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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Firestone Walker is in the Final Four

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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.

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.

Local Breweries at GABF

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I’m on my way to GABF for the weekend’s festivities. I’ll be signing books on Thursday and Saturday nights, but will also be covering the local breweries there in this space and in the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Firestone-Walker, Figueroa Mountain, Telegraph and Island Brewing have all won medals at the festival before, and they have once again entered into the competition. However, of the four, only Firestone-Walker and Figueroa Mountain will have booths at the event.

Both Firestone-Walker and Figueroa Mountain are entering beer into the competition from their side labels as well, with Barrelworks and the newly-debuted Liquamentum lines both up for judging.

Stay tuned for more details and coverage.

HEADS UP: Fall flavors in a pint

Note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 4 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press. I’ve been avoiding posting my monthly columns on here because many of the recent ones were timely and irrelevant by the time the rights reverted back to me. This one is less constrained in that regard.

Today’s brewers operate under an understanding that a rising tide lifts all boats. In other words, the majority of modern beer companies would rather collaborate with their competitors than, well, compete.

Whether this is a good thing for craft brewers as the market segment continues to grow remains to be seen. For the consumer, however, it’s all good.

Take, for example, two breweries in our own backyard — Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. and Firestone Walker Brewing Co. In many respects, Fig Mountain is a David to Firestone’s Goliath, except without the slingshot. Firestone Walker is distributed on both coasts, while Fig Mountain is shipped only as far away as Sacramento. Yet both breweries owe much of their success to the Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura county markets.

Fortunately, the decision-makers at each brewery have come to realize that there’s plenty of room for both to grow. As long as consumers are willing to snag a Bud Light off the shelf of the grocery store, Firestone Walker and Fig Mountain can continue to coexist.

And as luck would have it, each brewery is celebrating the release of new beers in September.

First up is Fig Mountain, where brewmaster A.J. Stoll is debuting Ole Mole, an amber ale spiced with chilies that give it a distinctive mole flavor. Mr. Stoll refers to it as “liquid taco,” and it’s an apt description, both in flavor and aroma.

“It tastes like fruity chilies and chocolate and coffee. We added organic cumin, cinnamon and coriander to make it more authentic. It’s basically like Grandma’s mole recipe in beer.”

It is on tap now at Fig Mountain’s tap rooms in the Funk Zone, Buellton and Los Olivos. It joins a list of exciting new beers that includes the McKinley Peak Milk Stout. Served on nitrogen (the same system that gives Guinness its distinctive creamy texture), the beer is slightly sweet and is virtually a dessert in a glass.

Neither, though, can match the hype building for the release of Fig Mountain’s Liquementum brand. The side label is a pet project of Mr. Stoll’s that draws heavily on the influence of winemakers, and features barrel-aged beers. Up first will be Double Down Davy Brown and Hell’s Half Acre Barleywine. The two are strong beers that have been aging in whiskey barrels, and will be previewed at the Buellton brewery’s Sept. 27 “Figtoberfest” Oktoberfest celebration.

Fig Mountain will also have an Oktoberfest party at its Funk Zone spot on Sept. 20 — the same day that Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks project releases its latest creation, Feral Vinefera, upon the world. I have yet to try this beer as a finished product, but I did taste some of the components several months ago as they were aging. The sour ale was co-fermented alongside juice from wine grapes picked from brewery owner David Walker’s property and fermented in French oak barrels with a blend of wild yeasts. Then those barrels were blended together with the assistance of winemaker Andrew Murray of Andrew Murray Vineyards. Blends of beers made with sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and orange muscat juice were then combined with Barrelworks’ Bretta Weisse to create the finished product.

Barrelworks will also release Agrestic, a sour ale that has long been a favorite of beer geeks in the area.

In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying the great beers already available in town. That includes the Handlebar Abbey Ale at Telegraph Brewing Co. Brewed with coffee from Handlebar Coffee Roasters in Santa Barbara, it’s the perfect beer to drink while dreaming about all the amazing beer you’re going to be drinking this month.

Sean Lewis is a beer drinker, beer maker and beer writer. His book, “We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers” (St. Martin’s Press), will be released Sept. 23. His column appears the first Thursday of the month in the Food section. Follow him on twitter @Sean_M_Lewis.

 

We Make Beer signings at Firestone Walker Barrelworks, Pure Order and GABF

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I’m very happy to announce a bevvy of upcoming book signings and events for We Make Beer (pre-order now and get a sweet discount). So pause here and go get your pens to mark your calendar. I’ll wait.

Sept 20 — Firestone Walker Barrelworks Agrestic and Feral Vinifera Liberation

Agrestic 2014 Front label

Firestone Walker plays an important role in the stories I tell in We Make Beer, and barrelmeister Jeffers Richardson, as Firestone’s first brewer, lends his voice for the book to help tell that story. So it’s only appropriate that we have a table set up there where we can all sit around chat about the new batch of Agrestic.

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Sept. 27 — Pure Order Brewing Company

This event will serve as the official book release party for We Make Beer. You can pre-order a copy now and bring it with you to the party (although I can’t guarantee your copy will arrive in time), or purchase one of the copies for sale at the brewery. The good thing about buying a copy at the brewery is that you’ll get a free pint out of it. Pure Order has been killing it lately, and that free pint is going to be pretty nice.

The event runs from Noon-4 p.m., with the book signing beginning at 2 p.m., and should be a rocking good time regardless of whether you buy a book or not (but please do). It will make a nice alternative to those who can’t make it up to Buellton for the Figtoberfest… although in theory one could get away with doing both!

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Oct. 2 and Oct. 4 — Great American Beer Festival Beer Enthusiast Bookstore

For everyone going to GABF this year, you can catch me at the bookstore on Thursday the second from 8:30-9 p.m. and on Saturday the fourth from 6-6:30 p.m.

There are a few other events in the works as well. For instance, I’ll be at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Oct. 17 speaking at the Great Dane Pub, and there are some signings being discussed in Buellton and Solvang. More details on those when they’re available.

Feral Vinifera and Agrestic Release at Firestone Walker Barrelworks

Agrestic 2014 Front label

Firestone Walker is releasing two beers on Sept. 20 at Barrelworks in Buellton, and is hosting another one of its liberation parties. Pre-sale tickets for the event are available here.

I think a lot of Firestone fans are going to be excited to finally see Agrestic in bottles. Officially, the liberation is for Agrestic, as it is the more voluminous of the two beers created and the one that the team at Barrelworks can guarantee for all of the attendees. I had an opportunity to taste Agrestic 2014 shortly before it went into bottles (and I believe it has been on tap at Barrelworks as well), and it was right in line with previous iterations of the beer. It will be fun to see how bottle conditioning impacts this delightfully sour ale.

Feral Vinifera_Label_FWBC_375ml

The other beer being released is Feral Vinifera. More details can be found by following the earlier link, but the basic details are that it’s something between a sour beer and a beer/wine hybrid. I haven’t tasted this one yet, but I’ve had sips of some of the components a good ways back and I imagine it’s going to be pretty fantastic.

We Make Beer

On a personal note, I’m very excited to announce that I will be at Barrelworks signing copies of my book, We Make Beer. Technically, this is several days before the book is even released, so it’s something of a sneak preview. Copies of the book will be available for sale on site. However, if you’d like to buy more for a gift or if you can’t make it to the Agrestic liberation, you can always pre-order copies from Amazon here.

Velvet Merkin returns for Firestone

Firestone-Walker Velvet Merkin

Velvet Merkin is the type of beer that sets Firestone-Walker apart from the majority of the other breweries out there. It’s a master stroke from brewer Matt Brynildson and the team there in Paso Robles. It’s scheduled for release on Sept. 15, and seems like the perfect beer to sip while reading a new beer book, say, We Make Beer, coming Sept. 23.

The following is a press release from Firestone-Walker:

NOTHING TO HIDE: FIRESTONE WALKER REVEALS 2014 VELVET MERKIN

Paso Robles, CA: Firestone Walker Brewing Company’s Velvet Merkin barrel-aged oatmeal stout is set to make a curtain call with the release of the 2014 vintage starting on September 15.

“We let our hair down with the 2014 Velvet Merkin and changed up the barrel mix a bit compared to previous vintages,” said Brewmaster Matt Brynildson. “Velvet Merkin has always had this signature milk chocolate character, but now the vanilla notes are more pronounced as well. We’re pretty stoked on this vintage.”

The 2014 Velvet Merkin was primarily aged in bourbon barrels from Elijah Craig and Woodford Reserve, along with a selection of Rittenhouse Rye whiskey barrels. The Elijah Craig and Woodford Reserve barrels imparted fine bourbon qualities, while the younger Rittenhouse Rye whiskey barrels provided subtle spiciness with an elevated vanilla character.

The 2014 Velvet Merkin is a blend chosen from five separate batches brewed and barreled down at different times, with an average of one year spent in the barrel.

“We had more Velvet Merkin barrels to choose from than ever before, so we were able to really fine tune the blend with complementary lots,” Brynildson said. “We moved into our new barrel cellar earlier this year, and our barrel-aged program is maturing. It’s helping us get the most out of each beer, and the 2014 Velvet Merkin is an example of that.”

A total of 3,500 cases (22-ounce bottles; $16.99) were produced, with availability in select markets across the United States.

First Packaged Release of Firestone Walker’s “Oaktoberfest” Arrives on August 1

The following is a press release from Firestone Walker Brewing Company.

BIERGARTEN IN A BOTTLE

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Paso Robles, CA: It’s time to dust off your stein and get a jump on German tradition as Firestone Walker Brewing Company is set to release Oaktoberfest in bottles, marking the first-ever packaged release of this “Paso Märzen Bier.”

“Oaktoberfest is a real quaffer,” said Brewmaster Matt Brynildson. “It’s mellow and rounded with this gorgeous autumn orange hue—it’s the kind of beer you should be drinking out of a liter mug.”

Oaktoberfest is a seasonal offering for late summer and fall, and will be available in six packs starting on August 1. Until now, the beer was exclusively a seasonal draft offering originally made for the brewery’s local Oaktoberfest celebration.

While the upcoming Oaktoberfest release is true to the brewery’s original version, it’s now slightly drier and hoppier to provide more balance with the sweeter malt character of the style

“Oaktoberfest has always provided us an opportunity to play around with new German hop cultivars,” Brynildson said. “We’re now focusing on Hallertau Tradition, and we contracted directly with several German farmers to make sure we had enough to last. When visiting some of my favorite German lager breweries, I’ve seen a ton of Hallertau Tradition in their closets, and it proved to be a natural fit for Oaktoberfest.

He added, “Nevertheless, this is not a hop-driven beer. It’s very traditional in style, incorporating equal amounts of Vienna malt and Pilsner malt, both from Germany. It all comes together to create this classic Märzen profile, with subtle honey-like aromas and hints of noble hop spice.”

The name Oaktoberfest is a nod to the brewery’s hometown of Paso Robles—Spanish for “Pass of The Oaks”—as well as the longtime presence of oak barrels as a central part of the Firestone Walker brewing operation. The checkered blue and white pattern on the label echoes the Bavarian flag and pays homage to the style.

The 2014 Madonna Inn Oktoberfest presented by Firestone Walker Brewing Company takes place on October 11. As always, Oaktoberfest will be racked to oak barrels and ceremonially tapped to punctuate the festivities.

“Tapping the barrels of Oaktoberfest has been an annual rite here for nearly a decade,” Brynildson said. “It’s a journey that has finally found its way into the bottle.”