A precap of the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival and La Piccola Collaboration Beer

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Christmas doesn’t make me this happy. Birthdays don’t even come close. Few things get me as excited as the last weekend in May and the fourth Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival.

I won’t go into too much detail about all the great beers that will be at this year’s festival (if you’re curious, you can find the list here). I’ll have a little more info about that in my column in the Santa Barbara News-Press that will run on June 4. But suffice to say there’s a lot of good stuff.

But what makes the FWIBF stand out is not the amount of whalez(!) flowing from the best brewers in the world, it’s the overall high quality of beer. You can wander the aisles of the Great American Beer Festival and find some truly amazing beer, but you can also find a bunch of duds and a few outright stinkers. At FWIBF, the vast majority of beers poured are in the “world-class” category — so don’t expect me to be standing in lines for the popular beers while hidden gems lay waiting to be discovered.

However, there is one beer that I will gladly be lining up for — La Piccola Dark Saison, a collaboration beer brewed alongside Agostino Arioli of Birrifico Italiano. There will be three versions of this beer available at the festival — two from Firestone Walker Barrelworks, and one from Birrificio Italiano. Firestone brewmaster Matt Brynildson explained the collaboration process in a recent press release.

“With most collaborations, you start the beer together at one brewery, and it gets finished there, resulting in one beer,” Brynildson said. “Agostino and I decided to do something different. We sat down and designed the recipe together, then went back to our respective breweries to brew them on our own. We’ve been emailing back and forth for a year now, trying to replicate what the other was doing.”

LaPiccolaAfter Brynildson produced the wort in Paso Robles and pitched the brewery’s saison yeast, it was shipped down to Buellton where mad fermentationists Jeffers Richardson and Jim Crooks got to doing their thing with the barrels and bugs.

They inoculated the beer with a blend of brettanomyces lambicus and lactobacillus (better known as Brett and Lacto) and let those wild strains do their thing for eight months inside French oak puncheons.

The plan was always to add some black pepper to the brew, but after tasting the base product it was hard to avoid not releasing that as well.

“Once that finished we started tasting it and everyone really appreciated the version we created,” Crooks said. “That’s when we started thinking we wanted to do one called (La Piccola) Virtuosa which was without peppercorns.”

Another version was dosed with Sichuan peppercorns, which Richardson and Crooks agreed were quite the pepper.

“It’s like putting your tongue on a nine-volt battery,” Crooks said.

“It’s that feeling you get at the dentist’s office when the Novocain wears off,” Richardson added.

The result was two similar, yet distinctive beers.

“They’re both fantastic beers,” Richardson said. “The difference is you get this citrus rind, depth from the peppercorn beer…. it’s really quite pleasant. The amount blended in worked quite nicely. It will be really fun to compare and contrast with Birrifico Italiano.”

Both versions will be available at the festival and for sale at the Paso Robles Brewery and the Barrelworks facility starting at 3 p.m. on Saturday. However, the only place to taste the Birrifico Italiano version will be at the festival. Nobody this side of the Atlantic has had that yet, but Richardson speculated that it would likely be less sour than what they created.

For a little insight, Brynildson described Arioli’s style a bit in that same press release.

“Like many Italians, Agostino is a true gourmet, and he takes a chef’s approach to brewing,” Brynildson said. “He’s really into exotic spices and he wanted to play around with these Sichuan peppercorns, which are really weird and unique. We had to contact a spice hunter in Italy to get our hands on them.”

So skip the lines on Saturday, but don’t skip La Piccola.

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What it Means to be a Community Brewery

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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.

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.

Firestone and 3 Floyds Collaborate

            

OL’ LEGHORN FLIES THE COOP

3 Floyds and Firestone Walker to Release
Collaboration Barleywine This Weekend

Here comes Ol’ Leghorn, a swaggering rooster of a beer made by Nick Floyd of 3 Floyds Brewing Co. and Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker Brewing Company, old friends of nearly 20 years who both cut their brewing teeth in the mid 1990s Chicago craft beer scene.

Ol’ Leghorn was initially brewed by Floyd and Brynildson during last year’s Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest. In a shout-out to Firestone Walker’s and Nick Floyd’s mutual English heritage, this blonde barleywine was brewed with traditional English ale malting varieties—Golden Promise and Optic base malts—with no specialty malt added.

The beer was then racked to a combination of retired bourbon barrels and new American oak wine barrels for aging at Firestone Walker Brewing Company.  In fearless 3 Floyds fashion, another batch of dry-hopped Ol’ Leghorn was recently brewed for blending into the aged beer, to add a fresh, hoppy layer to the more intense spirits barrel and oaky character of the initial batch.

The result is a staggeringly hoppy blonde barleywine that will first be unveiled at the 2014 Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest in Paso Robles on Saturday, May 31. Additionally, 22-ounce bottles will be available for purchase (six bottle limit per customer) at Firestone Walker’s Brewery Store on Sunday, June 1 starting at 10 a.m., with very limited market release later in the month. Ol’ Leghorn is meant to be consumed fresh in its youth, and vigilantly cold stored in the meantime.

The name Ol’ Leghorn is a nod to Old Foghorn, the original iconic American barleywine made by Anchor Brewing, by way of Foghorn Leghorn, the wisecracking Looney Toons rooster.

Kumbaya it’s Santa Barbara Beer

I’ve got to give it up to fellow Santa Barbara beer writer Zach Rosen.

On Tuesday, a collaboration beer between myself and Santa Barbara Brewing Company was released at the brewpub with plenty of friends and a smattering of some of the local beer people – also friends (I’m borrowing that logic from Zach, here). Among them was Zach.

Zach writes a column every week for the Santa Barbara Sentinel (you can find this week’s issue here – his column starts on page 10), and is a Certified Cicerone. That basically means that he’s something like a Sommelier for beer. As a writer for a competing local publication (I write for the SB News Press), it might seem like there would be some natural competition… but there isn’t. For starters, our format is fairly different. Although we both write about beer, our columns take different forms. Because my column appears just once a month compared to his weekly piece, mine has a different focus. Zach is also great at writing about beer itself, while I try to draw attention to the people and places.

In any case, Zach called me on Tuesday to talk about coming to the Painted Cave Porter Release Party and writing about it for the Sentinel. There’s a lot I could say about that, but I think I’ll just recreate the conversation here and let it speak for itself.

My phone rang while I’m looking at soup in Whole Foods – it said “Zach Rosen” on the screen.

“Hey Zach”

“Hey Sean, how are you?”

I reached for a box of tomato soup, but start knocking over boxes of beef broth too. “Oh, I’m alright. Fighting off a bug.” I lied. I was dying.

We went over the details of the release party – when I was getting there and whatnot, and Zach had a question.

“Do you have any objection to me writing about the release party and the beer tonight?”

I didn’t, but I wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to preempt my story that will run Nov. 7. We talked about the angle he was going to take, I realized that it wasn’t going to conflict with the angle I was going to take, so it was all good.

“Yeah man, that sounds great. It will be fun to get a little cross-publication love out there.”

“You know, it’s funny. When some of my friends saw your column in the News Press, they said ‘oh, you’ve got a little competition now.’ I had to tell them that we weren’t competitors at all. That we were friends.”

I had to chuckle a little bit. I’ve often credited Zach for being the inspiration for my editors at the News Press to let me write my beer column – something I had been trying to get for a couple years.

“Yeah man (I start most of my sentences this way), I think there’s plenty of room for a couple of beer writers in this town.”

It went on like this for a little bit. I had to hit mute to cough up a lung and probably missed Zach saying goodbye, but I said goodbye and hung up.

Fun story, right? Maybe that head cold is still lingering and I’m a little loopy, but I’m glad to be a part of a strong and growing stronger beer community in Santa Barbara. Zach is part of that community too. With that in mind, may I suggest you check out his Beer Matinee this Saturday at 5 p.m. Part of being a Cicerone means pairing beer with food, but Zach is a little bit different and prefers to pair beer with life. I love his approach to beer when it comes to these pairings, and Saturday’s event is going to pair beer with scenes and characters from The Jerk. I don’t know what beer pairs best with Steve Martin, but I’d love to find out.

So go check it out. Go check out Zach’s article in The Sentinel, and go check out Painted Cave Porter at Santa Barbara Brewing Company.

Brewnight at Santa Barbara Brewing Company

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What follows is something of a photo essay on a brewnight at Santa Barbara Brewing Company. We were brewing one of my beers, a collaboration piece that Kevin hopes to repeat with other bloggers and writers. This took place Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, and will be given a lot of attention in my forthcoming column for the Santa Barbara News Press (scheduled to appear Nov. 7. The first step, of course, was busting out the old brewing boots, which were in truth dairy boots purchased years ago when I was an assistant at Blue Hills Brewing Company in Canton, Mass.

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I arrived at Santa Barbara Brewing Company a little after 11 p.m. when the restaurant had already closed, and found about 1,100-plus pounds of grain already milled and ready to be added to the mash. I would be taking most of these and dumping them into the mash tun myself, although brewmaster Kevin Pratt definitely gave my tired shoulder a break by adding a few hundred pounds himself.

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Here is a look at the mash, and Kevin checking it out to make sure it’s the right thickness. We both took turns stirring the mash with a paddle to ensure there were no dough balls.IMG_0217

After the mash was complete, assistant brewer Gavin Cook did the majority of the work in clearing it out.

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Kevin watches the kettle boil. During this stage, we added hops. A lot of hops.

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We also added a half-pound of dark Belgian Candi Sugar. This will add essentially nothing to the brew itself, what will be a Black IPA/Hoppy Robust Porter/Imperial Porter/American Black Ale (it could get away with being called any of those things, but we’ll most likely be going with “Painted Cave Porter.”). However, this does help me get rid of an ingredient I had no intention of ever using again after it was used to make one of the worst homebrews I’ve ever made. I also trashed the fermentation bucket that made said homebrew months ago. I guess I’m a little superstitious.

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Finally, the yeast. WLP007 English Ale Yeast. I was proud to know that our collaboration brew would be using the first generation of Brewco’s house yeast for this batch. Inside the fermentation vessel, this yeast will multiply in an exponential rate, and yeast will be harvested from this batch for future batches. In a way, it’s kind of like this beer will have many children and grand children. Awwww, how sweet.

I’ll add more details about the brew and the beer itself when it’s closer to its release date – which will be sometime in late October or early November.