For Adam Firestone, co-founder of Firestone Walker Brewing Co., one word sums up what it takes to run a small business: endurance.
In the mid-1990s, Firestone was a beer lover in Santa Barbara County wine country, and he had this idea of reusing wine barrels from his family’s business, Firestone Vineyards, to ferment beer. Long story short, that concept didn’t work out. But he and brewery co-founder David Walker, Firestone’s brother-in-law, kept at it.
Fast forward to 2013. The brewery has since relocated to Paso Robles, runs a second facility in Buellton and is planning to open a third in Venice Beach in Southern California. Firestone Walker is now ranked among the top 20 craft breweries in the nation, according to the Brewers Association.
Known for its Double Barrel Ale, the brewery sets itself apart with its Firestone Union system based on an 1800s style of British beer-making. The Burton Union is a recirculating fermentation system that requires multiple barrels. Firestone Walker believes it’s the only brewery in the United States using that method.
Firestone recently talked to The Tribune about the brewery’s rising importance in the craft beer movement, its future and what it takes to build a successful business.
Q: Coming from a family that’s important to the Central Coast wine industry, why did you and your brother-in-law decide to go the beer route back in the mid-1990s?
A: It was a natural evolution from wine making. The technologies are very similar, and fermented beverages use a lot of the same chemistry. There are obviously some differences in the actual product and outcome, but they are very similar bottling, warehousing and distribution wise. It’s all within the same family.
The whys are more attached to my love of beer. I love the beverage, always have. And I wanted to try my own hand at it. ... I had this idea that instead of giving away our chardonnay barrels, we could keep these barrels and brew beer in them. It would be very similar to what the single-malt whiskey folks do with old sherry barrels.
It was a romantic notion and a very sort of environmentally pure and economically pure one, but it didn’t work out. In the early stages, we had a lot of trouble. The short reason is that beer has much lower alcohol than wine, and so microbial issues were just overwhelming the beer. We abandoned the idea after about a year and started using brand-new barrels.
Q: Can you describe three reasons why your business became a success?
A: The No. 1 reason was local support. We managed somehow through a lot of trial and error to capture the hearts, minds and palates of the Central Coast, and regional brewing is all about tending to the needs of the home market. That is actually reason 1 through 98.
I suppose (another reason is) trial and error. It’s taken us a while. We’re now doing a few things right, but it took us a while to get there. We were really honest with ourselves, and we didn’t have all the answers early on. So we had to be willing to listen.
And perseverance. To get any level of traction, especially in a business that’s been around for 8,000 years, you have to have a lot of endurance, because you aren’t inventing a new product. I think we do have a fair bit of endurance. That’s helped us.
Q: So now, what are you doing right?
A: I think lots of little things add up to a successful business. We never found one magic bullet that we can swing to the bleachers and that overcame all our errors. So it’s all just the practices that are critical: first, hiring and training the right people — that’s huge. That’s huge in every business. The beer doesn’t make itself; people make the beer. If you don’t have the right people, you’re not going to make the right beer.
Second, what else did we do right? Relocating. I think consolidating to Paso Robles was a good move for us. The city of Paso Robles has been a phenomenal place to do business — not a good place, but phenomenal. That’s not supposed to happen in California. The municipality will defend the public interest but they won’t do it in such a way that makes life miserable for you. They’re tough in the sense there are no shortcuts, but they have a great attitude up here. ... It’s still California, though! Let’s not get too carried away.
Q: What goals did you set for yourselves when you started the brewery, and have you met them or how have they changed?
A: This is going to sound kind of Tony Robbins, but we had the same goals from Day 1 that we’ll have at Day Infinity: That is, we make a very narrow range of beers, mostly the pale ales, and our goal is to make a better pale ale. We ask ourselves, “How do you make the next batch better than the last?” And you have to surrender to the reality that the differences are pretty small in each batch, but they have to be measurable and they have to improve. And that’s a life’s work. If someone comes and visits the brewery 10 years from now, all I want them to say is that these beers are even better than they tasted 10 years ago. That’s it.
Q: What sets Firestone Walker apart?
A: I think our reputation is one. We’re a little bit of a wonk shop. We’re very technical. For example, we have more people in the lab and in the quality-control department per barrel than I think any other brewery that I’ve ever heard of anywhere. We have a chemistry and science approach. Our head brewer (Matt Brynildson) is a university professor caught in a craft brewer.
There are breweries that are more efficient, and there are breweries associated with sports and lifestyle, there are breweries that have magnificent structures and cathedral-like settings, there are breweries that are literally out to save the planet. Those are all great and worthy goals, but they aren’t ours. What really has always set us apart is this commitment to the science and technology.
That was a significant decision we made a few years ago, when we said, “We’re going to get out of hauling hoses and wetting our fingers and trying to guess where things are,” which is the traditional craft brewers’ approach. We said, “We’re going to marry technology, the greatest industrial quality controls available, the greatest process engineering possible, the greatest materials and input control possible, and we’re going to pull all this together.” That’s where we are headed right now.
Q: Where does Firestone Walker fit in the worldwide craft beer movement?
A: I think, fairly put, we’ve managed to wrestle a little point of the overall craft star. And because we’ve made some of these technology movements, it’s causing a lot of large breweries, other brewers, distant brewers to be very curious about what it is that we’re doing.
The craft brewing revolution is really standing industrial brewing on its head. You have giant brewers across the world that are really being forced to revisit what they’ve been doing, and it’s renegades like this little shop that are causing them to do it.
Q: What challenges have you faced?
A: Capital is always a challenge. We eat what we kill. We don’t have any investors or partners or corporate overlords, or anywhere to go dip into the funds. So we’re hand-to-mouth. And that’s challenging for any business — certainly small businesses.
Q: How do you overcome that?
A: That will never go away; just have sensible business practices and don’t get too big of an appetite. I say this like we’ve overcome it, and I’m not sure we have; we’re still hat and hand on this one.
Q: Where do you see the business in five to 10 years?
A: Still in Paso. Still in many ways it will look like it does today, but we would have finished a lot of the technology that we’re trying. We’re opening a small technology center in Venice, and we’re going to put in a taproom and tasting room and small pilot plant to showcase some of what we’re doing.
Q: Seventeen years after brewing your first batch of beer commercially, what have you learned about yourself?
A: I have learned that you can get knocked off the tracks pretty hard, and it’s just like in all things in life. We’ve had some setbacks and disasters along the way, and you gotta have endurance. Starting a small business from scratch is not ... a marathon. You need endurance, you’ve got to stick it out, you’re going to hit setbacks — I tell myself that literally every day. You’re going to get knocked off the tracks. The question is how you regroup, get the team together, deal with it and keep going. It’s all endurance.