Firestone Walker BarrelworksBarrelworks is the second Firestone Walker facility and manages two barrel programs for Firestone Walker. One is the strong ale barrel program that produces the anniversary ales (and presumably some of the other barrel-aged strong ales) and the other is the brett and sour program. The anniversary ales see limited distribution across the Firestone Walker distribution map but the brett and sour beers have extremely limited distribution, some never making it out of Barrelworks. It's definitely worth checking out. There are eighteen taps that assemble various sour and brett beers along with several of the Firestone Walker strong ales plus random one-offs and vintage releases of different beers. You can also buy a few beers to go, including some of the anniversary ales if you are willing to pay a hefty sum. The oldest anniversary ale for sale is 13, which sells $110 per 750ml. They sell a boxed set of 13, 14 and 15 which goes for a cool $300.
Barrelworks is located in Buellton a little north of Santa Barbara on the 101. It appeared to be a wine-heavy area of California (but not quite Napa or Sonoma) which makes a lot of sense for a brewery with a strong desire to acquire wine barrels. It's a cool location, you enter the tasting room directly through rows of barrels. I guess they trust that nobody is going to open a barrel and take a straw to it. (Sorry for the terrible picture quality.)
Right now they are remodeling the restaurant but the tasting room is still functional. The tasting room only pours tasters. No regular-sized pours. I get it. You don't want to serve a 6oz pour of a limited beer to somebody who takes one sip and hates it so you end up pouring it out. Plus, most of the people stopping by were tourists and it's not the wisest idea to load people up on alcohol and send them packing, especially when you can't at least give them the option of eating a meal with it. It worked out well because we were able to try everything we wanted and take an extra swing at our favorites. So in no particular order, here comes our favorites:
- 2013 Lil Opal: Lil Opal is the barrel/sour/brett version of what is now being sold as Opal, Firestone Walker's saison. The regular version is bright and citrusy but a touch too sweet for my tastes. (Big Opal is a wheatwine used in the anniversary blends.) Lil Opal is aged with brett lambicus and lactobacillus and produces a beer that is tart but not full on sour and adds dryness and funk that makes Opal my kind of saison. The 2013 is a blend of two year old American oak-aged beer and eight month old French oak-aged beer. The oak is present but not oppressive. The tannins help dry out the beer. For what it's worth, we also tried the 2014 which is a one year old blend of 75% American oak and 25% French oak. It was more oaky and lacked some of the brett complexity of 2013. We took a bottle home and expect to let it linger in the cellar for a while.
- Agrestic: Firestone Walker bills this beer as a Flemish red but I'm not so sure I agree. It is a sour beer with a red color but the flavor profile is very different from any Flemish red I have experienced. It begins life as DBA which is then transferred to a tank and soured with lactobacillus. Then it moves to oak with brett lambicus for fourteen months in barrels that are 40% American oak and 60% French oak. It is pleasantly sour with some brett funk but the flavor profile is largely nutty, woody and spicy, rather than the typical cherry pie and barnyard character in Flemish reds. A really interesting rendition of a sour beer.
- Sour Opal: As you can imagine, this is Opal given a full sour treatment. I'm not entirely sure how the process differs from Lil Opal but it is full on sour thanks to a two year aging process that I assume is also lacto and brett (maybe also pedio) but with more opportunity given to lacto to bring more sourness to the table. It has a unique flavor profile with lots of tropical fruit with a little cherry and white wine. It's aged in Viognier barrels, which is a chardonnay-like white wine. Probably my favorite of all the beers.
- Feral One: A crazy blend of sour beers. This is a blend of "Sour Opal (American Sour Ale - 30%), SLOambic (Fruited Sour - 14%), Agrestic (American Wild Red Ale - 16%), and Lil' Mikkel (Bretted Saison - 40%)." Really complex stuff. The first two beers bring a lot of fruity flavors while the latter two bring earthy, funky notes. When you think about how much blending of barrels went into each of the component beers you realize just how much blending really went into this beer. It shows. It is layer and layer of flavors. I wish I could have ordered a full pour of this just so I could continue to taste it as it warms to see how the flavors develop.
- Saucerful of Secrets: Something in the Belgian quad area, this beer was brewed back in 2008 as a production-scale version of Sean Paxton's (The Homebrew Chef) same-named beer and barrel aged. I believe I recall the bartender saying the kegs they were serving were brandy barrel-aged but information online suggests the beer was only bourbon barrel aged. At any rate, it was velvety smooth and full of molasses, toffee, chocolate, maple syrup, stone fruit and a bucket of other flavors. You can tell this beer used to be far sweeter before time and barrel aging tamed it into a drier beer. Honestly, this is what I imagine Sam Adams Utopia wants to be. Utopia is like a sugar coma wrapped in a bottle of white dog whiskey. This is smooth and pleads you to drink more. Sean Paxton makes the recipe available on his blog so I might have to take a swing at brewing my own and giving it years of aging. Maybe a sour version as well?
Firestone Walker (Production Facility)Firestone Walker's main facility is located in Paso Robles, getting deeper into Coastal California's wine county. Unfortunately we didn't get to Paso Robles until the evening so we didn't have a chance to take the tour. I was disappointed because I wanted to see the union system but not too disappointed because I was so enamored by the beers at Barrelworks. Firestone Walker has built out a very nice restaurant across the street from the brewery in addition to the tasting room inside the brewery. The tasting room was also closed so we helped ourselves to the restaurant. We helped ourselves to some more beer and food. The food portions were very large but we were a little disappointed that the food was a little bland. Service was very good and if you buy a tasting tray they will give you a discount on beer to-go or merchandise so I bought an awesome shirt. I had a laser-like focus on drinking one of the beers at Paso Robles and it didn't disappoint:
- Unfiltered DBA: Unfiltered DBA is Firestone Walker's Double Barrel Ale, fermented in the Firestone Union system. While regular DBA is 20% union-fermented and 80% steel vessel fermented, the unfiltered version is 100% union-fermented. It is far more vanilla-oaky than the standard version and there's more complexity thanks to bypassing filtration.
Russian River Brewing Co.You know you love beer when you go to wine country to drink beer (and no wine) and you're far down the rabbit hole when you hit Russian River. Russian River is in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County. Sonoma is next door to Napa and they are similar communities. Russian River is in the downtown touristy area but inside it is relaxed and you quickly forget you are in the middle of pretentious wine country. Everybody was friendly and several people on the bar were excited that we were there for the sour beer.
Does Russian River need any introduction? RRBC is well known for their infamous Pliny the Elder IIPA (Double IPA? What are we calling them now?) and their stunning sours. Half the line up in the taproom is Belgian/sour while the others are a mix of hoppy beers and various American beer styles. I found good stuff to enjoy on both sides of the menu. Let me get this one out of the way: I tried Pliny but it wasn't one of my favorites. I'm not big on IPAs and even less on double IPAs. I can appreciate the hype. It's Simcoe and Columbus on overload and that's an interesting earthy/dank combination. Not my favorite though. I preferred Blind Pig, which is more citrus-forward. Anyway, these were my favorites:
- Janet's Brown: I know, the recipe is everywhere and it seems like everybody but me has brewed it. Clones continue to win awards because it's an excellent beer. Complex chocolaty malt meets an interesting mix of Northern Brewer's pine/mint and cascade's grapefruit.
- Defenestration: A hoppy Belgian blonde. Unmistakable Belgian yeast esters mixed with fruity hops. An interesting fruit salad with a refreshing hop herbalness.
- Rejection: A Belgian black ale. It's their Valentine's Day beer. Smooth with fruity esters and dark chocolate malt profile.
- Sanctification: Sanctification is billed as a 100% brett fermentation beer, although that's not entirely true. It's fermented with brett B, C, L plus 30% of the pitch is their house culture (the funky bunch) that adds more brett plus lacto and pedio. It's citrus and funk with a little sourness. It's the mildest of the sour beers from Russian River but the flavor profile is complex.
- Consecration: A dark ale soured in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels with currants. It has a sharp acidity and a flavor profile full of spice, chocolate, red wine, currant, funk, tobacco and a hint of leather.
- Supplication: The winner of the night, a brown ale soured in Pinot Noir barrels with sour cherries. The cherries are assertive and rounded out by the fruity Pinot flavor. The caramel malt survives in the background while lots of brett funk fills the void between the two. Delicious stuff.