Farewell, Santa Barbara

Word has begun to spread already, so for many of Santa Barbara Beer’s readers this may be old news, but this will be likely the last post for this blog. It’s been a fun couple of years, but I’m moving out of the area and it wouldn’t make much sense to write about Santa Barbara beer and brewing when I live and work elsewhere.

There are plenty of projects ahead in the future, and those details when come out when they do, but for the moment let’s take a look to reflect on the past and current state of beer in Santa Barbara.

When this blog began in March of 2013, beer in the American Riviera was just beginning to take roots. Telegraph Brewing Company was in the process of expanding into its new and current location, Pure Order Brewing Company was still trying to get up and running and Island Brewing Company was the only option for beer in Carpinteria. Oh yeah, and no portion of Firestone Walker was owned by Duvel.

Two years later and not only was Pure Order up and brewing, but it is doing quite well. Telegraph continued its expansion and joined the contemporary beer scene with an IPA that stands along the best examples of the style in town. Not only does Island Brewing have some company in Carpinteria now, but it brewLAB and Rincon have proved to be impressive in their own right. As far as Island goes, the competition has seemingly only made the product coming out of the local area’s oldest production brewery that much better. Goleta’s Captain Fatty’s has become a family-friendly option in the area while Hollister Brewing Company continues to churn out Eric Rose’s typically impressive beer.

But not all developments have been unicorns and rainbows. Santa Barbara Brewing Company’s reviver, Kevin Pratt, said farewell to pursue other avenues. So too did Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company’s AJ Stoll, who is now back in the United States and plying his trade in Florida’s up-and-coming Funky Buddha. Oh yeah, and Firestone Walker “combined forces” with Duvel-Moortgat.

To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what that last sentence even means. A quick text conversation with David Walker, Jeffers Richardson and Jim Crooks confirmed that Duvel didn’t “buy out” Firestone Walker, but is definitely involved. To me, this sounds as though Duvel only bought a portion of the company — and not a controlling portion. All indications point to complete autonomy for Firestone Walker, but I’m sure as a major shareholder Duvel will want to ensure that the company remains profitable. Still, Ommegang and Boulevard have thrived under Duvel ownership, and I can’t imagine that Firestone Walker will be negatively impacted from its new partnership with the Devil.

If anything, I’m curious to see what Firestone Walker does with its new influx of cash. Along with the possibility of tapping into a larger distribution network, a deal of this type will likely provide the Paso Robles-based brewery with funds to take on new projects. The canning facility at the Paso campus is already a thing of beauty, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see more beer come out in cans. Or perhaps some of the funding will go toward speeding up progress at the upcoming Venice location. This is all pure speculation, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Firestone Walker increase its national footprint the same way we have seen Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues, Lagunitas, New Belgium and a handful of others open new plants in other regions of the country. Or perhaps Firestone may take a similar route as Figueroa Mountain and open up smaller tasting or tap rooms in various locations. Maybe Barrelworks will get its own wort production equipment as well. Who knows? The point is that this new partnership should only bring positives for Firestone Walker and beer fans across the country — perhaps across the world. Duvel has proven it has the ability to invest in craft brands without tainting the product or the spirit of the company with its efforts with Ommegang and Boulevard, and it seems likely that Firestone Walker and its customers will only benefit from this new partnership.

I’m sad to leave Santa Barbara with its perfect weather and its rapidly expanding beer scene. I wish that I would have the opportunity to report on the openings of M Special in Goleta and Third Window in Santa Barbara. My departure from the community won’t slow down the growth that we’ve already seen, and I imagine the small void I leave will be filled soon by someone else.

It’s been a fun journey. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

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What it Means to be a Community Brewery

pure order board

Recently, I had the opportunity to give a short speech at Blue Box 2015 — a conference hosted by First Beverage Group in Boulder, Colorado. It was a great opportunity to mingle with some movers and shakers in the beverage world, but I took it as a chance to talk about what it means to be part of a brewing community, and a collaborator within that community.

I believe video from that conference will be up soon, and I’ll post a link when that happens. But rather than laboring through a video of me nervously addressing strangers, you need look no further than one of our own local breweries to see what it means to be part of a brewing community.

Pure Order Brewing Company on 410 Quarantina Street is the epitome of the neighborhood brewery. They, along with Telegraph Brewing on Salsipuedes Street, are where the locals go for a drink when the crowds of visitors in the Funk Zone get a bit outside of comfort range. And for good reason — both breweries are making incredible beer.

Pure Order was recently among the winners at the Casa Pacifica in Ventura along with Institution Ales from Camarillo and The LAB in Agoura. While those other two are both great breweries, Pure Order was the only one in the winner list with a beer off its standard and regular production line — the Santa Barbara Pale. That beer will also be part of the upcoming Cost Plus World Market Summer Seasonal Variety Pack, which will be available nationwide. That’s a pretty big deal.

And yet, it’s Pure Order’s ability to keep things small and local that sets them apart. Recently, they’ve been helping me out by loaning their time, space and some equipment to help me brew 60 gallons of beer for a friend’s upcoming June wedding (and yes, full disclosure, this help is greatly appreciated and I’m sure impacts my favorable bias toward them. They also carry my book, We Make Beer, so I’m sure that doesn’t hurt either. I’m only human, but I like to believe that my opinions can remain relatively objective). This isn’t just because I write a beer column in the local newspaper or because I run this blog. James Burge and Pure Order are willing to help me out because I’m part of the local brewing community — the same way I’ve seen them help out home brewers who come in looking for advice and perhaps experience.

10 gallons of Strawberry Solstice, a collaboration beer I've brewed with Pure Order Brewing Company for an upcoming wedding.

10 gallons of Strawberry Solstice, a collaboration beer I’ve brewed with Pure Order Brewing Company for an upcoming wedding.

More and more often I hear locals tell me that Pure Order is their favorite brewery in town. I don’t think that’s a knock on any of the other breweries, as just about every brewery from Buellton to Carpinteria is producing high-quality beer right now (and one need look no further than the recent Dia de Los Obscuras to see how the beer community has embraced Telegraph). I think what that represents is how Pure Order has managed to capture Santa Barbara’s essence. Not just in the beer, but in the entire atmosphere provided at the brewery and its beer garden.

Beer isn’t just a business, at least it shouldn’t be. The best breweries aren’t just the ones pumping out the best liquid, they’re also the ones that represent and collaborate within the community (along those lines — there was a recent Instagram post from Kevin Ashford from Fig Mountain’s SB brewery showing a collaboration effort with Island Brewing’s Ryan Morrill, as well as both breweries’ brewing teams). Pure Order, certainly isn’t the only local brewery to embrace the community, but it’s embraced me, and I’m grateful.

edit: a previous version of this post misidentified Ryan Morrill as a brewer for Telegraph — he is the head brewer for Island Brewing in Carpinteria.

Firestone Walker is in the Final Four

bracket

Personally, we here at Santa Barbara Beer think it’s silly to try and decide which brewery is the best, but that’s exactly what the folks at Thrillist are trying to accomplish with their Beer Madness Bracket.

And wouldn’t you know it, local heavyweight is in the FInal Four facing Founders. I shouldn’t say I’m surprised — those are two Kentucky/Duke-level contenders right there.

You can find the bracket and vote in it here.

Bring Your Dog For Beer

Sometimes you need a good drinking buddy.

Sometimes you need a good drinking buddy.

Dogs are like children. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the type to call my dog my son, and I certainly don’t refer to myself as Seamus’ dad or, God forbid, daddy (his real dad is here). Basically, I’m not this lady.

Yes, that's a dog in a baby stroller.

Yes, that’s a dog in a baby stroller.

But dogs are like children in a few ways:

— You can’t leave them in the car with the windows up.

— You can’t hit them in public, at least not in California.

— You can’t just leave them in the house all day and not expect a disaster when you get back.

So, this being a beer and brewery blog and all, I’d like to take a moment to honor the breweries in Santa Barbara that are as pet friendly as you are. The good news is that just about every brewery in the area is dog-friendly, so it’s a good-sized list. These are in no particular order, except I’m going to start with The Brewhouse, which is probably the most dog-friendly brewery in the area.

The Brewhouse

The Brewhouse is a brewpub, and therefore a restaurant, so don’t expect to be able to bring your dog inside. However, there’s a good-sized patio where dogs are welcome and servers will offer you a dog bowl for your thirsty pooch. But what makes The Brewhouse the best? It’s the dog menu.

That’s right, The Brewhouse loves dogs so much that they’ve got a menu just for your dog. Seamus is on a pretty strict diet, so we don’t necessarily go for it, but if you’d like your best friend to enjoy some dog biscuits covered in beef gravy, or steak bites, or chicken strips, then The Brewhouse has you covered.

Solvang Brewing Company

Maybe you’re in town filling up on homebrew supplies at Valley Brewers (which is also dog friendly and their own brew-dog is frequently minding the shop), or perhaps you need a break from your wine-tasting day for a beer and a burger. Whatever the case, Solvang BrewCo has a great outdoor patio much like the Brewhouse, only bigger. And while they don’t have a dog menu, a server will gladly bring you a dog bowl and your dog can just beg some scraps from you.

Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company

Both Fig’s Buellton and Santa Barbara locations have nice outdoor beer gardens where dogs are welcome. I typically shy away from bringing Seamus to the Funk Zone spot, as it’s all concrete and usually crowded, but the brewery’s main location in Buellton has a nice, soft artificial turf outside so your dog can get off his paws for a minute and chill out.

Pure Order Brewing Company

I can’t think of the last time I didn’t see a dog at Pure Order. The lush grass that originally adorned the beer garden has been replaced by a more drought-friendly landscape (I was sad to see it go, but it was a sensible and sustainable choice), but there’s plenty of room for the canine kind to roam and stretch their legs. I would never officially recommend taking your dog off-leash here, but I’ve seen more than a few dogs enjoying a little free-ranging among the hop garden*.

* A reminder — hops are toxic to dogs the same way chocolate is. If you have the kind of dog that likes to taste a little bit of everything in his environment, monitor him or her closely when the hops are out.

Telegraph Brewing Company

The city of Santa Barbara’s original production brewery welcomes friendly dogs into their tasting room. A note here though, the floor is all polished concrete, so if you happen to have a dog like mine that’s all rib bones, knee joints and ankles, bring something soft for it to lay down.

Captain Fatty’s

Enjoy Goleta’s newest brewery with the whole family — including the dog. The brewery has a certain appeal to families with young children (actually, I think Goleta in general has that appeal), so make sure your dog is good with kids before bringing them around.

Island Brewing Company

For some reason, I have a hard time heading south to Carpinteria without bringing Seamus. We’ve got friends with a dog he likes to play with (actually it’s a dog he likes to escape and explore with) and they’re welcome at all three of Carpinteria’s breweries. Island welcomes dogs on the patio, but not inside, so grab a seat under one of the umbrellas and send someone inside to get you a beer and a water bowl for your buddy.

Rincon Brewing Company

Rincon is a family-friendly brewpub, so you better bet that includes dogs. Like the other brewpubs on the list, dogs can’t come inside but are welcome on the patio. Seamus likes the high-top tables outside with plenty of room for him to stand underneath.

The brewLAB

The friendly folks at brewLAB welcome dogs to their small outdoor patio as well as inside their brewery. It can get crowded with people and other dogs from time to time, so I wouldn’t bring in a nervous animal, but your well-adjusted dog might enjoy sniffing a lot of new smells as you take in some of the best beer in the area.

Stay cool, y'all.

Stay cool, y’all.

Ever wonder where those sweet Firestone Walker shirts come from?

If you’ve been around the Santa Barbara beer scene enough and been to any of Firestone Walkers special events (release parties, anniversaries, beer festivals, etc.) you may have spotted some of the Firestone folks wearing cool, creative t-shirts. You may have also noted that none of those shirts are in any of the company stores.

That’s because the shirts are a creation of Mike Wondrash, a Mission Viejo-based auto mechanic and huge craft beer fan. It’s gotten to the point where every event at Barrelworks in Buellton also serves as an unveiling of Wondrash’s latest creation.

I know I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with for tomorrow’s liberation of Feral One. In the meantime, we caught up with Wondrash to talk about where he gets his inspiration. And be sure to scroll to the bottom for pictures of Wondrash’s shirts.

Q: Tell me a little about yourself. What do you do when you’re not at beer events and where do you call home?
A: I’m married with two kids — a 28-year-old boy and a 24-year-old girl. I’ve owned an automotive repair shop in South Orange County for 31 years. I had cancer when I was six months old, so I walk a little funny, but I survived for 50-plus years.
When not at beer events I drink beer, look for hard-to-find beers and brew some also. I like gourmet food and I am not a bad cook either (my wife says I should have been a chef). I grew up and still live in Mission Viejo.

Q: When did you start making t-shirts for these Firestone events? Do you make shirts for other occasions as well, or is it just for beer things?

A: I believe the first shirt was the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest in 2013. I made a shirt for Epic Beer Fest in San Diego, 2013, but just didn’t have my heart in it. I tried to count them up and I came up with 15 different shirts for Firestone.Q: Perhaps better than when did you start, why did you start making these shirts?
A: I started making shirts for Firestone events because they only sell their everyday shirts and the invitational shirts are boring as hell. (Barrelworks barrelmeister Jeffers Richardson) tried to get a shirt made just for the Barrelworks crew and had to fill out paperwork that the IRS wouldn’t even want (Note: Wondrash was mostly kidding). Once I started making shirts for their events I was hooked. I just wanted to do something fun and tried to up my game with every shirt.Q: What has been the response from Firestone to the shirts? What has been the response from other Firestone fans?
A: Oh My god, they — meaning the people at Firestone that I see at events — love them. I was told at last year’s invitational by one of the brewers that my “I want my Stickee Monkee” shirt gets talked about at their meetings, which put a smile on my face. Ever since we became friends with (Firestone Walker media and marketing specialist) Jemma Wilson she has been getting me actual Firestone Walker graphics which took my shirts to an all new level.
I made a shirt for the release of SLOambic and weeks later saw Jeffers in, I think, Philadelphia at a beer event wearing the shirt that I made. That was so cool.
As far as the fans, I am constantly being asked if I have any to sell, but I promised Jemma I would not sell any when she started helping me with graphics. I don’t feel it’s appropriate to sell shirts at their events. I’m just a patron like everyone else. But I think people really dig them because you won’t find them anywhere else and they probably don’t go to all the events like my wife and I do.

Q: Do you have a favorite shirt design that you’ve created?

A: All of them! But some get better responses than others. David Walker really likes Walker’s Wild Ride San Diego. It has a picture of Olivia, his Land Rover, on it. Jemma has told me she thought the first Stickee Monkee was my best. I love them all because I made them, but I think the best from my own design was the FWIBF 2013 Stickee Monkee. From when Jemma has been helping me I think it’s SLOambic release. It’s the actual label design on a shirt and it turned out fantastic.

Q: Where do you get the inspiration for the shirts?

A: From drinking top-quality craft beer from the best goddamn brewers on the face of the planet. You don’t have to use that, but it’s probably the truth. If I wasn’t 50-years-old I would love to be in the craft beer industry. Hey — maybe I can be the t-shirt guy for the industry.

Feral Me, Feral You; Feral One, Feral Two?

Feral One batches 1 (left) and 2 side-by-side at Barrelworks.

Feral One batches 1 (left) and 2 side-by-side at Barrelworks.

By now, Santa Barbara beer fans have likely already heard of Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks liberation of Feral One, batch 2, on Valentine’s Day. About a year after the release of Feral One, Barrelworks’ first bottled beer, this liberation is something of an Anniversary beer and party for the boys at Barrelworks.

I recently sat down with barrelmeister Jeffers Richardson and blendmaster Jim Crooks with a bottle each of batch one and two to talk about the beer, the liberation and a few other things. A few issues were raised and addressed.

First of all, there’s the name. Originally, I believed that if there was ever a sequel to Feral One, a beer that Richardson describes as “a cuvee or blend of our best efforts,” that it would be called Feral Two. But Richardson and Crooks explained that the name is sort of a play on words — and while “one” was appropriate for the first beer released from Barrelworks, it also worked to describe it as The One that is Feral. In other words, the beer serves as a representation of everything that Richardson, Crooks and Barrelworks stand for.

So call it what you want — Feral One vintage 2015, Feral Two, Feral One 2.0 — just know that the official name is Feral One, batch 2.

My next concern was the price. The cheapest tickets for the liberation are $104 plus eventbrite fees. It’s a big barrier to entry for most of us, but it’s a good value. At $15.99 per bottle, the tickets get you six bottles ($95.94) and the other eight dollars and eventbrite fees go toward the other goodies available at the liberation and the chance to be able to say you tasted it before anybody else. Like previous liberations, there will be “feral foods” and rare beer tastings that more than make up for the eight dollar cost beyond the beer. Rumor had it that there might be a keg of the first batch of Feral One, now a year old, but that was not confirmed. In any case, it’s always fascinating to see what comes out of the barrels at Barrelworks.

Specifically, this new batch of Feral One picks up right where the first left off.

Feral One batch 1 (left) and 2 side-by-side at Barrelworks. Notice the slightly darker shade to batch 2.

Feral One batch 1 (left) and 2 side-by-side at Barrelworks. Notice the slightly darker shade to batch 2.

Richardson and Crooks sampled upwards of 80 barrels to find the right blend, and 23 ended up making the final blend. Like batch 1, the final beer has a pleasant tartness and lemon notes that accentuate a good, somewhat sweet background. It’s hard to recall exactly what Feral One tasted like a year ago, but this is reminiscent for sure — and that’s by design.

“This truly was a hedonistic approach,” Richardson said. “We didn’t have to recreate batch 1. We could create something else, but we really like batch 1.”

Perhaps the biggest difference is the color, which Crooks hypothesized came from the presence of Sour Solace, a beer that has aged in barrels at Barrelworks now for 48 months. After all that time in barrels, the relatively pale beer picked up color from the oak and oxygen. It also seemed to add a slightly more noticeable presence of vanilla and toffee, but it was faint enough that it could have been my mind affecting my palate, as those flavors tend to express themselves more in darker beers.

With any beer inoculated with lactobacillus, Feral One batch 2 certainly has a strong acidic character to it. But Crooks and Richardson argue that simply referring to the beer as a “sour” negates so much of what the beer has to offer.

“Acidity is the first thing people jump on,” Richardson said. “But they miss out on so much more if they’re doing that. What we’re trying to do, and the word we always use to describe it is ‘layers.’ We’re trying to make a beer with layers to it.”

Those layers come through in the sweetness of the malt, the wide array of slightly floral aromas underneath a slight yeast and sulfur note in the nose — and yes — in the tartness. Unlike some beers fermented with lacto though, Feral One batch 2, like the original, isn’t lip-puckeringly sour. It’s fizzy and tart enough to be refreshing, but not uninviting.

“A lot of people have gotten into beer because of (Pliny the Elder) and beers like that and ‘oh my gosh this is what hops are,'” Crooks said. “At Firestone, we’ve never been like that. Firestone and (brewmaster Matt Brynildson) have always been about balance and what’s drinkable.”

Batch 2 is certainly drinkable, but the real treat of the tasting session was a side-by-side comparison with a one-year-old version of Feral One batch 1. Batch 2 was slightly darker, and the edges of the flavors were somewhat sharper, so to speak, but there were more similarities than differences. And while batch 2 was a truly nice beer, there was no doubt that batch 1 provided a more enjoyable experience.

With that in mind, I asked Richardson and Crooks what the best way to age or cellar these beers was, since I’ll be coming home with 12 bottles on Valentine’s Day. Their recommendation was to store the bottles at room temperature, or cooler, but to avoid refrigerating them until you wanted to drink it. The reason was that the wide array of microflora that add to the complexity and character of Feral One go dormant at temperatures below 50 degrees, but continue to interact with the beer at cellar and room temperature. Storing the beer in warm (above 75 degrees or so) areas was not recommended, and the worst that could happen to a beer left in the refrigerator is that it would preserve it and its flavors as is — not a terrible outcome at all.

We also tasted a bottled version of Reginald Brett, which is essentially Double DBA given the Barrelworks treatment, and looked at plans for a future remodel of the Barrelworks facility to transform it from its current look into something more like an old-world abbey. Both that remodel and a possible release of Reginald Brett are little more than possibilities at the moment though.

Suds don’t stop at SB Border

Note: This column originally appeared in the January 1 issue of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Drink more beer. That’s my New Year’s resolution, what’s yours?

OK, to clarify, my New Year’s resolution is to drink more beer from more places. You would be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of Santa Barbara’s beer and brewing scene than myself, and I’m always excited to see what’s next on the local horizon.

For instance, I’m very interested to see what home brewer-turned pro Josh Ellis can do in Goleta with his brewery opening this year called M. Special. And I’m equally curious about what Third Window Brewing Co. will look like when it opens this year at the corner of Haley and Laguna streets.

But sometimes, to better appreciate what we have here in town, it’s worth it to get out and hit the road (with a designated driver) and see what other areas have to offer.

I recently took such a trip with two people whom I know needed to get out and stretch their legs – Pure Order’s co-founders James and David Burge. The cousins have spent most of the past year either in the brewery or out on sales calls, and every time I’d ask them if they’d had a beer from here or there, it was always the same response: “Haven’t had a chance yet.”

So we got a car and driver for the day and headed south. The first stop was to Carpinteria and the brewLAB.

The nano-brewery wasn’t open, but they didn’t mind letting in some fellow brewers to talk shop and taste a few beers. It helped that James and Dave brought a small growler of their own beer to share.

The brewLAB is insanely small for a production brewery, and right now co-owners Steve Jarvie, Rob Peed and Peter Goldammer are barely making enough beer to supply their own taproom – but my oh my is it amazing beer.

We could have spent the whole night cleaning out their supply of beer, but our goal was to broaden our horizons further, so we kept pushing farther south. We didn’t go too far, though, as the next stop was just down the road at the newly opened Rincon Brewery brewpub in downtown Carp.

We managed to steal away brewer Shaun Crowley to talk about the beer, and we traded another growler for some pretty nice Rincon Brewery hats. After a few beers – the Warrior Pride Red and Indicator IPA were favorites – and more than a few orders of the pretzel bites with bacon and cheddar dipping sauce, we were back on the road.

Every time I drive south to Los Angeles, I try to make a pit stop at Institution Ale Co. in Camarillo. James and Dave had never been, and that needed to be rectified.

The small brewery, located in an industrial park not far from the Lewis Road exit off the 101, has been turning out some of Southern California’s best beer since it opened and recently celebrated its one-year anniversary.

We got in just before the taproom opened for the evening, which was nice because Institution tends to fill up quickly. The three of us shared a bottle of the First Anniversary beer, a barrel-aged strong ale with lots of complexity and nuance that was almost too much for our palates at that point.

Our next and last stop was even farther south in Agoura at Ladyface Alehouse and Brasserie. I’m not sure what I expected, but the actual pub was nicer than I imagined.

Most brewpubs have a certain feel – often an industrial one – that is hard to appreciate. Ladyface felt more like a nice restaurant. The beer and food were lovely, but even nicer was a chance to chat with and meet one of the pub’s managing partners, Cyrena Nouzille.

If I had to, I could probably settle on any one of those breweries as the only brewery for me for the rest of my life – but I don’t have to, and that’s the point. Santa Barbara is great, but we have a tendency here in the American Riviera to become a bit insulated.

For 2015, I encourage you to get out of the bubble and provide your palate with a little outside context. You’ll be glad you did.


Sean Lewis is a beer drinker, beer maker and the author of “We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers” (St. Martin’s Press). His column appears the first Thursday of the month. Follow him on Twitter @Sean_M_Lewis.

 

Cilurzo and Walker discuss brewing Pliny at Firestone Walker

Firestone Pliny

Edit: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Firestone Walker was brewing Pliny the Younger. Firestone Walker is brewing Pliny the Elder.

If recent lawsuits tainted your view of camaraderie in craft beer, just think back to last year’s announcement from Russian River Brewing Company that it would be brewing its famous Pliny the Elder double IPA at Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles while its new brewing system is installed.

Well, Russian River founder and brewer Vinnie Cilurzo have made the trek down to Paso Robles from Santa Rosa to brew his signature beer. Santa Barbara Beer caught up with Cilurzo and Firestone-Walker co-proprietor David Walker recently to discuss the venture. Below is a Q and A with Cilurzo and a response from Walker to the same questions. For those not interested in reading through it all, some of the main takeaways are that there are no immediate plans for a collaboration between Russian River and Firestone Walker, although neither said they were opposed to such an idea. Cilurzo also said that although Pliny is being brewed in Paso Robles, there are no immediate plans to distribute the highly sought-after beer to the area — although he did acknowledge that he would like to expand distribution to the 805.

Russian River co-founder and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo adds a load of hops to the kettle of a Pliny the Elder brew recently at Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles. Firestone Walker is brewing Pliny for draft accounts while Russian River's new brewhouse is installed in Santa Rosa. Photo courtesy of Vinnie Cilurzo.

Russian River co-founder and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo adds a load of hops to the kettle of a Pliny the Elder brew recently at Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles. Firestone Walker is brewing Pliny for draft accounts while Russian River’s new brewhouse is installed in Santa Rosa. Photo courtesy of Vinnie Cilurzo.

SB Beer: I’ve seen the press release about why you need to brew outside of your own facility, but what I wonder is: Why Firestone Walker? What do they provide that you chose them as a site to brew your beer?
Vinnie Cilurzo: When it became apparent to Natalie and I that we needed to replace our old, tired brewhouse we also knew that we couldn’t go without brewing during the shutdown and knew we’d have to find someone to temporarily brew for us.  Only a couple of brewer friends came to mind and Firestone Walker was the best fit as our brewing style is similar.  We are also extremely good friends with (brewmaster)Matt Brynildson and David Walker.  When we asked them if they could help us out we couldn’t even finish the question before they said yes.  It is humbling and gratifying to have such good friends in the business.

SBB: Is it just Pliny the Elder being brewed there, or are other beers like Blind Pig being brewed as well?
VC: It is just Pliny the Elder they are brewing for us and it is just draft Pliny.  When go into the shut down we’ll have all our fermenters full and all the Pliny coming from our tanks will be bottled.

SBB:  How many batches will be brewed at Firestone Walker and how long will Russian River be brewing there?

VC: It is just a temporary thing, it is something like 10 or 12 batches which sounds like a lot, but in the big picture a pretty small amount of beer for Firestone to brew.

SBB:  How do you compensate Firestone Walker for allowing Russian River to brew there — is it just a simple financial arrangement, or are there other concessions and agreements made?

VC: That is an interesting question, Adam (Firestone), David, and Matt are now members of the Russian River “beer for life” club.  We supply the hops from our hop supply and all other ingredients come from Firestone, when the beer is ready they fill our kegs.  It is actually a pretty simple arrangement.

(Note: Santa Barbara Beer would love to be a member of that club as well. Lucky.)

SBB: I know it’s been stated that there are no plans for a collaboration between RR and FW, but both breweries have a lot in common in terms of barrel-aging prowess and making beautiful hoppy beers. Is there any chance that a FW-RR collaboration could be in the near future?

VC: Honestly, this isn’t something that Matt and I have talked about.  Most important to both parties is to get an exact match on flavor profile.

Russian River co-founder and brewmaster Vinnie CIlurzo adds Dextrose to a batch of Pliny the Elder at Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles. The dextrose helps provide the double IPA with more alcohol while keeping the beer relatively dry. Photo courtesy of Vinnie Cilurzo.

Russian River co-founder and brewmaster Vinnie CIlurzo adds Dextrose to a batch of Pliny the Elder at Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles. The dextrose helps provide the double IPA with more alcohol while keeping the beer relatively dry. Photo courtesy of Vinnie Cilurzo.

SBB: Did brewing at Firestone’s facility impact the way you approach beer — be it business or brewing — in any way?

VC: We are very close to the shut down so we’ve already brewed some beer.  Aside from some collaborations we’ve done at Sierra Nevada this is the only time I’ve brewed on a more automated system.  So it is a great experience for me. Our new brewhouse won’t be quite this automated, so it gave me a chance to learn.  Working with Matt and his team of brewers has been great, it’s been a great challenge to match flavors.

SBB: I know a lot of beer geeks in the Central Coast would love to see Pliny the Elder on shelves here. Is there any chance any of the batches brewed at Firestone Walker find their way to the 805?

VC: Unfortunately at this time the answer is no.  Someday we’ll have distribution down in the 805 but for now this beer will cover our current accounts and distributors.

———

Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson pours in a load of hops from Russian River Brewing Company at Firestone's facility in Paso Robles. The Central Coast brewery is brewing Pliny the Elder for draft accounts while Russian River's new brewhouse is installed in Santa Rosa.

Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson pours in a load of hops from Russian River Brewing Company at Firestone’s facility in Paso Robles. The Central Coast brewery is brewing Pliny the Elder for draft accounts while Russian River’s new brewhouse is installed in Santa Rosa. Photo courtesy of Vinnie Cilurzo

Below is David Walker’s response to a similar set of questions. Both Walker’s and Cilurzo’s responses have been edited for clarity.

David Walker: The press release kicked out by Vinnie and Natalie last year sums up the relationship pretty well, so not sure I can add much. 

Our brewhouse is nicely sized for Vinnie’s needs but we don’t expect those to hinder our brewing calendar for the few months while he is need of a brewhouse. Although it’s a big deal to brew Pliny and these guys are mates, it’s not unusual for craft brewers to help each other out; in fact Vinnie lent us a compact portable  bottling line for our Wild Ales at the Barrelworks to help us get that program off the ground. I think if you dig around you’ll find a ton of similar stories in the craft community.

(Note: I’ve done that digging in the past for research for We Make Beer — and I agree that this kind of helping and assistance is pretty commonplace among smaller brewers. What makes it unique here is the scale of Firestone Walker and Russian River)

Collab! Hell yes! I just need to broach the subject with Matt and Vinnie….they are proud brewers, no guarantees.

In terms of distribution, I am sure there is no change to their existing plans, we are merely helping them brew beer over a small window of time, I can’t see that altering their plans for the future. Pliny will remain fresh and in demand.

Meet Mike Hastings, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company’s new director of brewing operations.

 

photo courtesy of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company

photo courtesy of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company

It’s old news by now, but Figueroa Mountain’s award-winning brewmaster, A.J. Stoll, has departed for Ireland. Of course, Fig Mountain still goes on — and has no intention of taking a step back.

There’s no denying that Stoll was a great brewer. His collection of medals and well-crafted beers speak for themselves. And while the 30-year-old Stoll was a relatively young face in the brewing scene, Fig Mountain’s new lead guy, Mike Hastings, is a longtime brewing veteran.

Hastings began his career at Humboldt Brewing Company in 1989, and has spent the past 25 years brewing beer in California and Pennsylvania. He first arrived at Figueroa Mountain as the head brewer in December of 2011 — making this month the mark of his third year with the Buellton-based brewery.

“I was brought in to take A.J.’s spot to let him be more creative, go out in the public and do that sort of stuff,” Hastings said. “I was hired to do the day-to-day running of the show, making sure the product was consistent and that sort of stuff.”

As the head brewer, Hastings’ job included running the brewhouse and making sure the brewery’s stocks of hops and grain matched what was necessary for production. Stoll, meanwhile, was free to develop new beers, work on Anniversary Ale projects and do the kind of public relations and quality control jobs that come with the territory at a growing brewery like Fig Mountain.

And while those kind of tasks will fall to Hastings as the new director of brewing operations, the job of creating new beers will be delegated out to the entire brewing team. The brewery held its first “Brewers Roundtable” on Dec. 4*, as the team discussed what Fig should focus on for 2015.

“More heads are better than one. A.J. was an incredible recipe creator and a good leader, that’s for sure, but we might have been a little narrow-minded in terms of flavors we were looking for,” Hastings said. “Whereas if you bring in a broad range of palates, you might get something you never expected. A.J. and I had a little bit palate styles but he and I always came in the middle and said that’s a beautiful, beautiful beer. But nothing’s going to change at Fig, nothing’s going to drift. If anything, they’ll get a little better.”

It should be noted that Hastings’ previous quote was not a criticism of the former brewmaster, just that he believes a collaborative process might lead to more widely appealing beers.

And if you’re worried that Hastings will come in and change up your favorite beers at Fig, rest assured he says that won’t happen. After all, he was often the guy overseeing the production of much of those core beers up in Buellton.

“Those things are kind of set,” Hastings said. “You have to look at our success and what’s going on. Why mess with something that’s good? Hoppy Poppy is really successful, but we might look at modifying our Pale Ale a little bit. Pale Ales are a little blasé right now, so we might be looking to modify that or maybe make a session ale or something along those lines.”

If you’re looking for a beer that has more of Hastings’ stamp on it already, check out the 4th Anniversary beer. It’s a Belgian Quad-style beer brewed with fig extract (get it: quad for four years, figs for, well, Fig Mountain). The beer began with Stoll, but was finished and blended from barrels by Hastings and team.

“This beer had an excellent start,” Hastings said. “It was a great, great beer. The whole idea of our fourth anniversary and all the years of the hard work to bring it up to a high level, why not do a Belgian Quad?”

Hastings said that he’s already excited about beginning work on the 5th Anniversary beer, and suggested that he had some ideas already that he wasn’t ready to discuss. That beer will likely be the first real insight into what Hastings has to offer as the new head man in charge, while Fig fans in the meantime will be happy to know that not much will be changing for their favorite brewery.

Photo courtesy of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company

Photo courtesy of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company

 

* In a recent conversation with Fig’s CEO, Jaime Dietenhofer, he mentioned the hiring of several new brewers. Some of them will move into head brewing positions at the brewery’s satellite breweries and tasting rooms in Westlake Village and Arroyo Grande, both scheduled to open soon, as well as a brewer to take over the barrel-aging and mad-science aspects of the Liquamentum project which began under Stoll.

 

 

 

Fig Mountain at Four Years Old

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I’ll admit it, I wasn’t always sold on Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company.

My first experience with the brewery coincided with my first weekend back in Santa Barbara. It was October, 2010, and this upstart brewery had a booth at the annual Santa Barbara Beer Festival at Elings Park. With their Hoppy Poppy IPA and Hurricane Deck Double IPA available, they seemed to me like every new brewery out there — coming in with big, boozy offerings but maybe not with the expertise to make truly impressive beer.

Four years later, I stand corrected.

Fig celebrated its Fourth Anniversary in Buellton on Nov. 27, and over that time span the brewery has emerged as not just one of the better breweries on the Central Coast, but in the country.

With the addition of a couple new tanks recently, Fig is producing beer at a rate of 20,000 barrels per year (big for a local brewery, but still small when you consider that Firestone Walker brews 10 times that amount — and three times that amount of its 805 alone).

“(The growth) was expected, but years from now,” Figueroa Mountain founder and CEO Jaime Dietenhofer said. “I’d be lying to tell you on the business plan — it wasn’t there. The hockey stick growth came sooner than expected.”

It’s hard to separate the growth and success of Fig from its former brewmaster, A.J. Stoll. Stoll was brought in very soon after the brewery opened, and helped develop an award-winning beer portfolio — including 11 medals at the Great American Beer Festival under his watch.

But Stoll is gone, or at least mostly gone as he will still be a part of the brewery’s development in Germany, where it plans to open a taproom. So what exactly does the future look like for Fig?

For one, Fig recently opened a taproom in Santa Maria to go with its satellite brewery in Santa Barbara, taproom in Los Olivos and of course the main facility in Buellton. There will also be satellite breweries capable of producing unique beers in Arroyo Grande, Westlake Village and San Luis Obispo in the near future as well.

Anywhere else?

“A taproom on the moon,” Dietenhofer said. “No, the big thing with the taprooms is a regional goal to be able to have a footprint from Paso Robles to Westlake. That was our focus. Our goal is to not continue on the taproom gig. Our goal is to reach a capacity where we can come up with new, compelling beers. There was a time during our growing pains that we couldn’t come up with new beers because we had to focus on our core beers. We want to keep making new beers to stay on the cutting edge.”

As for the brewing side of things, former head brewer Mike Hastings was bumped up to director of brewing operations, and he will oversee a team of brewers that will meet today (Dec. 4) for Fig’s first-ever Brewer’s Round Table — a collaborative session designed to get a mixed range of voices into the brewing process.

“Before A.J. left, the good thing was that we were able to have a lot of good hires,” Dietenhofer said. “Knowing that we were having growth we were able to bring on four or five head brewers that were head brewers at other locations. We built a team rather than having just one person at the top.

“We built a collaborative, and we called it the Brewers’ Round Table. December 4 is our first Brewers’ Round Table where it’s everyone has the ability to add something — whether it’s an anniversary beer, a taproom beer or even taking something to package. Its like we were talking about before taking the best people available like an NBA draft and getting them into our team and seeing what we can do with a team. Two heads are better than one and five heads are better than one. I think that’s going to take us to the next level. A.J. was an amazing part of the team and now we have some guys who can shine now and are ready to.”

From left, samples of Figueroa Mountain's 2nd, 3rd and 4th Anniversary Beers.

From left, samples of Figueroa Mountain’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th Anniversary Beers.

As for the 4th Anniversary beer itself, I’ll let Hastings explain it.

“This beer had an excellent start,” he said. “It was a great, great beer. The whole idea of our fourth anniversary and all the years of the hard work to bring it up to a high level, why not do a Belgian Quad?”

Get it? Four years… Quad — clever.

The beer is a barrel-aged Quad with a slight hint of figs from a locally-produced natural fig extract. It’s a beautiful dark brown with ruby highlights when held up to the light.

To be honest, I’d have liked to see a little more from the beer. Compared to the bourbon-barrel-aged Imperial Oatmeal Stout that was the 3rd Anniversary, this beer is a little pedestrian — if a well-made Quad can be considered such. It’s not that it’s a bad beer, very far from it, but perhaps not as exciting as you might expect for a once-a-year offering. In fact, I enjoyed the cask version available during the anniversary party that was aged on smoked poplar wood, figs and anise better.

Still, I’ve got a bottle in my fridge and I’ll be looking forward to seeing how it stands up to the test of time. I wouldn’t mind seeing a version of it, perhaps not barrel-aged for production reasons, available on a more regular basis at Figs’ numerous tap rooms.

It’s been a strong four years for Figueroa Mountain, and I know they’ve won over many of their doubters like myself. I look forward to seeing what the next four (and hopefully more) years bring.