Hops and Sunscreen: The 2nd Annual Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest
It was 103 degrees in Paso Robles on Saturday, with neither a single cloud nor even a hint of a breeze to alleviate our suffering. "Yeah, but it's a dry heat," someone nearby says to his companion, red-faced and sweating. He's right, it is dry, but that isn't really any consolation. What could possibly inspire thousands of us to choose to stand outside in this dusty fairground under this blazing sun for upwards of five hours? Lots of things, probably, but on Saturday, June 1st, it was craft beer.
Last year, universally beloved craft brewery Firestone Walker, winner of more than a few awards and brewer of some of the country's best and most accessible extreme beers, started its own beer festival. It invited brewing friends from all across the country, many of whom do not normally distribute beer to California, and asked them each to pour one sessionable beer and one special release. The brewers responded and the beer list was magnificent, from a special version of Midwest madmen Three Floyds' massive stout Dark Lord aged in Bourbon barrels with vanilla beans to the debut of San Diego (and eventually global) craft pioneers Stone's 10th Anniversary version of Ruination DIPA and everywhere in between.
Like many other festivals around, Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival, or FWIBF for short, included unlimited 3oz. pours, but no festival outside of Denver can match the quality of the tap list. Also unlike most other festivals, FWIBF was a showcase for the brewers themselves, and many of the people who actually make the beer were the ones pouring it. There were Q&A sessions with brewers running throughout the festival, and having your favorite brewer pour your taste provided a great opportunity to chat up your beeroes, or, in the case of some intrepid but introverted drinkers and particularly celebrated brewers, to shyly mumble thanksiloveyourbeer and walk quickly away, blushing.
This year the same was asked of a very similar set of breweries, with a few notable additions, and once again they came through. Cigar City, the highly regarded Tampa, FL brewery who had to drop out of last year's event due to a shipping mishap, brought a version of their chocolate vanilla chile cinnamon Imperial Stout Hunahpu's aged in used Brandy barrels, and on the strength of that offering they won the people's choice award. New York showed up strong as well, with Southern Tier bringing out a version of their ridiculously rich and sweet stout Choklat tempered by a secondary fermentation in Bourbon barrels with locally grown berries, an unusual combination which came together beautifully, sweet and full but not cloying, with a great hit of bright berry flavor.
Not to be outdone, Portland's Boneyard debuted its huge double IPA Nefarious, and young LA-area brewery Beachwood brought Amalgamator, an IPA which makes heavy use of newly released hop variety Mosaic. Both of those beers showed that their brewers deserved a seat at the biggest baddest IPA table, alongside traditional powerhouses like Russian River, Alpine, and Kern River (whose Citra is, for our money, the finest IPA on the planet), all of whom were at the festival dropping their sublimely devastating hop bombs onto palates eager to be decimated.
Our local brewers showed up strong too, from the aforementioned Russian River's lovely Temptation and venerable (and completely perfect) Pliny the Elder to Triple Rock's excellent Keyser Soze. Trumer came with its pilsner, of course, and its lightness was a real virtue, the perfect crisp sip between huge stouts and bitter IPAs, refreshing in what was, as we heard again, the driest of heats. Moonlight, Santa Rosa's other outstanding brewery, poured some of its great beers and built even more excitement for its just-announced taproom. Bear Republic was also a big hit, with its sour Cuvee de Bubba, and the soon to be even more local Sierra Nevada brought the light Foam Pilsner, massive Hoptimum DIPA, and a fabulous maple stout aged in Bourbon barrels.
B. Mesirow Hot Wings and Kern River's Citra
But the festival was a huge success beyond the beer, too. There was a vast array of central coast restaurants serving a variety of bites, from flatbreads made on site to sausages and well beyond. We especially loved Cambria Pub and Steakhouse's hot wings, even though they scorched our insides to match our sun-charred skin, and their hot sauce never quite left our fingers and chin. This was also the first time we fully appreciated gazpacho -- drinking salsa became much more appealing in the triple-digit heat -- and Luna Red's version was the perfect one for the festival, brightly flavored and ice-cold, with a lovely piece of ceviche-style fish in each cup.
There were also a variety of clever accommodations made for the heat, from misters at each tent to giant fans, to a surfeit of water stations. All in all the festival was once again a spectacular success, and a sensational showcase for craft beer. Firestone Walker proved that they are not only gifted brewers, builders, and barrel-agers, they are also wonderful party planners with perhaps the finest rolodex around. Their ability to bring in extraordinary brewers from around the country, and around the world, is shockingly impressive, and it's a great reminder of the boundary-pushing brewing going on globally.
We live in one of the best brewing regions anywhere, and it's easy to get lost in the beer we can drink just by walking down to the corner store, or by driving 40 minutes or fewer north, east, or south. Drinking local beer is, and should always be, the heart of beer culture, but it's also important to look up now and then to see what's going on other places. Making the drive a few hours down the 101 to Paso Robles in June is perhaps the best looking up we can imagine. And don't worry, it's a dry heat.
The author rarely tweets, but you can follow him @SemNeb if you're into that sort of thing