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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Heads Up: Mr. Walker’s Wild Ride

Note: This story originally appeared in the Oct. 3 edition of the Santa Barbara News Press.
Beer’s effect on memory can be, I don’t know, something. I forgot.

Poorly crafted jokes aside, the expression “beer memory” should not be viewed as an oxymoron. One of the beautiful things about beer is that it is best served in social settings, and thus an ideal vehicle for making friends, meeting new people and generally creating great memories.

I remember my first beer: Keystone Light in a blue plastic cup. I nearly threw up from the taste in my college dorm room with my friend, Ben, reassuring me that it gets better.

I remember my first good beer: Samuel Adams Boston Lager paired with the ever-ubiquitous Woodstock’s Pizza in my Isla Vista apartment. It was a realization that beer could be more than a simple means of inebriation.

I remember my first legal beer: Guinness, dark and creamy, served at the now-defunct Madison’s on State Street. My girlfriend, and now my wife, Vic, bought it for me along with a shot of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey and a steak on my 21st birthday.

I remember one of my favorite beer moments: It was my 28th birthday (one year ago today), and I sat at a table at Hollister Brewing Co. with brewmaster Eric Rose, his assistant Noah Regnery, Russian River Brewing Co.’s Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo, as well as former Pizza Port Brewing Co. rock star brewer Jeff Bagby and his parents.

Those are all great memories, each with their own lengthy histories and anecdotes, that I never would have had were it not for beer. On Saturday, I had the opportunity to make a new memory, and leapt at it.

David Walker, co-proprietor of Firestone-Walker, was taking his 50-year-old Land Rover, affectionately dubbed “Olivia,” bearing Firestone logos, to Los Angeles for a day trip along with four kegs of wild beers to be tapped at four Los Angeles bars. The bar owners didn’t know what they were getting, only that they would get something great as one of the stops on the excursion known as Walker’s Wild Ride.

It was the closing weekend of LA Beer Week, and David wanted to do something fun.

“Anyone can go down there and do a tap takeover with (our) Union Jack, Wookey Jack, Double Jack and Parabola, but we have all these funky beers from the Barrelworks, so why not do something different?” he said.

David — after sharing the better part of a day with him I feel we’re on a first-name basis — picked me up at my home in Santa Barbara. We cruised down the 101 and were randomly passed by my sister and parents — with my mother leaning out the passenger window to snap a photo. Later, a man in a truck towing a boat honked his horn and produced a bottle of the brewery’s 805, from which he proudly swigged an illegal tribute.

By the time we cut through Camarillo and switched onto PCH, our conversations had already covered topics as obvious as the beer industry to family politics and childhood homes.

Watching David, who grew up on the Western coast of England, drive this British relic was impressive. It had more gears than seemed possible, and then a few extra levers that did God-knows-what. He handled it all with typical English charm, and we decided that Olivia was sort of a mechanical version of the craft beer industry. It required love and knowledge to drive, and it had a soul.

After picking up Firestone-Walker master blender Jim Crooks, who, along with Jeffers Richardson, runs the show at Barrelworks, in Venice, we headed to the Daily Pint in Santa Monica.

There, we met my brother, Steve, and his fiancee, Sarah. We tapped the first beer, Lil Opal, and after a few shared glasses of the delightfully and mildly fruity (slight notes of wine grapes give the saison-style ale something extra) beer, David quickly consented to letting Steve and Sarah get married at the Barrelworks. I think he said he’d officiate as well, but the accent can be hard to decipher sometimes.

Next up was The Surly Goat in West Hollywood, where proprietor Ryan Sweeney has built up a pocket for craft beer in what can be a decidedly cocktail part of town. They tapped the collaboration beer, Lil’ Mikkel, a sour beer brewed with infamous gypsy brewery Mikkeller, as Mr. Sweeney showed us the comically large collection of old beer ads featuring goats.

The third stop was the Blue Palms in Hollywood, where owner Brian Lenzo tapped the highly-sought Agrestic — another sour with a pleasant effervescence and gorgeous chestnut color. We left in Olivia, and followed Mr. Lenzo in his candy-yellow classic Dodge truck to the final stop.

The vehicle was a symbol of America’s revolutionary spirit and fierce individualism, and it was a nice complement to Olivia’s more reserved British nature.

The last stop was Mohawk Bend on Sunset, where customers paired the delicate and tart Bretta Weisse with the vast array of vegan options on the menu. It was also the home of a photography exhibit for Bernie Wire (friendsoflocalbeer.com), whose incredible photos serve as something of an unofficial historical archive for craft beer in Los Angeles.

At the end of the night, a group of about eight or nine people found some spot on Olivia to pose for Mr. Wire’s camera, and the Wild Ride came to a close.

It was a tremendous experience filled with memories that I will likely cherish for a long time, but that will soon be joined in my ever-crowded brain with new ones on the near horizon.

On Oct. 8, I will be spending the night at Santa Barbara Brewing Co., brewing one of my recipes with brewmaster Kevin Pratt on Brewco’s system, with the finished product coming on tap sometime in late October or early November.

I also plan on making plenty of new memories this weekend at The Brewhouse’s annual Oktoberfest on Friday, and at Figueroa Mountain’s Figtoberfest in Buellton on Saturday.

If you see me, say hi, and feel free to buy me a beer — after all, today’s my birthday. Cheers!

Sean Lewis is a beer drinker, beer maker and beer writer. His column appears the first Thursday of the month in the Food section. Follow him on twitter @Sean_M_Lewis to see where he’s drinking in Santa Barbara County.