Wine & Beer

It took a lot of beer to get here: At 20 years, Firestone Walker is bigger than ever

The story behind Firestone Walker Brewing Co.

Take a look inside Firestone Walker Brewing Co's main brewery in Paso Robles as co-founder David Walker talks about the beginnings of the business and the craft beer revolution in the United States.
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Take a look inside Firestone Walker Brewing Co's main brewery in Paso Robles as co-founder David Walker talks about the beginnings of the business and the craft beer revolution in the United States.

From a vantage point atop the massive outdoor tanks at Firestone Walker Brewing Co., one can see the past, present and future of the Paso Robles brewery.

The original building, the red-roofed old SLO Brewing Co. brewhouse with a 20,000-barrel capacity, runs down the center of the complex. Straddling both sides are pieces added over the years to bring annual production up to 300,000 barrels.

Wrapping around that is a new three-year, $60 million expansion that’s setting the stage for Firestone to grow incrementally over the next couple of decades to produce more than a million barrels a year. (That’s about the size of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.) The expansion also will allow them to operate more efficiently. Instead of brewing six days a week, three shifts a day, they can return to a normal production schedule.

“We got fed up expanding and then having to build on top of ourselves two, three years later,” said David Walker, who founded the brewery 20 years ago with brother-in-law Adam Firestone. “What we decided to do was build something that would last a generation.”

Firestone enters its next 20 years under the umbrella of Belgian brewery Duvel Moortgat. A year and half into the acquisition, any concerns among Firestone fans that their hometown brewery would get swallowed up, corporatized or otherwise mucked with have largely dissipated.

What we decided to do was build something that would last a generation.

Co-founder David Walker

Firestone and Walker are still at the helm, directing the vision and daily operations. Brewmaster Matt Brynildson is still brewing innovative, award-winning beers that have made him possibly the most decorated brewer in the country — an unmatched four-time winner of both the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup Brewer of the Year in the midsize category.

With the boom in craft beer over the past decade, Firestone has grown its footprint as well as its brewing capacity. The Taproom restaurant opened to accompany the Paso Robles brewery, and a Brewery Emporium offers beer and merchandise for purchase a few hundred yards down the road.

Barrelworks opened in Buellton to house the growing barrel-aging and wild ale programs, as well as its own tasting room and restaurant. And the Propagator debuted last year in Venice, with a restaurant and brewery focusing on experimental beers, a new R&D arm to the more production-focused Paso Robles brewery.

But access to new capital from the Duvel deal doesn’t have Firestone eyeing satellite breweries on the East Coast or strings of taprooms around the state like some other craft breweries have pursued. The company prefers to focus on brewing high-quality beer for distribution rather than operating a half-dozen pubs, Walker said. And focusing on growing the brewery’s Central Coast roots is far more appealing than trying to rebuild everything they do somewhere else, Brynildson added.

The brand may be known far and wide, but Firestone still sells 80 percent of its beer in California, most of it within 200 miles of the brewery.

“We have a great local following,” Brynildson said. “We’re so well-supported by the local community.”

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Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Forging an innovative business

The real original brewery was not in Paso Robles but Los Olivos, where Firestone was running the family Firestone Vineyards and Walker was growing grapes while working in Silicon Valley. They began brewing with the goal of integrating it into the winery, but it quickly became too complex.

The pair broke off and formed Firestone Walker Brewing Co. and, in 2001, picked up SLO Brewing Co.’s Paso Robles brewhouse — along with Brynildson, its brewmaster, and other members of the brewing team still on board today.

They carved out an early niche with Double Barrel Ale, made in the style of a true English pale ale by fermenting in steel tanks as well as oak barrels — something Brynildson said he didn’t believe until he saw it himself.

For the first decade, though, the Firestone team was building as much of a market for its brewery as its brand. People didn’t know what craft beer was, and Firestone and other early craft brewers had to convince them that beer was about flavor and craftsmanship as much as refreshment and good times.

“We felt for 10 years we were pushing, then all of a sudden a light switched, and consumers started to pull,” Walker said. “We’ve been hanging on ever since.”

With 5,000 breweries across the country today compared with 300 when they began, Walker says Firestone is no longer the cool kid on the block. But the company has displayed a knack for getting out in front of industry trends.

We felt for 10 years we were pushing, then all of a sudden a light switched, and consumers started to pull. We’ve been hanging on ever since.

Co-founder David Walker

Barrel fermenting organically led to barrel aging, making Firestone one of the first craft breweries to delve into the now-popular category, with 2,000 to 3,000 barrels on hand today at any given time.

Union Jack, a bold, West Coast-style IPA, debuted just as aggressively hopped beers were coming into fashion, and Easy Jack followed soon after as consumers began seeking high-flavor, hoppy brews with lower alcohol content.

The brewery offered something for almost every category of craft beer drinker: the Jack series for the hop-heads, barrel-aged strong ales for the high-gravity crowd — which a group of winemakers gather each year to blend for an anniversary ale that’s sought after among collectors — and a continuous stream of one-off and special releases to satiate the beer geeks.

Then came 805.

Firestone Walker Brewing Co. headbrewer Dustin Kral talks about what the upcoming 805 region's area code changes mean to the brewery, which brews the popular 805 beer.

805 fuels company’s growth

Walker refers to 805 — a light, blonde ale aimed at the more casual beer drinker — as both a giant monster and a gift from the beer gods, often in the same sentence.

Appealing to a whole different, much larger swath of the population — 70 percent of beer sold in America is still industrial-produced lager, Walker says — 805 exploded, quickly becoming more than 50 percent of Firestone’s production and the No. 1 selling craft beer in California.

“We’re blessed to have it, but it definitely forced us to grow faster than we intended,” Brynildson said.

It sent the team two years ago in search of a financial partner to help pay for the massive investments needed to keep up with the volume. They met with banks, venture capitalists, investors and all the big brewers, but none felt like the right fit.

We’re blessed to have it, but it definitely forced us to grow faster than we intended.

Brewmaster Matt Brynildson

Then they came across Duvel Moortgat, an almost 150-year-old family-owned brewery in Belgium with investments in a handful of breweries in the United States and Europe. Duvel became the majority stakeholder in Firestone, with Walker, Firestone and Brynildson as minority owners.

It’s an arrangement that Walker describes less like an acquisition and more like a marriage, noting that Firestone actually brews more beer then Duvel does in Belgium.

“They’re a high-integrity partner that will keep the brewery and vision running long after we’re gone,” he said. “We couldn’t ask for a better patriarch.”

The only physical sign of the partnership — aside from a couple of collaboration brews — is the flurry of construction for the brewhouse expansion, which will feature a striking glass front along Highway 101 and a spacious, modern visitor center.

While the project paves the brewery’s future, building it while continuing production has been a challenge, Walker said, akin to doing open heart surgery while running a marathon.

For beer lovers, walking through the brewery is a bit like touring Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory — bottles clink along serpentine filling lines, cans whiz by on overhead conveyor belts, forklifts zip this way and that, with maze-like tunnels, catwalks crisscrossing at various levels, vats and tanks of all sizes and control centers that look like they could land a space shuttle.

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805 bottles move to cases on the bottling line at Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Near the heart sits a laboratory that appears capable of cracking the gene code. A dozen scientists conduct about 14,000 tests each month — 215 pieces of data on each batch of beer — in a strict quality control program unusual for a brewery this size.

Just outside, brewery employees regularly stop by the sensory station, tasting beers in blind tests and rating them on a highly detailed flavor wheel under the supervision of a full-time sensory tech.

It’s here, in the lab, the sensory station and the brewhouse, that the next generation of Firestone beers is being dreamed up, crafted and perfected.

Brynildson, dubbed “Merlin” by the Firestone community, has been largely mum about those beers. Luponic Distortion, the popular new revolving hop series, will certainly continue, as will the core Lion & Bear beers.

They’re being joined by a new four-beer series also playing on the partnership/rivalry between the English Walker and Californian Firestone called Leo v. Urus.

Regardless of brewery expansions or industry recognition, Brynildson said, what matters at the end of the day is that the beer tastes good. And there, he said he believes, Firestone is hitting its stride.

“The beer gets better every year.”

Sally Buffalo writes about wine, beer and spirits. Reach her at sallybuffalo@gmail.com or on Twitter @sallybuffalo.

Catch the series

Firestone’s latest wide-release beer features a little fun for fans of its hoppy beers.

Luponic Distortion is a revolving series highlighting experimental and unusual hops in a series that changes up the recipe every 90 days.

“Hops are like the spices for brewing,” said brewmaster Matt Brynildson, who began his career as a hop chemist and supplier and still speaks and consults on the topic worldwide.

Each release uses the same base beer, changing out just the hops to highlight the subtle flavor differences in each cultivar.

Revolution No. 005, released in February, features hops from Washington’s Moxee Valley, for example, while past releases have used hops from South Africa, Germany and New Zealand.

Brynildson often compares creating beer to writing songs. With most beers, the song remains the same. Luponic Distortion, he says, is his chance to jam.

Firestone Walker

Brewing Co.

Headquarters: Paso Robles

Owners:

Majority: Duvel Moortgat NV of Belgium.

Minority: Founders David Walker and Adam Firestone, brewmaster Matt Brynildson

Employees: 450, about half based in Paso Robles

Visit Firestone Walker

www.firestonebeer.com

805-225-5911

1400 Ramada Drive, Paso Robles

Sample the beers, order a pint or have a sit-down meal at the Taproom from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Or stop in the Brewery Emporium, 200 yards from the brewery on Ramada Drive, for samples or to pick up beer and merchandise from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. A new visitor center will open and brewery tours will resume when brewhouse construction is complete.

Visit www.firestonebeer.com for information on visiting Barrelworks in Buellton or the Propagator in Venice.

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