award-winning brewery Wild Fields in Atascadero yet? Do yourself a favor….), but I’ll lose half of you before I get through Friday. Instead, I’m going to tell you 6 reasons why I think the Firestone Walker Beer Festival is one of, if not THE, best beer fest in the world during a time when fest-going is losing steam and beer festivals are being cancelled and amended left and right.

A bottle pour at the 2024 Firestone Walker invitational Beer Fest. (image courtesy of Firestone Walker Brewing)

#1 It’s More Than A Single Day Fest, It’s A Weeklong Celebration. and The Community Gets Involved.

I receive the Firestone Walker newsletter, and I noticed the nearly weeklong ‘bar crawl’ they were doing during the lead up to the event, building excitement for the community.  Then there is the block party on Friday with live music, a BBQ, and tours of the brewery.  And this is just for folks in the general public, media, and the Barrel Aged Beer Club members, the Brewmaster’s Collective.  While I didn’t get to experience the brewer’s life, I knew they were lounging at the water park, enjoying pre-fest activities at the campground, and touring the impressive brewery that now kicks out nearly a half of a million barrels. There is more here than just a beer fest.

#2 The Ownership, Management, And Faces Of The Brewery Are All Right There, Giving Tours, Pouring Beer, Shaking Hands And If There Were Babies, They Would Kiss Them!!

I was lucky to join the media tour and we were given a first-class tutorial by founder David Walker. My wife couldn’t stop mentioning how perfect he was to be the voice of his own brewery. I think it was the hair!

But it was more than just a couple of tours. The always affable Brewmaster, Matt Brynildson, was probably hosting the brewers and brewery owners all week. In addition, both he, David Walker, and also co-founder Adam Firestone’s son Nick, were seen pouring beers at the fest, shaking hands and smiling from ear to ear. You could tell that they truly enjoyed hosting and welcoming everyone to their amazing brewery. They are part of the Firestone brand and they were front and center.

David Walker giving a brewery tour of Firestone Walker Brewing.

#3 World Class Guests Serving World Class Beers.

This may have been the worst part of the fest!  Hear me out here…..

There was TOO much awesome beer and TOO many awesome breweries. A fest-goer could never try all the amazing beers that were there. As an Oregon brewer, I had many friends who were pouring libations at the fest, and I couldn’t even imagine trying to chat with them all. It was all I could do to try the hundreds of beers that I had picked out to try. Why oh why didn’t I make time to swing by Russian River. Epic Fail!!!

#4. Seamless Logistics. 

From parking (I left the car overnight) to shuttles to quick moving lines at the door and in the fest, there was no need to get grumpy. Wayfinding signs were huge and they had an app. An app! 

I could have used more water stations, but hey, this isn’t a water fest, it’s a beer fest. I’ll get world class water elsewhere.

And there were tons of volunteers. Since this fest serves as a fundraiser for the communities’ Pioneer Days, there was not a shortage of folks helping to make each guests visit truly stellar.

The White Buffalo performing at the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest. (image courtesy of Firestone Walker Brewing)

#5. Virtually a Lineless VIP/Early Entry Ticket

Goodness gracious. I feel like they could sell more VIP tickets. There was so much room in this place to move around and there were very few lines, but where there were lines, they moved fast. You can do a lot of damage in the opening hour from 11:00am – Noon.

Get the VIP ticket before they sell out.

#6. Music, Education, and Food!

Back to point number one.  This is more than just a beer fest with good food.  A couple of music acts, including The White Buffalo, played throughout the day.  A couple of brewer panels spoke during the day. And local restaurants provided bites. Good hearty local food bites. It was great. In fact, one vendor even walked the lines with samples enticing us to come to their booth. And this was all a complimentary part of the ticket price.  Good touch!

Oh, and if you need more food, you are allowed to bring some in.

I’m guessing they could get food carts lined up outside for a little post fest noshing, but that might be a challenge with the number of fest goers.

Matt Van Wyk at the 2024 Firestone Walker invitational Beer Fest.

All in all, I was blown away by the 2024 Firestone Walker Invitation beer fest.

It just seemed so well put together from the minute I arrived in Paso Robles. From the beers to the leadership, and from all the logistics to pull off something like this to the hospitality offered by Firestone Walker, this was truly a world-class experience.

We’re currently living in a craft beer world where you don’t have to go to a beer fest to enjoy a fantastic mix of beers from all over the world.  It seems that every community has that and we’re very fortunate to live in that world. But if you want a top-notch experience drinking beers that you will never find in one place at one time, poured and hosted by the nicest folks in the industry, get on down to Paso next year, or anytime really.You won’t be sorry you made the effort.

Now if only they had one more barrel focused brewery in the lineup…. kidding/not kidding!  I’ll see you all down in Paso Robles next June regardless. Hopefully, however, I can move over to the other side of the taps and pour you a beer or six.


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