It’s five in the morning when the alarm goes off. I’m already awake. I can’t ever sleep when I have something important to do the next day. Today I am going to Union Station to meet with the LA Beer Bloggers. Firestone Walker has invited us to tour their facilities. A farm that supplies their restaurants, the brewery itself, and for the first time the Barrelworks in Buellton, where a new wild beer program is emerging.
We arrive at Union Station early and sit nursing coffees in a vast terminal much older than I am. A carpenter in a past life, I can’t help but examine the shoddy repairs to the wooden trim of the antique chair I am sitting in. A tetanus shot waiting to happen. Finally, the sight of several of our comrades tells us it is time to meet outside. We do the name game and shake hands several times over. Many of us have never met, though we travel in the same circles. I see Kip, a face I know. We shake hands and he says he’s off to find a bathroom. I say, “Good luck with that.” I’m only half kidding. As former downtown residents, the entire Beer Guy LA staff can recall countless horror stories from this very neighborhood. Sure enough he returns with an unpleasant story, as does Craig, who I’ve only just met. This reminds me of how glad I am to be getting on this bus. A trip out of the city is exactly what I need.
The bus ride up is like a board meeting of LA beer enthusiasts. We do the name game again, but this time with more detail. Who are you, what do you do, what made you want to write about beer?
Firestone Walker guide Anders Nilbrink wastes no time handing out 12oz. bottles of Firestone’s Union Jack and DBA. It’s not even 10:00 AM, but he has surely found his audience and the beers pour quickly. A case of Firestone and several home brews later we arrive at our first stop, Windrose Farm.
I know I’ve shaken that LA feeling as we approach a pasture filled with livestock offering some debate.
“Are those llamas?”
“I think they’re alpacas?”
“Are you sure?”
“It doesn’t matter, they all spit.”
Everyone is laughing and ready to officially begin the adventure, but our city bus driver is more than cautious as he approaches a turn in the dirt road leading to the distant farmhouse. He takes great pride in being able to turn the bus around, but stops short of actually trying to make the corner. For him, the risk seems too great. To the rest of us, it pretty much just looks like a corner.
Anders jumps into action, triggering an amazing chain of events. Over a distant hill, an old red International tractor with an attached flat bed emerges. It is driven by an old farmer, a man named Bill Spencer. He reminds me of New Hampshire, of old farmers I know there. His well-worn hands grip the wheel as they have a thousand times. He smiles ear to ear, excited to share his home with us. On the flatbed sits none other than David Walker, riding calmly and enjoying a glass of Bretta Weisse as if he had just happened upon us during his usual morning ride around the farm. I am at once glad that the bus driver refused the turn. Though unplanned, this is the perfect way to enter this leg of the trip.
We roll up alongside a farmhouse, arms and legs dangling beyond the boundaries of the flat bed in every direction. Bill parks us in front of a giant wooden table, appropriately built atop two used barrels. The table is lined with snifters of freshly poured Bretta Weisse, a tart wild ale made with brettanomyces. They seem strategically positioned to reflect beams of light coming through the old growth tree beside us. The glasses are passed through the crowd and we listen as David Walker introduces himself briefly and then hands it off to Bill, inviting him to tell us about the farm and its process.
I wish I could recall more of what Bill said about the land. I get a very zen feeling from this man. He talks about strip cultivation and the importance of preserving positive bacteria. He talks about the topsoil as a living, breathing thing and how that in turn creates healthy crops. He talks about Windrose and how he has created a life cycle on the farm, specifically planting crops they may not need in order to propagate the right insects. The sense I get from Bill is that he cares deeply about dirt, which is something we all take for granted. As I stand on his natural grass lawn and David Walker passes with a pitcher of Bretta Weisse, I think about what is under my feet in new ways.
Several of us take a third helping of the Bretta Weisse before following the crowd to lunch. It is a beer uniquely matched with my surroundings. In the Berliner Weisse style it is to be the cornerstone of their wild beer program. It is dry, tart, and floral, achieving an admirable balance. I am one of those taking up the rear and when I arrive at lunch I find something to behold. Between two rows of greenhouses are tables stretched out to accommodate our large group. The tables are lightly stained and varnished in a way that calls out my inner carpenter. I examine the trim, the way the finish nails hold it all together. The work is good. There are many place settings, many folded napkins, many empty glasses. A sign of good things to come.
David Walker addresses the group from the head of the table and welcomes us to the farm and the trip in general. Everyone at this table admires he and his beer. He is outgoing, friendly, and a gracious host.
At the serving end of the table is a collection of robust leafy greens. Our first course is salad, all of which was harvested that morning. Arlis Borden, Head Chef at the Paso Robles Taproom informs us that he has made the vinaigrette from scratch. It is a reduction made from Union Jack IPA, orange juice, brown sugar, and balsamic vinegar. As a former line cook I quickly convince myself I will try to make this at home. I taste it and know immediately that I will fail. This is the best dressing, and the best salad I have ever had. Paired with Double Jack IPA, the greens are crisp and flavorful. All of Bill’s words now become cemented in my mind. He isn’t just a farmer. He is an alchemist, transforming one resource into another.
We eat as Bill’s wife Barbara Spencer talks about the state of “certified organic” foods. It is clear that she and Bill are a well-matched couple. They both love what they do and can speak of it intelligently at length. Barbara has a maternal quality. She talks about Windrose and its practice of biodynamics. This goes beyond what we know today as organic. Windrose is more than a farm, it is a bio-dynamic ecosystem. Also available at the Santa Monica and Hollywood farmer’s markets, these ingredients are the backbone of the menus at Firestone’s Taproom restaurants, which tells me their attention to detail stretches far beyond the beer.
The second course of braised bitter greens is another new experience for me. Greens so hearty they are able to be sauteed and retain their character and flavor. Though it looks quite like sauteed spinach, it offers much more and is perfectly paired with Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA, a spicy rye-based ale with delicate fruit notes that I have enjoyed many times. By the end of this course there are murmurs at the table. The consensus is that we have only just begun and already the majority of us are not looking forward to returning to LA. Two courses in and the door has been opened to an entirely different way to live. I realize at once that is the point.
The next course is a braised lamb made with Walker’s Reserve and roasted root vegetables. It is paired with an amazing 2012 Parabola Russian Imperial Stout. Bill sits across from me. I listen to him telling people about the land, his process, his pride in it all. I snap his photo when he isn’t looking and tell him I lived on a farm as a kid. David Walker makes the rounds, checking on everyone. With each new course Bill has poured the next beer into the remnants of the last. As the final course of vanilla ice cream with apples carmelized in DBA arrives at the table, I watch him pour Double DBA into a glass that is already part Walker’s Reserve, part Parabola. He does this in front of David who leans in and says, “Whatcha got there Bill?” Bill doesn’t miss a beat, replying “Oh, it’s a blend.” David smiles and pats Bill’s shoulder, announcing we will be leaving soon.
I don’t know if it is the Parabola or my building desire not to return to the city, but I ask Bill if 30 years old is too late to adopt me. Several people find this funny. Bill laughs and asks me about my work ethic. I tell him I am from New England, not only do I have a strong work ethic, I come with my own tools. I tell him I can start tomorrow. He thinks I am kidding. I am not. Windrose is making me homesick. We talk about New Hampshire, the people there. I tell him about the two hundred year old farmhouse I lived in and the history of the land there. He knows more than I expected about New England and their farming. I ask him what kind of music he listens to, forever in search of a fellow country music lover. I offer up that I like Merle Haggard, George Jones, Willie Nelson. He bites at none of it, but that’s okay. I listen to country. Bill lives it.
It seems much harder to fit all of us onto the flatbed after the meal. We somehow manage and David Walker rides standing on the tractor hitch. One last leisurely ride on Windrose Farm. The livestock chase us along the fence, thinking it’s time to eat. They escort us all the way to the bus. We jump off the flatbed and I shake hands with Bill. His hands are rough and remind me of when I used to build houses. For a moment I wish I still did. I tell him it was a real pleasure and we board the bus. David Walker tells us he will see us at the brewery. I spend most of the ride there thinking about the farm. I joke that Bill will be awfully surprised when I show up Monday morning with a car filled with carpentry tools. We all laugh, but I consider this very seriously.
At the brewery in Paso Robles we meet Matt Brynildson. In contrast to David Walker he rocks a mean beard that would be right at home at a heavy metal show, were it not for his near constant smile. He leads us up the stairs to a platform atop their giant brewing tanks. Completed in 2012, the whole system is impressive, but what strikes me most is that every surface is cleaner than any hospital I’ve ever been to. The stainless steel shines and below on the production floor workers move about in safety gear, pieces in a well-oiled machine. Matt speaks passionately about his system, about the growth of Firestone. He likes to call this a “custom hot rod brewhouse” and it’s clear that he cares for it like one. He uses his hands a lot when he talks, which tells me he’s excited to share it all with us. He talks about the famous Firestone Union oak barrel system inspired by beer making in 19th century Britain. In the center of the platform, as in seemingly every room, are a few polished tap handles. We are all handed fresh glasses of Pivo Pils. A brightly flavored pilsner, perfectly carbonated and built around grassy hops. The entire wall is made of windows, allowing light to show off just how great this beer looks in a glass.
We follow Matt and end up in a small lab filled with official-looking equipment. I begin to feel like a bull in a china shop. My wife has a nickname for me. The Ruiner. I have earned this over several years. I just have an innate ability to break things. Everyone becomes silent as Matt talks about yeast cultures. I figure the best thing I can do is lean back and stay out of the way. I won’t touch anything and soon I will be out of this room.
I lean back against a counter. Several other people are leaning against it. I am just joining in. I soon learn why there was a vacancy along the counter as a burning plastic smell fills the room. Ironically, I am the one who asks, “Does anybody else smell something burning?” I turn around and find that to my horror, I have turned on some kind of hot plate by leaning on the knobs. Some kind of measuring device on top is smoking from its now mutated black feet. I stare at it for a moment, perhaps in shock, until Matt reaches past me and turns the plate off himself. I have no idea why, but my first impulse is to snap a photo of it, which I do without hesitation. Matt looks at me like I have a screw loose, but thankfully cuts my embarrassment short, telling me not to worry about it and ushering us out of the lab, which now smells like burnt Barbie dolls. I am sorry this happened and leave the room thinking, “Thank God he’s a nice guy.”
On a catwalk above the brewing floor I can’t help but block traffic to snap a few photos. Not many people come up here and we all know it. As I walk there is a vibration in my pocket. I’ve been tagged. “The guy who almost burnt down Firestone Walker.” I think to myself that it could be worse. I could be the guy who actually burned down Firestone Walker or the guy who got kicked out of Firestone Walker, but the only harm is my wounded pride and some little rubber feet on a scientific device.
Last stop on the brewery tour is the barrel aging room. Ceiling-high racks hold a vast collection of barrels, all containing different beers absorbing oak-infused spirits. It’s under fifty degrees in the room, but I enjoy it. I think about how the air conditioning never works right in my apartment. We line up at a few barrels laying in a row across the floor. The entire room smells like sweet bourbon. I step up with my glass and Head Brewer Dustin Kral, uses a giant baster to fill it with 2013 Parabola, unblended straight from the barrel. Like the 2012 we tried at lunch, the 2013 is a bold dark stout composed of oaky chocolate malt wrapped in a thick warm blanket of bourbon that is sweet, but potent. It won’t be released until May. I catch up to Jeff, who stands aside a rack of barrels asking David Walker about growler regulations. I think back to the morning and the bus ride. I think about how amazing it is that we’re only half way through this experience. From behind me I hear someone say, “This one is aged with tequila.” My glass is empty. I turn around.
I remember asking Jeff if we would be drinking wine during the trip. The consensus was “unlikely, but possible.” Standing in the barrel room of the Herman Story winery it is now a cemented “yes.” Herman Story’s proprietor Russel From has played a key role in helping Matt mix Firestone’s Anniversary Ales. I have nothing against wine, but my body seems to. Having gone to film school I have labored to embrace it. Every film event is overflowing with free wine and nary a beer in sight. I have tried many, but the end result is usually a very miserable physical reaction.
They start to pour a red wine of some kind. Like the Parabola, it is retrieved straight from the barrel. David Walker holds empty glasses as they are filled by a Herman Story employee, who is also smiling ear to ear. I begin to wonder if this can all be a coincidence. Have we seriously met this many people in a row who are this excited about what they do? I am within arm’s reach and David Walker hands out glasses of wine and asks us to try it.
With my limited knowledge of wine I deduce that this is in fact a good one, but I can offer no further analysis. Everything from the mouthfeel, to the flavor, to the nature of the alcohol is foreign to me. I have not tried to drink wine in six years. I smile at David Walker and say that it’s smooth. He nods and I wonder if it was the right thing to say. I wouldn’t know the difference. The only thing I know is that the wine didn’t give me the reaction so many others have. I decide that this means it is a pure, well made wine that lacks whatever elements my body finds objectionable. I am left thinking it might be time to give wine another chance.
The climax of our evening is the arrival back at the brewery for our dinner at the Taproom restaurant. We are reintroduced to Chef Arlis Borden on our way to a spread that takes up the majority of the main dining room. The room is alive with conversation and, except for the long tables that await us, the place is packed. We take our seats and servers bring over several Chemex coffee pots to brew fresh coffee directly into our cups. It’s great coffee and exactly what I need at that moment.
At this point in the evening it is hard to be surprised by the quality of the food. A crab cake with cilantro aioli followed by the 10oz. New York strip. I wrap this up with one of my favorites, a Velvet Merlin. An easy going stout can be a dessert unto itself. This one happens to be ranked as one of the best oatmeal stouts on the market. The consensus between most of us is that we never made it to the farm. The bus rolled over in some horrible accident on the northbound freeway and this entire day has been a vivid dream state leading us into the afterlife. The waitress returns to ask us if we need anything else. We are all full and happy. I don’t know what comes over me, but I ask her the same question I’ve been asking a lot of strangers lately.
“Do you like your job?” I ask.
“I love it here.” she says.
“That’s good.” I say.
I unintentionally come across as skeptical, remembering a thousand hours behind the line in a hot kitchen. Then she replies with a simple yet profound question. “Why would I work here if I didn’t enjoy it?” The words have stayed with me. I think a lot about my day job. I know that my response to the same question would be more complicated. I thank her for everything and follow a very happy group of bloggers to the bus.
Day two begins at the Barrelworks in Buellton. David Walker leads us through a thick wooden door on the side of the building. An intense aroma fills a huge room hosting many racks of barrels. He wants to tell us all about it, but insists we line up to receive a taster first. He is a man with principles.
Firestone’s Master Blender Jim Crooks stands before his many barrels introducing himself. He discusses wild yeasts and the anaerobic bacteria that make his sours possible. We learn about Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces. He talks about the beer as a living thing and recalls the story of a gift from Russian River Brewing Company that arrived by mail. Wood chips that were covered in the anaerobic bacteria he would need to begin making his own wild ales.
There was only one problem. He was going to need a lot more of it and to achieve this he was going to have to culture it himself. As he describes this process to us, the Firestone smile starts to take over. Here is another employee consumed by a passion for his product. He tells us of his perilous two year journey, caring for his cultures through hot and cold periods, all the while having to keep it far away from their flagship brews. A healthy dose of this bacteria could have disastrous consequences on their production line and they fight organisms like it with great vigilance every day. That coupled with the fact that to the untrained eye these tiny organisms look like something gone bad that needs to be disposed of, makes it easy to see why he had to take great care to foster this program in its infant stages, earning the nickname “Sour” Jim along the way.
With support from Firestone, the Barrelworks began, finally making use of a vacant building that they had owned prior to the current brewery and Taproom in Paso Robles. Jim speaks of all of this in a way that excites everybody. This is precision scientific brewing, but at the same time it is unpredictable by its very nature. To replicate a living thing several times over is tantamount to cloning. For this reason to achieve ideal results, they must mix several barrels according to their pH. He tells us that they are still in the process of trying out different flavors and mixtures and invites us to join him in the adjacent room, where we will make our own variations on a micro scale.
Before we begin there is yet another tasteful meal. I grab a sandwich made of sliced shrimp on ciabatta and nurse a glass of 805 while David Walker talks about the Barrelworks. My inner carpenter is blown away by this place. Wainscotting leading to great doors of wood and iron, all of it torched to varying degrees and then varnished. The look itself is bordering on medieval, but works perfectly in this private tasting room that clearly doubles as a boardroom at times. Jim stands on a chair and explains the process of mixing a good saison as 5 gallon oak barrels are brought in. Our job is to treat this as a serious scientific endeavor and record our results. I doubt very seriously any outsider has been offered this opportunity in the past and at once feel like Charlie Bucket on his tour of the Wonka Factory.
The mad science begins as we all break off into teams. We have pens and lab sheets. I am reminded of many days in high school science lab. This is much more fun. Everyone is truly excited to play around with the tiny cylinders and glasses. Jeff asks me how we should blend the brews and I can’t really fathom creating anything better than the Bretta Weisse, but offer some suggestion. We try to build a well-bodied mix that isn’t overly sour. We nearly reach our goal by the third attempt, but run out of ingredients to tweak the same recipe. We pour the remaining samples into the cylinder and enjoy it just the same.
When all this is done we gather in the barrel room once more and task Anders with a group photo. In an age of copy/paste and email this somehow translates into one man climbing a set of stairs with as many cameras as he can bear around his neck. This becomes more funny each time he raises a new camera and finishes our time here in good spirits. He is a good sport about it. I find myself wishing I had not given him my camera, because the real shot is looking back at him with this camera collection. From here we all shake hands again, thanking David Walker and his staff for what amounts to an unforgettable weekend. We then wait for our bus to arrive as people break off into their respective blogging teams for a last look at the barrelworks, the gift shop, and the collection of top shelf brews in the cooler.
On the bus ride home a second bottle share begins. I enjoy the offerings, but I am mostly just reflecting. What sticks out in my mind is the people. Those who work for Firestone Walker. I have met many professionals in my alternate life in camera rentals. Many reps pushing many products. Not one of them smiled as widely as some of the people I’ve met on this trip. Everyone we encountered on this journey was overflowing with passion about this product, this company, and their role in the process. If I had to sum the experience up in a single word it would be “genuine.”
The Firestone brewery website states, “We have an absurd passion for what we do.” There are lessons to be learned here, but they extend beyond beer and brewing. Yes, Firestone Walker makes amazing beer. In fact, there are some in the pipeline at the Barrelworks that are going to blow people’s minds. However, for me, the most rewarding part of the experience is gaining the knowledge that every Firestone beer I encounter will have been made under the supervision of a fleet of people who care about this product. When people speak of companies that get it right with their employees, I am going to talk about Firestone Walker.