Every year in June, brewmasters, brewery owners, and beer geeks descend on Paso Robles, California for about five hours of tasting beer out of a little three ounce snifter glass. The beer geeks pay almost a hundred dollars for this experience, but the brewers get invited. After all, they don’t call this event the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival for nothing. This year, I went for the first time and the experience lived up to the hype as the beer festival to rule them all, at least on the west coast. I was lucky enough to get a ticket in the 30 seconds or so that they weren’t sold out and went with my brother Kyle and friend Brennan, who was visiting from Portland. Officially, the festival lasts five hours, or six if you buy a VIP pass, but it is actually a weekend-long event, full of special release beers, bottle shares, and brewery visits.
Like virtually all festival goers, I don’t live in Paso Robles and had to head up to the Central Coast from Long Beach for the weekend, which was convenient because that meant I had to drive through Buellton—home of Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks—to get there. Barrelworks specializes in barrel-aged beers, divided into the categories Wild Ales and Strong Ales, and with the festival that weekend, they put some of their finest offerings on draft. I started with the fruited sour beers I’d yet to experience: the newly-released Peachy Bones and Champs de Fraises, the plum sour Drupē Bones, and Violet Underground, the collaboration beer with raspberries and candied violet petals brewed with the UK’s Wild Beer Co. All four were outstanding, with Peachy Bones showcasing ripe peach flavor over a nuanced, slightly sour saison base and Champs de Fraises erupting with strawberry aroma out of the taster glass. The other two were arguably better, but I’d say it’s as close as the eternal contest between pizza and tacos. Drupē Bones is fermented with plums from Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson’s orchard and Violet Underground had the most acidity and intense flavor of the bunch (and I should add it’s the only one I got a second taster of). After these, I had a trio of strong ales—PNC Imperial Buckwheat Stout, Bravo Imperial Brown Ale, and Rufus Single Barrel Imperial Continental Amber Ale— that were good but meant to be enjoyed more slowly, as I was running out of time before last call. The Rufus Single Barrel #95 was the standout of the three, displaying a fine balance of malt sweetness, alcohol, and barrel character. At this point, the weekend already seemed like a success but the next day had much, much more in store.
The following morning before the festival started, my group expanded to include my friends Ryan and Stephanie, who shared a bottle of DeGarde’s The Purple, a black and red raspberry sour with more red wine character (Pinot Noir, specifically) than any beer in memory, including wine/beer hybrids from Barrelworks and The Bruery. Thirty minutes later, we were all inside the fairgrounds, which looked a little like Knott’s Berry Farm or Frontierland at Disneyland, with the same excitement of any child visiting one of those theme parks. Our plan was to visit Side Project Brewing’s tent first, but overhearing everyone else, it seemed like we weren’t the only ones. The hour-plus long line for the Missouri standout brewery confirmed it and we headed to Jester King instead, where I ended up having a delicious beer called Intersection of Species that happened to be a collaboration with Side Project anyway. For most of the afternoon, one of us would wait in a long line while the others filled glasses at brewery tents with lines that were more manageable, and often those beers were just as good. The whole affair was a wonderful chaotic symphony of flavors, aromas, and heat, that involved as much complex planning as impromptu decisions and thrusting glassware forward, not sure of the beer that would fill it.
Before I continue with the standout beers from the event, I’d be remiss not to comment on the outstanding food they provided. Offerings came from food trucks, restaurants, and caterers, and everything I tried was the perfect complement to drinking beer in 94 degree heat. Firestone’s own Taproom restaurant had a watermelon gazpacho that had to be one of the most refreshing foods I’ve ever had. Some other favorites were chicken and waffle bites from The Pairing Knife and Jeffry’s Catering’s irresistible chili. Later on in the day, I also put down about fifteen pretzel bites from Rooney’s Irish Pub—to soak up the alcohol, of course. To cap the food experience, our whole group roasted individual s’mores with beer-infused chocolate and marshmallows from Brandy’s Sweet Temptations.
But we were there for the beer, so allow me to point out some favorites: Boulevard’s Hibiscus Gose, Crooked Stave’s Petit Sour Blueberry, Kern River’s Long Swim IPA, The Rare Barrel’s Emerald Vision (a cucumber mint sour), Odell’s Piña Agria pineapple sour, Three Floyds’ Dark Lord Imperial Stout from 2013, The Garage Project’s The Amazing Hop-Boy IPA with 63 hop varieties, and Beavertown Barrel Aged Sour Power. While that seems like a long list, it’s probably only about 20 percent of the beers I had that day. These were all amazing, but a pair of Southeast breweries were the only ones that made me get right back in line after a single sip of beer. Wicked Weed from North Carolina poured a double raspberry sour called Red Angel (double because after refermenting on raspberries for nine months in wine barrels, they blend that on more fresh raspberries for two additional months before bottling) and a Sherry-barrel aged raspberry, boysenberry, cherry, and blackberry dark sour called Angel of Darkness that was the most deceptive 11% ABV beer in recent memory.
For me though, one brewery really took the cake as the best in show, blue ribbon, gold medal winning top banana. Creature Comforts of Athens, Georgia is totally deserving of the superlatives I’ve just heaped on. They brought four beers that all exceeded my expectations and represented a wide range of brewing skill. First, I had Titronia, a cucumber and lime gose that was perfect on a hot day—drinkable, refreshing, pleasantly tart, and just salty enough to complement the cucumber and lime. Next, I tried their Tropicália IPA, whose name holds no irony—its aroma was reminiscent of a tropical fruit smoothie and the taste was as juicy as IPAs can get. I walked directly to the back of the line once I’d had my first taste, and in my next go-round, I got a glass of Emergence, an extremely well balanced blonde sour and See the Stars, an Imperial Stout aged in maple bourbon barrels, à la Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout, which was super drinkable for a high-alcohol stout. I’m not saying I would go to Georgia just to drink their beer, but I do know where my first stop will be if I do find myself in the Peach State.
The Lion himself!
At 4:00, all pours of beer stopped unless they were near the main stage, so we went by there to soak up the last hour of the festival. This area contained Firestone Walker’s own beer booths as well as those of a few other large craft breweries like Sierra Nevada and Ballast Point. I opted to get some refreshing Bretta Rosé, Barrelworks’ raspberry sour, and was surprised to find that David Walker (the Walker half of Firestone Walker) was the one pouring it. I got super excited and took a photo with a big, cheesy smile on my face and realized right away that I had to end my day on that high note. The experience of the whirlwind day will linger in my memory for years to come and the best lesson I learned was the importance of going with friends. Sure, that allows you to get more beer, but it also reminds you that drinking should be a fun, social activity with people capable of sharing your joy. I can’t wait till next year!
Did you go to the Invitational? Want to go next year? Let me know!