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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Barrelworks comes full circle with release of Lil Opal

Note: The following is a press release from Firestone Walker Brewing Company and Barrelworks. I tried a version of this beer as it was aging while tasting Feral One. Back then, they were calling it “Lil Hopeful,” but it’s all ready now and I’m looking forward to the flight of the Opals on Saturday.

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Brett’d Barrel-Aged Saison Set for Limited Bottle Release on April 19

Buellton, CA—In the beginning, there was Lil Opal, an illicit “brett’d saison” that spawned a rogue family of barrel-aged wild yeast beers. As the family grew large and unruly, Firestone Walker Brewing Company was ultimately compelled to build them a home called Barrelworks.

Now, Barrelworks comes full circle with the upcoming limited release of 2014 Lil Opal in 375ml bottles—the first time the beer has been captured in bottles since it was first created eight years ago.

The 2014 Lil Opal bottles will be released at the “Flight of The Opals” open house at Barrelworks on April 19 (see below for event details). The 2014 Lil Opal bottles will thereafter be available for a limited time at Barrelworks and the brewery in Paso Robles. Only 750 cases were produced.

Lil Opal was originally created when master blender, then quality control manager, Jim “Sour Jim” Crooks peeled away from his regular brewery duties and began aging wild yeast (a.k.a. sour) beers in Viognier barrels acquired from local wineries. He squirreled away four barrels of a one-off saison in a back warehouse and covered them with a tarp, where they sat for two years.

“Over time, the beer picked up all of these amazing oaky vanilla flavors, but it was still light and snappy.” Crooks said. “The brettanomyces yeast had preserved the beer, so it was still quite alive, with no oxidation. I was blown away.”

Thus Lil Opal was born, and Firestone Walker’s wild yeast beer program began to take off. Today, the program has grown to more than 700 barrels stacked to the ceiling of Barrelworks. Lil Opal is also the inspiration behind Opal, a stainless-brewed farmhouse saison that became a year-round release starting in March.

Said Barrelworks Director Jeffers Richardson, “Lil Opal, our second bottled offering of 2014, is a brett’d saison released in the spring to celebrate the vernal season. This vintage release was aged for 14 months in French and American oak barrels. The maturation time expresses Lil Opal’s oak signature; refines both the spicy and fruity yeast notes; and refreshes the palate with a soft, light acidity.”

2014 Lil Opal – Blended by Barrelworks Director Jeffers Richardson and Master Blender Jim Crooks

Maturation:    14 months in French (75%) and American oak (25%) barrels

ABV:               5.9%

IBU:                11

Color:             4.8 SRM

pH:                  3.9

T.A.:                4.1 g/L

Flora:              Brettanomyces Lambicus, Lactobacillus Brevis

Price:              $13.99 / 375ml Bottle
Availability:    Only at Barrelworks and the Paso Robles brewery

Flight of The Opals on April 19 @ Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks

Come out to Barrelworks anytime between noon and 7 p.m. to enjoy a “Flight of The Opals,” which includes tastes of 2014 Lil Opal, 2013 Lil Opal and Sour Opal. No tickets necessary, just come on out. Limited purchases of 2014 Lil Opal will be available. Lil Opal will also be available for purchase at the Paso Robles brewery starting on April 21.

Firestone Walker Sets ‘Feral One’ Loose

The following is a press release from Firestone Walker regarding the first bottled release from the Barrelworks program. I’m pretty excited about this, and you can read more about it in my column for the Santa Barbara News Press that will run March 6.

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THE “FERAL ONE” RELEASED INTO THE WILD

Inaugural Bottled Wild Yeast Ale Busts Out of Barrelworks on March 8

Buellton, CA—The wild things are about to bust out of Barrelworks as Firestone Walker Brewing Company is set to release the Feral One—an untamed yet artful blend that represents the brewery’s first-ever bottled wild yeast offering.

The Feral One will be unveiled at a release party on March 8 at Barrelworks, Firestone Walker’s dedicated wild (a.k.a. sour) yeast facility in Buellton in Santa Barbara County.

“The Feral One celebrates this wild, unruly and rustic journey that has carried us through our first official year of operation,” said Barrelworks Director Jeffers Richardson. “For the first time, you can take a bottle home from Barrelworks to stick in your cellar or savor with friends.”

The Feral One is a blend of Sour Opal, SLOAmbic, Agrestic and Lil’ Mikkel, all aged for an extended period in American and French oak barrels. Only 500 cases of 375ml bottles were produced.

The Feral One will be released exclusively at Barrelworks during the March 8 release party, and will then be available only at Barrelworks and at Firestone Walker’s brewery in Paso Robles for a limited time starting on March 9.

Established in 2013, the 7,000-square-foot Barrelworks houses all of Firestone Walker’s barrel-aged wild yeast beers. Barrelworks features a tasting room and self-guided tours that delve into the history, purpose and methods of making wild yeast beers and other barrel-aged beers.

The Feral One – Blended by Barrelmeister Jeffers Richardson and Master Blender Jim Crooks

  • Lil’ Mikkel (40%) bretted saison aged for 18 months in American oak barrels
  • Sour Opal (30%) American sour aged for 32 months in French and American oak barrels
  • Agrestic (16%) American wild red aged for 19 months in American oak barrels
  • SLOAmbic (14%) fruited sour aged for 32 months in French and American oak barrels
  • ABV: 6.7% / 500 cases produced (375ml bottles)

The Feral One Tasting Notes

An earthy, funky nose gives way to citrus, tropical guava and berry fruit notes. A hint of oak wood lavender and vanilla lurk in the background. The tongue is greeted with an assertive and mouth-watering acidity, chewy tannins, mature oak and firm carbonation.

Release Party on March 8 @ Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks

Get wild and wooly as we unveil the Feral One from noon to 2 p.m. at Barrelworks. A minimum purchase of three Feral One bottles ($13.99 each) gets you in the door. This is not a ticketed event, but space is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Event highlights include tastings of the Feral One and eight other unique, rare or one-off beers; feral bites while they last; banter with the barrelmeisters; and likely Lion & Bear sightings. See: http://www.firestonebeer.com/events/feral-one-open-house.php

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Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks is a story of beer, barrels and unintended consequences, of renegade brewers, and of a pet project turning into a wild beast: www.firestonebeer.com/barrelworks

Firestone Walker Barrelworks

Firestone Barrelworks

I recently had the pleasure of profiling the new Barrelworks facility at Firestone Walker’s taproom in Buellton for the life section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Unfortunately, I don’t own the rights to that story any more, so I can’t put it up here – but I can say that it was a pretty glowing review. I got a couple emails after it was published from the PR guy at F-W who thanked me for it.

I’m certainly not trying to brag, and I certainly wasn’t trying to act as a mouthpiece for Firestone-Walker. I strive to be as professional as possible, and I did not write the piece with the intention of making F-W look good. It only turned out that way because the place is awesome. Most visitors probably won’t make it back into the dimly-lit barrel room that feels as though you’ve walked into an old European monastery. Many others won’t bother chatting with the server behind the bar – chances are good it’s barrelmeister Jeffers Richardson (he was also Firestone-Walker’s first brewmaster, but they parted ways before bringing him back to head up the Live Barrel Program). His wealth of knowledge makes for an edifying experience at a taproom. But even if you just sit down at the bar and get a sampler – the beer does enough for itself. The only downfall: the price (about $1/ounce of beer).

My wife and I went back this previous weekend to get a taste of SLOambic – Firestone’s version of a Lambic Ale. I’m not going to try to describe it in too much detail because I don’t have the palate to do it justice and I wasn’t taking notes, but it’s very good. I had a couple of six-ounce pours – one at the beginning of the session and another at the end – and it was a great way to start and finish. It is tart, but not in a cheek-puckering way. The fruit flavors and aromas pop out, and it has a nice, crisp feel to it. It’s one of those all-season beers in that it has enough flavor for cold, gray days – and it’s bright and crisp for warm sunny ones.

SLOambic was a highlight for sure, but one of just many in this beerdrinker’s playground. The Barrelworks consistently has single-barrel offerings of its component beers (beers that go into blends such as their numerically-named Anniversary beers) that range from “hmmm, interesting” to “holy shit that’s good.” Some highlights in this regard were the Dry Stout (from Barrel #22 I believe – but like I wrote earlier, I didn’t take notes) and the #64 Rufus enjoyed side-by-side with the Rufus-Brett. Both have characteristics of beers that come in contact with brettanomyces yeast, but #64 (again, could be wrong on the #) was from a single barrel and the Rufus-Brett was a blend. Oddly enough, I found the #64 to be more enjoyable, as it had less alcohol heat and a more rounded flavor – which struck me as peculiar because I expected a more balanced and nuance approach from the blended beer (it’s quite possible I switched the glasses… again: notes – didn’t take them).

It’s been two days since I was there, and who knows what remains of Saturday’s tap list (a keg of 2012 Parabola kicked while I was at the bar. I took some sips of the last ones poured until it is brought back out for the 2013 release coming up). But the fun part about this place is that there’s always something unique on tap – and it’s usually pretty damn good.