There’s a certain feeling that I’ve come to realize one gets about halfway through the sole session of the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival. It’s a combination of awe and dawning apprehension as it becomes all too obvious that you won’t get to try all of the best beers at this festival, because they’re all the best beers. No matter your careful planning, or rationing of the alcohol units you’re attempting to enforce, there’s always an imperial stout out there with your name on it. Or half a dozen imperial stouts, and maybe a face-puckering imperial sour, because that’s certainly not a recipe for epic heartburn, right?
That’s just a reality of the invitational beer festival format—these are all the best breweries in the world in the eyes of Firestone Walker, and they know great beer. At least when one walks around the floor at the Great American Beer Fest, you don’t feel that bad in passing up a brewery that’s not quite in the top tier. At FWIBF, every booth you don’t visit feels like a missed opportunity.
Naturally, this makes choosing “best” beers an incredibly difficult endeavor, but we still feel compelled to list the beers that really stood out to us in a festival full of wonders. In exactly the way we did last year, Paste writer John Verive and myself each kept track of our most memorable beers of the festival, and we eventually settled on 15. These beers all stood out to us for quite different reasons, but they share one aspect in common: We desperately want to drink them all again.
Side Project Brewing — Pulling Nails
Recipe for any given Side Project beer: Wild yeast, wine barrels, succulent fruit and a couple of drops from the secret tincture of magic liquid that brewmaster Cory King keeps on a chain around his neck, 24 hours a day. But really, you knew a Side Project beer would be present, because there’s just something about them. I’m not saying it has to come from a witch doctor-like application of hoodoo and enchanted herbs, but I’m not saying it doesn’t, either. What I can confirm is that even before the general audience is let into a festival like FWIBF, there’s already a line at Side Project, because all the other brewers and volunteers are trying to get their tasting out of the way early.
Pulling Nails is hard to even describe in composition, which is another thing one gets used to with Side Project, so I’ll simply cite the brewery description: “Oude du Ble that was aged in French Oak for 1 year & then aged on Apricots 14-Month-Old Foedre Beer 2-year-old Missouri Spontaneous Blonde.” I don’t know if either of the other two beers in the blend have been released separately, besides the Saison du Ble, which unsurprisingly finished at #1 in Paste’s blind tasting of 35 saisons last year. But the result is as complex as you would expect it to be, with wonderful, juicy apricot flavors that never get too “obvious” in their assertiveness, enhanced by moderate tartness and light, nuanced funkiness. It’s a case study in how Side Project takes modern archetypes to the next level. Someone else would make an apricot sour and call it a day. Side Project blends three beers with very different profiles to create something approaching perfection, and it’s not even the beer they’re most excited by/proud of at the festival. But this one beer on its own would be a must-see attraction at any booth. – Jim Vorel
Garage Project — Cherry Bomb Defused
Last year, New Zealand’s Garage Project wowed attendees with the theatrical Two Tap Flat White; a layered beer that sees a foamy nitrogenated and lactose-heavy cream ale poured atop a dense and bitter imperial coffee stout, latte-style. On their native island Garage Project is known for imaginative experiments like the Flat White beer, along with their fruited wild ales, hybrid brews incorporating wine grapes, and their use of some crazy ingredients (like kombu in their Umami Monster beer that they poured at the Invitational in 2014— bottles of which are now being imported into the U.S.).
Cherry Bomb Defused is another example of a two beer layered presentation, and this time the brewers tried a cheeky take on a beer they’d made in past: Cherry Bomb. An imperial porter brewed with sour cherries and cacao nibs, Cherry Bomb balances fruit brightness and roasty bitterness, and for Cherry Bomb Defused, they separated those elements into two disparate component beers. On the bottom is a vivid red and bracingly tart sour cherry ale, while the top layer is a nitrogenated chocolate stout that pours as a moussey froth. The deeply bitter chocolate later sits on the bright cherry ale until the first sip when the two brews begin to meld together, reforming the homogenous Cherry Bomb. It was as impressively delicious as it was inventive. – John Verive
Firestone Walker/Russian River — STiVO Pilsner Collaboration
This is a beer that everyone at the festival was aware of in advance and that everyone coming through the doors to pick up their tasting glass received a ticket to try. It was, therefore, something that everyone was looking forward to critiquing, and it passed that test as one of the finest pilsners at a festival that was surprisingly pils-heavy. We would like to think this is at least in part due to an ongoing pilsner revival (we’re about to do pilsner blind-tasting at Paste ourselves), or perhaps just thanks to the fact that the festival was so damned hot, but the collaboration of STiVO brought together two of the West Coast’s best pils—Russian River’s STS and Firestone’s Pivo—into something altogether new, although subtly so.
The result is a pilsner that splits the difference (and the hop bill) between the two. It’s slightly bigger in ABV, but still quite dry and very crisp, with firm, expressive hops that lean toward grassy and herbal flavors, perhaps with a twist of lemon. Which is to say, it’s a very drinkable, damn refreshing pils—a delicious beer, although hardly the one that almost any fan of Russian River or Firestone Walker would have expected. For two breweries renowned for hop bombs (Pliny the Elder, Double Jack) or world-class barrel-aged beer and sours, to collaborate on their version of the perfect American/German pilsner was truly a unique and ultimately inspired choice. The proof is in the results. – Jim Vorel
Societe Brewing — The Coachman
Session IPAs were one of the most popular styles at last year’s Invitational, and although there were fewer pouring this year, those that were on offer were excellent. Perhaps the most excellent was this example from San Diego’s Societe Brewing. The session IPA sub-style is polarizing, with detractors calling most examples watery or one-dimensional; I’ve long been a proponent of these easy-to-drink ales that bring a big hop assault to a lighter, more refreshing package. The Coachman stands up against prime examples of the SIPA ideal (e.g. Pizza Port Ponto, Firestone Walker’s own Easy Jack, Founder’s All Day IPA, etc), especially in the critical consideration of how many pints you can sit through before getting stultified. “Sessionable” is usually defined at a sub-5% ABV, but more important than just the lower alcohol, a truly sessionable beer needs to hold the drinker’s interest through a session’s-worth of pints. A beer that you’re bored with after one glass is no session beer, and The Coachman has enough body (there’s a big dose of malted wheat to improve the texture) and enough complex hop character from the melange of Saaz, Simcoe and Mosaic hops to keep you going back sip after sip. – John Verive
Jester King – Intersection of Species
If you roll into a beer fest and see a collaboration between Jester King, Side Project and Chicago’s Off Color Brewing, that’s the kind of beer you just snatch on up without asking too many questions. One does wonder why the breweries chose to use wildflower honey in a low-gravity, 4.6% ABV farmhouse ale, as that would theoretically thin the body even more, but it’s not something you’ll be noticing when actually tasting the beer. That’s primarily because Intersection of Species is fermented with a blend of mixed cultures from all three breweries, giving it a mild but nuanced tartness. It’s then refermented with tangerine zest and juice, adding prominent citric juiciness and more than a little pithy bitterness as well.
What you’re left with is a refreshing, complex, still-drinkable cross between saison and “American sour,” one that is notably fruity without fully throwing its cards into the “fruited sour” ring. There weren’t too many beers at FWIBF this year better suited to the climate—you could have just filled canteens with this stuff and been ready to go for the rest of the day. – Jim Vorel
Half Acre Brewing — Gin Barrel Aged Pony Pils
While many other attending breweries at the festival filled their rare beer slot with weighty stouts and funky sour brews, Chicago’s Half Acre Brewing brought a pilsner. Not just any hoppy lager, this special treatment of the brewery’s Pony Pilsner brings some big botanical flavors to a balanced and pleasant pils that’s already great on a hot day.
Adding gin-soaked oak aging to a delicate pils seems like a trainwreck in the making, but Half Acre’s brewers manage to juggle the additional elements with panache. The base beer gets just a few weeks of contact time with freshly dumped barrels from Corsair Distillery. The barrels, first used for spiced rum before aging gin, provide some vanilla and spice character alongside a more assertive juniper and rosemary punch. The brewers say the brew is overwhelming when sampled straight from the barrel, so they dial-in the flavor profile by blending the aged pils back into a fresh batch of Pony Pilsner. It’s a complex harmony of pils malt, european hops and bold botanical flavors that remains approachable and quaffable, even if you’re not a gin lover. – John Verive
Beachwood BBQ & Brewing – System of a Stout
Every time I get to try some Beachwood, I end up wishing I had access to Beachwood more often, because their beers are delicious … often in ways I haven’t exactly tasted before.
Case in point: System of a Stout, which the brewery describes as an “imperial Armenian coffee stout.” It’s inspired by the traditional ingredients that one apparently finds in a cup of Armenian coffee, which include cardamom pods, molasses and brandy, added through additions of green cardamom and brandy-soaked oak chips. Granted, I had no idea these elements were in play when I took my first sip, which actually ended up being beneficial. What I thought was simply a big coffee stout was immediately revealed as something far more interesting and unique.
The spices and signature flavors in System of a Stout are really beautifully integrated—obviously apparent, but difficult to place. Immediately after tasting, I began wondering what other parts of the description I had missed out on. The spice note has a similar sweet/savory combo of real, fresh-ground cinnamon bark, but in very subtle quantity. It makes one question whether the coffee contributed that flavor note—is this just a very spicy, winey bean or roast? As ever, working with subtlety is surely more difficult than just dropping huge spice/brandy flavors on the beer. I seriously wish I had a full 22 oz bottle of this bad boy to mull over and dissect in depth. – Jim Vorel
Russian River — Intinction
A perennial all-star of the invitational, lines for Russian River’s booth are some of the longest at the festival, and the beers they pour are always fan-favorites. This year Russian River brought kegs of their infamous favorite Pliny the Elder and their underrated hop-forward STS Pils along with a brace of 6-liter bottles of Supplication, and they also unveiled a new wine barrel-aged sour brew. Intinction is the unlikely marriage of STS Pils and Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc grapes and wine barrels. Inspired by the heat at last year’s Firestone Walker Invitational, the brewers joked about souring their pilsner on road back to the brewery, and they decided that maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea after all. Intinction spent the full year between this festival and the last in barrels along with an added dose of brettanomyces, and the beer is delightful. Bright and crisp, much of the hop flavor has been lost, but the added wine grape character fills in perfectly with the tropical and grassy Sav Blanc flavor shining through in the mid-plate. Another oak treatment of a golden lager that sounds at first blush like a bad idea, the tart and light Intinction succeeds at blending the drinkability of a pils with the refreshing acidity of Sauvignon Blanc. – John Verive
The Rare Barrel – Keen Observation
To this day, my experiences with The Rare Barrel have been quite limited, living out in the Southeast, far from proper distribution. The only times I’ve sampled them have primarily been at festivals such as FWIBF, where they’re inevitably a hot ticket, or at bottle shares where dozens of drinkers are clamoring for small tastes. I have, however, had a chance to previously try the brewery’s apricot sour, Map of the Sun, which prepared me somewhat for a very nice surprise with Keen Observation.
Like Map of the Sun, Keen Observation is a golden sour, but it’s initially aged in stainless steel. As part of the brewery’s “Echo Series,” it’s then aged in unrinsed Map of the Sun barrels, soaking in the essence of that beer’s bacterial culture, oak-aging and fruit additions. What it makes, though, is something both remarkable and delicious—a softer, less lactic, gentler sour featuring no shortage of juicy apricot flavors. It’s honestly strange just how beautifully the apricot comes through—I don’t think I’ve ever tasted another beer with such great fruit flavors that hadn’t physically come in contact with whole fruit or puree. To some palates (including my own), the echo may even surpass the inspiration because it’s so damn balanced and approachable. – Jim Vorel
Birrificio Italiano — Nigredo Black Lager
The craft beer scene in Italy is thriving, and Birrificio Italiano is among the most respected italian breweries for their careful renditions of classic styles. Their sublime Tipopils was the inspiration for Firestone’s own Pivo Pils, and Nigredo looks to do for schwarzbier what Tipopils did for the German pilsner. The dry hopped black lager starts off with a coffee-like roast flavor before drying out as a wave of zesty and floral hops fill-out the finish. It’s dark in color, but it’s light on palate and as refreshing as an iced coffee. Don’t believe the beer rating sites that call it a black IPA: The brewers bemoaned their struggles to get the brew categorized as a black lager to me, saying in thickly accented English: “Yes, it’s hoppy like an IPA, but it’s not an IPA! How can it be an IPA if it’s bottom fermented!” Regardless of who’s calling Nigredo what, the coal-black brew is clean, bright, and exceptionally smooth—a black lager that can capture the heart of any IPA lover. – John Verive
Alpine Beer Co. – Tuatara
Tuatara is either a very hoppy APA or a true session IPA, depending on who you ask, but given that it’s apparently existed since 2009 (it’s new to me), it sort of predates the initial session IPA definition. How interesting, though, that despite being seven years old, it keys into another concept that John Verive mentioned above in his entry on Societe’s The Coachman—the presence of wheat in the grist of a low-gravity session IPA.
This is a trend that simply makes sense to me. Bridging the gap between “session IPA” and “hoppy American wheat,” the addition of malted wheat to a session IPA can aid on multiple levels with the common complaints that detractors hurl at the style: “It’s too thin.” “There’s no malt complexity.” “This is hop water.” Etc. What better way to embiggen the style than with a cromulent addition of the doughy, bready flavors one finds in malted wheat? Couple that with the floral, citrus and grassy hop flavors, and Alpine has a good handle on a hop-forward beer that is infinitely sessionable and not lacking in complexity. More brewers of session IPA should stand up and take notice. – Jim Vorel
Moonlight Brewing — Death and Taxes
Speaking of black lagers, one of America’s best is always available at the Invitational, and I never miss my chance to get a glass of Brian Hunt’s exceptional Death and Taxes. If you haven’t fallen for the schwarzbier style yet, and you live near California’s Bay Area, you should track down this delectable example. Hunt has been brewing craft beer about as long as anyone in America—he was one of the few employees at Jack Mcauliffe’s New Albion Brewing in California in the ‘70s—and Death and Taxes is a testament to his experience and skill as a brewer. Dark and malty with a roasty bite that matches an assertive hop bitterness and dry finish, Death and Taxes drains effortlessly from your glass, even on sweltering summer days. – John Verive
Faction Brewing – Citraison
This is an interesting little beer from Alameda’s Faction Brewing, a crossover between farmhouse ale and IPA the likes of which I haven’t really seen before. The base, presumably, is a typical Franco-Belgian saison, but upon that canvas the brewers drop a ton of fresh Citra hops, along with the unexpected addition of rose hips. Both of those elements lead one away from the typical funk, spice and ester notes on the nose and into a panoply of citrus and tropical fruitiness.
Faction wisely seems to have held off on tossing those hops in on the bittering side of the equation, though—there’s not much to speak of, and that’s probably the deciding factor that makes this “hoppy saison” rather than “Belgian IPA.” The Citra adds its usual blend of supercharged grapefruit/pineapple, but the rose hips are the real x-factor, contributing fairly intense citrus, floral and tart, almost vinous notes. It’s an excellent stylistic mashup that does tend to favor the hops when all is said and done, but we’re not complaining. – Jim Vorel
Cigar City blood orange gose paired with fresh ceviche
One of the standout features that makes the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival so spectacular is the dozens of Central Coast restaurants that serve up snacks alongside all of the amazing breweries. Included in the ticket price, everything from chili nachos to fresh doughnuts to chicken schwarma is available for sampling, and new at this year’s festival were special beer pairings designed by Master Cicerone® (and the Content Manager for the Cicerone Certification Program) Pat Fahey. At a few times during the day Fahey manned one of the restaurant booths and poured a special beer that he selected to pair with the snack.
At the Pier 46 booth Fahey selected a tart and refreshing gose from Florida’s Cigar City Brewing to pair with a ceviche made from locally caught rockfish. The fish was tender, mild and cured in citrus while piquant chiles and cooling avocado rounded out each bite, and the citrus-infused gose was a natural match for a ceviche showcasing the power of what food-pairing-geeks call “flavor bridges”. This is when a food’s flavor finds a connection to an aspect of a beer’s flavor profile. With this combo, the blood orange zest and juice match the intense acidity of the lime while the beer’s subtle salinity underscores the fresh sea-air flavor of the rockfish. A lingering chile spice cuts through the beer’s tartness and seemed to intensify the subtle pithy bitterness of the blood oranges—a flavor that was barely perceptible with sipping on the beer alone. Although a nuanced and subtle pairing can work at a beer dinner or when you have the opportunity to focus on the interplay of beer and cuisine, in the hectic setting of a crowded beer festival the more nuanced aspects of a pairing can easily be lost. The ceviche and gose combo had no such trouble standing up to the din of the assembled crowd, and it didn’t require the careful explanation that Fahey was ready to provide to those who asked. You could just grab a sample cup of ceviche, get a pour of blood orange gose and the connection was obvious. – John Verive
Beavertown Brewery – ‘Spresso
If Beachwood’s System of a Stout is impressive for some of its subtleties, Beavertown’s imperial coffee stout, ‘Spresso, is more willing to throw caution to the wind and just revel in its own decadence. An imperial espresso stout brewed with more than 40kg of coffee, it’s big, sweet, and—operative word—creamy.
Funny thing is, I’m not sure exactly why, or perhaps that was just my perception at the festival, where it’s always so difficult to quantify while surrounded by a thousand other beer geeks. There’s no overt reference to oats, or milk sugar, or any of the adjuncts one would use to give the beer such a velvety, creamy texture, and yet it simply has one. Why question greatness, I suppose? On the palate, one gets very rich, very dark chocolate, sweet, oily espresso and heavy cream. It’s not hard to bestow upon it the title of “best imperial stout I’ve ever had from a British brewery.”
But wait! A pleasant bonus: My sample of ‘Spresso had the unlikely distinction of being poured by none other than Firestone Walker’s co-founder David Walker, who appeared out of the ether to apparently sample their beer for himself and also spelled the Beavertown crew briefly while they conversed with other brewers. It was a small moment, but one indicative of the spirit of respect and community that tends to be present at this festival. – Jim Vorel
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter.