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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First Taste: Feral One and Lil Opal

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Sour beer fans by now have already heard about Firestone Walker’s upcoming release of Feral One. Detailed information from the brewery about that beer can be found in the preceding link, but the beer is a Cuvée Blend that comes off like a classic Gueuze.

I was asked if I’d like to come in and have a taste of the beer before it’s released on March 8. Well, that’s an easy question to answer.

Firestone’s blendmaster, Jim Crooks, was on hand to pour us some samples and discuss the beer. Barrelworks’ barrelmeister and Jim’s partner in these projects, Jeffers Richardson, joined us via telephone from Arizona where he was doing some promotional work. We got the better end of the deal, as we actually had some beer to taste.

Firestone Walker master blender Jim Crooks pours a sample of Feral One

Firestone Walker master blender Jim Crooks pours a sample of Feral One

The beer opens from its cork and cage with a loud pop, but there isn’t a fizzy overflow. That’s not surprising, as Jeffers and Jim have become very good at controlling and monitoring the wildness of their brews.

The aroma is full of grapefruit zest and has a slight hint of raspberry. My guess is the raspberry is in part a result of the blending of SLOAmbic, a fruited Lambic made with olallieberries. But what was most remarkable was that citrus aroma, as Jim explained it’s a very difficult scent to achieve in an aged sour beer. The actual cause of the aroma is uncertain, but Jeffers and Jim were able to speculate.

“One of the things how our beer differs from other sour producers is that we use a lot of American Oak,” Jim said. “It could possibly be that American Oak might start out with these higher harsh tannic compounds. Then when the beer oxidizes and intermingles with the flavors of the oak, that might be where this lemony zest or grapefruit zest is coming from.”

And of course, since we’re all super beer nerds, Jeffers went even deeper into the aroma.

“Something else I picked out the last time I tasted it was this undertone,” Jeffers said. “It was a vanilla oak undertone, but I picked up a slight lavender that was really interesting. That could be oak or oxidation as well. That’s the beauty of these beers – they’re alive.”

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The first sip definitely provided a bit of a prickly sour experience that was enhanced by the sharp carbonation and tannins from the oak. The sourness lingered and grew slightly in intensity after the swallow. There was also a hint of vanilla after the sourness faded away.

Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable beer. The balance of the tartness with the slight hints of fruit and oak were masterfully done. An interesting note though was that, according to Jim, the blend was made more sour at the suggestion of Firestone’s brewmaster Matt Brynildson.

It seems like a good idea.

Lil’ Opal

Perhaps the real treat of the tasting session was a little something extra Jim brought out for comparison. Feral One is Barrelworks’ first bottled beer, and Lil’ Opal is its second. I’ve edited the rest of this post at the request of Barrelworks, as the Lil’ Opal I tasted is not quite ready, and it wasn’t fair to the beer or brewers to give it a review – even if it was a positive one.

Suffice to say it’s still a work in progress that shows a ton of progress and was quite good. The picture below is Lil’ Opal in the glass.

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Blending Workshop at Firestone-Walker Barrelworks

Pardon the delay. I’ve been going H.A.M. on my book so that I can meet my deadline, and my blog sometimes gets pushed to the back.  That’s the same reason this blog is being updated at a leisurely pace. That will change after I meet my deadline in June.
On Friday, May 10, about 23 others and myself gathered at the Firestone-Walker Barrelworks facility in Buellton for their first-ever “The Art of Blending Beer” – a workshop on crafting “an artful blend of strong ale” using four component beers from the spirits barrel aging program hosted in conjunction with Valley Brewers homebrew supply store in Solvang. The goal was to create a blended beer much the same way the blenders do when they create F-W’s famed Anniversary Ales.
Before we started we were put into teams of three people – well, ostensibly it was three people. The winning team ended up having five or six people (my team came in third of about seven groups). I was partnered with two gentleman named Seth and Eric – both of whom worked in Goleta. Getting partnered with strangers is always a bit of a crapshoot, but I think we all kind of lucked out in that we had similar tastes and were able to conduct ourselves like the diplomatic individuals we all strive to be. Once we had our teams settled, Firestone-Walker’s quality control chief and blending guru Jim Crooks addressed the crowd, along with Jeffers Richardson, the head honcho at Barrelworks.
Crooks gave the small crowd an insight into what now seems like a great historic event. He discussed the time that he and Matt Brynildson, F-W’s esteemed brewmaster, sat down and conjured up the blend for the first-ever F-W Anniversary Ale – X. He explained how the blended beer was engineered as something that would be able to withstand a long aging process by the potential consumer. He also explained that the pressure to create a successful blend, especially considering that neither he nor Brynildson were very practiced in the art, was a little more than they liked. So when it came time to plan the blend for XI, Brynildson invited his wine-making friends from the region to join him, as they had years of experience in blending. What they found, was that the winemakers took a completely different approach.
“They weren’t blending for the future, they were blending for what’s in the glass right now,” Crooks said.
The end result was a beer that could withstand aging well, but was also delicious at the moment. That practice has persisted until Friday, when Crooks and Richardson passed the opportunity to make a blend on to the F-W fans (the winning blend won’t be released as an Anniversary ale, but it will be put on tap at the Barrelworks soon). They tasked our teams of taking five component beers: Helldorado, Bravo, Parabola, Velvet Merkin and Wookey Jack and told us to blend them into one delicious concoction.
I would have been glad to simply sip those five beers all night, but the task at hand demanded more. Seth, Eric and myself each made our own blends using graduated cylinders and loads of plastic tasting cups, then shared them with each other and built a blend from that. The process was long, but not arduous. Seth put it best when he said, “I feel like this is a labor of love.” Wise words, sir.
After two good, but not great versions, we settled on our third group blend. The final blend looked like this: 30% Velvet Merkin, 30% Wookey Jack (we needed a god hop presence), 20% Parabola, 15% Bravo and just 5% Helldorado. The beer was relatively balanced, but sweet and warming in the way that a strong beer should be.
Finally, Richardson and Crooks took our recipes to the back room, where they concocted the blends on a large enough scale that each group member could taste the creations of every group. The seven beers were lined up in front of us, and we set about rating them. The winning group ran away with the competition, while the second-place team narrowly edged Seth, Eric and I into third place.
After blending and tasting, blending and tasting, tasting, blending and more tasting – my palate was significantly fatigued. I wish I could give better details as to why the winners won, but I do know that I found their beer to be very good. I rated it an A-, which was one of the highest scores I gave a blend (the lowest was a B-) and it was based mainly on a gut reaction.
The evening was a ton of fun, if not a little unorganized. However, with such a relatively small group of adults, the loose organization didn’t put a damper on the enjoyment. I don’t think I’m an expert on blending beer after the workshop – far from it. I do, however, have a better understanding of the task that faces the blending team each time a new Anniversary Ale pops out. Poor bastards.

Where I’ll be this weekend – Parabola 2013 release

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Just received this email from Firestone-Walker barrelmeister Jeffers Richardson:

“Hey Everybody!

This weekend, we will have both 2012 and 2013 Parabola on tap and in bottles for you to enjoy.   2013 Parabola is here!  Parabola #004 has added Four Roses Bourbon barrels to the aging equation, in an already all-star barrel-aging line up: Elijah Craig and Van Winkle.   Four Roses now adds another layer of complexity to this beer.

Please stop by and try one of my all-time favorite beers, taste through a vertical, or purchase a bottle.  We will limit people to two bottles per person—sorry.

Of course, we will be offering tasters of beers from our already amazing line up as well,  so please visit the Barrelworks this weekend.

Cheers!”

This is one of my favorite beers, and you can bet I will get up there this weekend to get my two bottles.