Four years in, there’s little doubt that the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival has rapidly blossomed into one of the best pure beer fests on the planet, and “quality” is objectively the reason. As the nation’s craft beer renaissance has come into a strong, thriving adulthood, it’s simply not that difficult to set up a large festival with a ton of breweries and beers represented. Most towns have a yearly beer festival at this point. But it’s not about numbers. It’s about names and reputations for excellence. That’s where FWIBF has carved itself out a brilliant niche.
That’s also why you’ll see journalists, breweries (and actual brewers) on the grounds who have traveled from across the country—Firestone Walker’s event in their hometown of Paso Robles has become a place where one can experience aspects of beer that are damn near impossible to come by elsewhere. You could spend weeks bartering online to get one bottle of a rare sour that is not only being poured at the festival…it’s ubiquitous! You’ll realize just how ridiculously bountiful the riches of this festival are when you tally up all of the amazing beers you poured out on the ground, if only so you could try something else, or avoid being completely intoxicated, which is easier said than done. That probably sounds ridiculous, but trust me: If you’re attending FWIBF, you will pour an ounce of beer out on to the ground at some point that you would stand in a three-hour line for on any other day. Those are the realities of a festival where everything is rare and sought-after.
It also makes picking “best” beers a fairly daunting endeavor—they poured four different variants of Three Floyds’ Dark Lord at this thing, guys. Instead of doing a straight “Best Of” list, fellow, L.A.-based Paste beer writer John Verive and I decided to simply write about some of the festival’s most memorable tastes. Perhaps it was something we’d searched for quite a while, or a beer we simply didn’t see coming. But each of these beers are now on our lists of brews we desperately want to drink again someday…starting with one that was on both of our lists.
Garage Project – Two Tap Flat White
The culture of craft brewing is no longer confined to America’s shores—it’s now a global trend. Vibrant craft brewing scenes have bubbled up in the bastions of old world beer like Bamberg, Germany and London, and in far-flung unexpected locals such as Tokyo, Italy, and New Zealand. The Garage Project is based in the latter’s capital city of Wellington, and the operation showcases a creative spirit and unbridled zeal for flavor that rivals the brashest of American craft breweries. The Garage Project made a big impression at last year’s Invitational, and for 2015 they somehow managed to step-up their game. The star of their long list of antediluvian brews was Two Tap Flat White—a coffee beer unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
In kiwi coffee culture, a “flat white” is a popular drink: it’s a shot of espresso topped off with milk steamed to a velvety “microfoam”. The result is a delicate balance between the bitter roast of espresso and the sweet, luxurious milk with a texture that envelops the palate in a caffeinated hug. They are really good. The Garage Project’s take on the cafe favorite is actually two separate beers (hence “Two Tap”) that are poured black-and-tan style into one glass. The bottom layer is a dense and robust double espresso stout, and it is topped with a nitrogenated cream ale with lactose (the latter brew is even poured from a stainless steel coffee pitcher, and once the guys have had some practice they can even manage something like latte-art when pouring). It’s a fun show that looks amazing in the glass, but even more importantly it tastes great. It would be all too easy to write-off the beer (and many of the Garage Project’s other experiments) as mere gimmicks, but the team consistently delivers on both flavor and presentation in a way that is rarely seen in the U.S. craft beer scene. – John Verive
John is right, because this beer is as delicious as it is fascinating. I did have to question whether the brewers’ descriptions weren’t simply courting an obvious response from the beer geeks in attendance—they should know that describing the imperial stout half of the final product as “too intense for anyone to want to drink alone” is going to make us all want to try it on its own—but I have no doubt it’s at its best with a cap of milky, lactose-infused cream ale. Essentially the craft beer equivalent of a macchiato, its texture was particularly outstanding. The crowds rushing to Garage Project’s booth as soon as the public gates open were probably seeking out some of that brewery’s fruity sours, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the one that made the biggest impression for many people. – Jim Vorel
Side Project Brewing – Thicket
Breweries like Side Project are reason enough to become an accredited member of the media and attend this festival. Seriously. Watching the crowds stream in through the gates and then run straight to the Side Project tent confirms just how much insane hype this extremely limited St. Louis sour factory has, and it made me a little bit sad, knowing that I definitely wasn’t going to be getting any more of the saisons that dominated our own blind tasting/ranking of the style. Even more impressive, though, was Side Project’s Thicket, an oak-aged (naturally) wild ale aged with blackberries. The brewery’s visionary brewmaster, Cory King, simply has a preternatural feel for the intricacies of coaxing subtle flavors out of the microorganisms that make his beers unique—it’s not like you can’t find plenty of other fruity sours at a fest like this, but few combine the perfect level of tartness with delicious, jammy fruit and a mysterious force field of funk quite in the same way. It’s hard to even imagine what one could do differently to improve it. I was lucky enough to interview King a bit, so look for that conversation at Paste Drink in the near future. – Jim Vorel
Russian River Brewing Co. – STS Pils
The Santa Rosa brewery was offering pours of days-old Pliny the Elder, and an unreleased batch of their infamous wild-fermented Beatification—usually a can’t-miss beer. But when I approached the Russian River booth early in the festival I was surprised to see a pilsner offered as well. STS Pils is normally a pub-only seasonal release, and it’s like the Pliny of Euro pilsners. It is unabashedly hoppy, and the distinct zing of Saaz hops is nearly overwhelming from the first whiff of aromatics to the lingering bitter finish. A three- or four-ounce pour is usually plenty of the intensely flavorful and bold brews featured at the festival, but after I drained the taster of STS all I could think about was how much I wanted a tall pilsner glass filled to the brim with that beer. – John Verive
The Bruery – L’deracola
The Bruery consistently had some of the festival’s longest lines, which actually resulted in me not having a chance to try a single one of their beers…during actual festival hours. After things had died down and brewers and media retreated to the camp grounds to continue their revelry, I found myself in a crowd of Bruery representatives drinking various Bruery limited releases, from Sour in the Rye and the horchata-inspired “Or Xata,” to this truly strange offering, the weird-as-hell “L’deracola.” That’s pronounced “liter of cola,” and the Super Troopers reference refers to its flavor profile—it’s a strong brown ale seriously meant to approximate the spicy zing of a great Cola. And it sort of succeeds at that! Those in the know declined to go into too much detail on what sort of spice blend is used to achieve those flavors, but there are at least 12, plus a bit of lime as well to really go for that “Cuba libre” aspect. It might sound like something that would be undrinkably saccharine, but the beer’s greatest achievement is that it manages to suggest those flavors without being dessert-like. It was a totally unique offering—I’m not even sure if I’d enjoy it again, but if we’re writing about the most memorable experiences of the festival I can’t possibly deny it. – Jim Vorel
3 Floyds – Zombie Dust
Beer-geek confession time: I’d never tried Three Floyds vaunted “pale ale” (a 6.2% ABV, 60 IBU pale ale) before this weekend. Sure, it’s long been on my wish list, but living in California (the Indiana brewery doesn’t distribute to the Golden State) and not much of a beer-trader, I’ve never really had the chance to try the iconic brew. For this year’s fest I made it a mission to change this, though I worried that years of hype for the hoppy pale ale would lead to disappointment. I’m not a big fan of the well-loved Dark Lord, and the few other Three Floyds brews I have managed to sample have always left me wondering why they are so beloved. One taste of Zombie Dust and I understood. It’s punchy and tropical and intense, yet the strong pale ale remains refreshing and drinkable. It was an eye-opening showcase of Citra hoppiness that was simultaneously refined and brazen—consider me converted. – John Verive
Firestone Walker Brewing Co. – PNC Imperial Buckwheat Stout
If you look at my notes from the festival, next to this beer it says “Objectively dangerous, IRRESPONSIBLY drinkable,” and no, the capitalization has not been added here just for emphasis. This is, quite simply, the most perfectly smooth, rounded, 13.7% ABV, barrel-aged imperial stout I’ve ever tasted. Is it the “buckwheat” in “imperial buckwheat stout” that gives it such a velvety texture? Does the fact that it’s aged in tequila barrels somehow temper the booziness rather than enhance the alcoholic heat? I can’t say that particularly makes sense to me, but at the same time, I would say that the presence of anything you would specifically identify as “tequila” in the flavor profile is minimal, aside from an herbaceous quality easily lost among a dozen other flavors. Mostly, it’s just a huge, rich, sweet, vanilla-laden but somehow beautifully balanced example of overkill imperial stout. It’s the kind of beer that a young brewpub attempts to make once, makes a horrible mistake, and then never attempts with such a degree of ambition ever again. Firestone Walker, on the other hand, attempts, succeeds, and makes it look easy. And that’s why they’re able to host this festival to begin with. – Jim Vorel
Odell Brewing Company – Brombeere Blackberry Gose
Mercifully, the weather for the Invitational only barely hit 90 degrees this year (in 2013 the mercury topped out at an oppressive 104), but by the midway point of the six hours of beer, crowds, and sun I was beginning to flag a bit. My palate was as tired as my feet and I just wanted to find a patch of shade, but I saw some old acquaintances near the Odell booth and they offered me a purple-tinged glass topped with airy foam. Quaffing that gose—a traditional German wheat beer style known for it’s slightly salty and tart twang—was like drinking a healing potion. I felt instantly refreshed and restored to my former vigor. The berry flavor was perfectly balanced with the tart finish where a hint of tannic berry skins crept through. I’m a huge fan of the gose style, and this is an example that could lift my no-trading embargo. – John Verive
Surly Brewing Co. – Todd the Axe Man IPA
Named after their guitar-toting metalhead brewmaster, Todd Haug (who I also interviewed, keep your eyes peeled), this West Coast IPA is the next great canned beer from Surly. Hugely aromatic and built on top of a foundation made from a single malt, it’s not trying to beat around the bush with words like “balance” or “subtlety.” It’s just a beautiful, pure expression of Citra and Mosaic hops on a near blank canvas of malt, and that couldn’t be more awesome. The citrus and tropical flavors exploded—EXPLODED!—out of the festival’s little tasting glass, all grapefruit and peaches and mango. It’s juicy, semi-sweet, fruity hoppy goodness. You could tell people that there was fruit juice in it, and no one would doubt you. I can’t help but think that it might have performed even better than Surly’s Overrated IPA did in our 116-IPA blind tasting, and Overrated made the finals. This one could have challenged for the crown itself. The people who will get this in their distribution area are lucky folks. – Jim Vorel
Marble Brewery – Red Light Lager
Marble Brewing from Albuquerque, New Mexico was new to the Invitational this year, but there’s been an intensifying buzz around the brewery. Unsurprisingly, my favorite was a dry-hopped red lager that blended the best qualities of a session IPA, a light lager, and malty red ale into one effortlessly drinkable hybrid. The 4%ABV brew had the body and hoppy aroma of a session IPA, but with a more pronounced toasty malt character. It had a dry finish and lagered crispness with just enough bitterness to keep me sipping. The bottom of my glass appeared way too soon, and I ended up with a second pour to make sure it was a tasty after 8 ounces as it was on first sip. It was, and this is a beer that I’d love to stock a cooler with for a backyard BBQ. – John Verive
Wicked Weed Brewing – Red Angel
Prettiest beer of the whole festival? Maybe. Its brilliantly pink-red color looked amazing in the tasting glass, and it tasted even more amazing. It’s the perfect beer to show the experimental spirit of Wicked Weed and the ways they continue to push the boundaries of sours coming from the East Coast. Everybody’s made a raspberry-infused sour at this point, but Wicked Weed takes it a step further by experimenting with multiple infusions at different steps of the process. It ages with raspberries before heading into red wine barrels for nine months. It ages with raspberries after the barrel-aging. Some say, in whispered, hushed tones, gathered around darkly lit tavern tables, that it even becomes a raspberry at some point, but that’s all hearsay and wild conjecture, not to be trusted. What one can say with no doubt is that it’s an absolutely superior raspberry sour, perfectly balancing tart acidity, bright, bursting fruit flavors and finishing dry. It’s the kind of beer you drink, and then shake your head to think that 10 years ago, nobody was making beer like this in America. If that’s the case, what incredibly delights might we be partaking in a decade from now? Regardless of what they are though, you’ll presumably be able to get them at the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival. And that’s why this fest is great. – Jim Vorel