Trash talk, cardboard crowns and lots and lots of beer. It sounds more like a rowdy college drinking game than the makings of a sought-after craft brew.
But that’s a peek into how Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s annual anniversary ale comes together.
Firestone brewer Matt Brynildson set the stage for this now-annual tradition 14 years ago, when he wanted to produce something special for the Paso Robles-based brewery’s 10th anniversary.
A special blend of the brewery’s best barrel-aged ales seemed an intriguing idea, but Brynildson had no clue how to go about creating it. So he turned to some buddies in the local wine industry who he figured knew a lot more about the art of blending.
“I never thought it would take on this life of its own,” Brynildson said as a few dozen winemakers, sidekicks and industry-related folks poured, mixed and sampled around him in Firestone’s Paso Robles visitor center one September afternoon.
The undertaking has gotten much larger — and more competitive — since the early years, when it was just a few guys sitting around a table collectively creating the blend.
“It’s been interesting to see the evolution,” Brochelle Vineyards winemaker Brock Waterman said.
Here’s how it went down this year.
As participants filed in — the creators of the previous year’s winning blend making a grand entrance wearing their coveted cardboard crowns — they settled at tables with beakers, droppers and notepaper. There were also platters of bread to help stave off any wooziness from sampling so many high-gravity beers.
Each table got pitchers of the component beers, all barrel-aged whoppers with ABV (alcohol by volume) levels hovering around 12%.
For this year, the beers were Parabola imperial stout, Bravo imperial brown, the sweet Stickee Monkee, Velvet Merkin oatmeal stout, an aged version of Wookey Jack dubbed Woodkus, and three versions of Helldorado, blonde barleywine aged alternately in bourbon, gin and tequila barrels.
“There’s zero direction,” Thacher Winery winemaker Sherman Thacher said. “It’s, ‘Here you go, make something.’”
One might expect a group of winemakers to focus on the sensory — flavors and aromas — but around many tables, the approach was much more practical.
Halter Ranch winemaker Kevin Sass started out by grabbing a pencil and making calculations based on the target number of barrels and how much there was of each beer to come up with a base blend that could then be tinkered with.
“It’s very mathy,” Sass said. “You have to look at how much you have of each thing to figure out what you can make. That’s how the real world of making a wine blend happens.”
Only then did the little beakers and droppers come into play. “It’s like making wine for critics,” Waterman said. “You have to have something that stands out.”
Once each team had what they thought was a winning blend, their proportions were sent to the lab upstairs, where a small army of Firestone staffers mixed up bigger batches. Meanwhile, the taunts and barbs tossed across teams reached a fever pitch below.
After blind tasting all the entries, participants selected their winner via a simple majority vote — with no final call from Brynildson to tip the scale.
That’s right. What ends up in the bottle sought out by each year by Firestone fans and collectors is what went down best with a boisterous bunch of buzzed blenders.
Taking home the crowns for this year’s blend, XXIII, was largely the same team that walked in with them from 2018: a crew from Thacher Winery and TH Estates led by Sherman Thacher, who happens to be a former brewer, and joined by Phil Slosberg, the man behind Pete’s Wicked Ale.
The secret to the team’s repeat success? Being real familiar with the beers, Thacher said, a smile spreading across his face.
“My fridge stays pretty full of this stuff,” he said.
Has Thacher considered experimenting at home to get ahead of the game?
“Haven’t gone that far yet,” he said as his smile grew wider. “Maybe next year.”
Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s Anniversary Ale and celebration
XXIII, the 23rd Anniversary Ale, will be released Saturday at all three Firestone Walker Brewing Co. locations and roll out to stores the following week.
Saturday also brings the 2019 Anniversary Block Party, held 11 a.m to 2 p.m. at the Firestone taproom at 1400 Ramada Drive in Paso Robles. The event features tastings of the component beers, prior anniversary ales and other limited releases, plus light bites and live music.
You can buy tickets, which include bottles of the new XXIII (six for $95 and 12 for $175), at firestonebeer.com.
What’s in the ale?
Here’s the make-up of this year’s Anniversary Ale:
Stickee Monkee, 28%
Bourbon Barrel Helldorado, 15%
Velvet Merkin, 5%
Tequila Barrel Helldorado, 4%