15 Memorable Beers of the 2019 Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival

Drink Lists craft beer
15 Memorable Beers of the 2019 Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival

We’ve written a fair bit about beer festivals, in the course of the last few years. As the growth of the craft beer segment has slowed to a crawl, and a certain amount of enthusiasm seems to have leaked from the scene, one of the casualties seems to have been a loss of interest in the good old fashioned, traditional “beer fest.”

When we say “beer fest” in this context, we’re talking about those classic, “gather a bunch of breweries together in a park and sell tickets, tokens, etc” style events. For a lot of us, they were one of the primary ways we first sampled the lineups of many breweries from outside our native distribution networks. But as the average craft beer consumer has matured, and fewer converts come to craft beer for the first time, those same festivals have a tendency to seem a bit less attractive, for a number of reasons. We’ve sampled those beers. We’ve stood in those lines. We’ve put up with the ticketing hassles, and the indignant beer geeks and the haphazard organization.

But there is one corner of the “beer festival” universe where enthusiasm still runs rampant, and that is the increasingly popular “Invitational.” As we wrote about in covering the inaugural Far & Away Invitational Beer Festival hosted by Chicago’s Half Acre in 2018, this style of festival focuses on quality of experience over accessibility or massive outreach. The result: Smaller lineups of more sought-after breweries, making for a highly curated experience. Ticket prices are higher, but crowds are smaller, and those who pay the price are treated to a veritable smorgasbord of world-class beer—and usually plenty of food and perks as well. The concept has been adopted everywhere, from Half Acre’s festival in Chicago to similar fests in New York, Florida, North Carolina, California and Georgia. It feels like a true solution to beer festival banality.

And arguably, the inspiration behind it all has been (and continues to be) the Firestone Walker Invitational, held each year on the first weekend of June in Paso Robles, CA. Here, in my fifth consecutive year in attendance, I walked away as amazed as ever by not only the sheer quality of the beer lineup on display but also with how smoothly and intuitively the festival is run. Tickets aren’t cheap, but truly memorable experiences rarely are. And in a somewhat depressive climate for craft beer, the fact that there are still people pounding at the doors for entry into the FWIBF proves just how desirable that experience continues to be.

Here, then, are 15 of the most memorable beers from the 2019 festival.

Practically Any Pilsner

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Looking at the beer list for the festival, one’s eyes tend to be drawn to all the expected places. To the DDH hazy IPAs. To the giant pastry stouts. To all the outrageously sought-after wild ales. But the more I walked around the festival grounds in 2019, the more certain I became that it was pilsner ruling the day.

Granted, the pilsner from any given brewery was rarely the thing that was expressly bringing patrons to the booth, but they instead became the beers we gravitated toward. Seemingly every brewery was rocking an unheralded pilsner, and they were almost universally outstanding examples of the style. In fact, I would hazard to say that the 2019 FWIBF might stand as one of the low-key greatest collections of pilsners ever assembled in one place, featuring world-class examples from all the following:

— The Bruery
— Revolution Brewing
— Garage Project
— Firestone Walker
— Green Cheek Beer Co.
— Birrificio Italiano
— pFriem Family Brewers
— Jack’s Abby
— Russian River
— Mahrs Brau
— Burial Beer Co.
— Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project
— Highland Park Brewery

And folks, that’s just the pilsners I had a chance to try—not even all the pilsner that was present at the event. Notable among it all was the continued emergence of so-called “Italian style” pilsner, in reference to Italy’s Birrificio Italiano, whose use of European dry hopping in dry, crisp pilsner is credited with inspiring Firestone’s own, much-beloved Pivo Pilsner. And indeed, that beer, Birrificio Italiano’s “Tipopils” had a place of honor (and increasing buzz/street cred) at the festival. The fact that I’m leading this list off with pilsner speaks to the moment it’s having here.

And because I’m sure people would prefer I pick a favorite, allow me to lump some praise on one pilsner in particular.

Revolution Brewing — Keller Pils

There were practically too many “keller,” “zwickel” or otherwise unfiltered lagers at the 2019 FWIBF to count, but I was particularly taken by this muscular, doughy pilsner from Chicago’s Revolution. The unfiltered version of their already excellent Rev Pils is a wonderfully deep beer, presenting big yeasty/bready notes on both the nose and palate, supported by floral and slightly green/resinous hop impressions. There’s a particularly rustic quality to the malt profile here—hints of “hay” and “barn” make me say that—that remind me of the malt bill you might almost expect to taste in something like a grissette, except supported by those wonderfully delicious noble hops. Truly, a beer worth appreciating a liter at a time, although it was hardly alone in that capacity as a pilsner at this festival.

All hail pilsner, etc.

Garage Project — Half a Brain

It’s almost become a given that every year, something from New Zealand’s Garage Project is going to appear on this list, to the extent that I wondered if maybe I should just disqualify them in advance this year, but their beer—and especially their presentation—is just too damn good to ignore.

Suffice to say, these guys are geniuses when it comes to the concept of festival presentation—they understand what it is to hype up the crowd and offer some kind of experience that will be almost impossible to replicate. This year, it was via a collaboration with their neighbors in the next booth, The Bruery, who combined with Garage Project to create a single beer, Half a Brain. And yes, that’s a reference to the Rupert Holmes song “Escape,” much better known to the world as “The Piña Colada Song.”

This beer is a fruity, decadently sweet pineapple sour created by Garage Project, which was accentuated perfectly by a burst of coconut beer-flavored foam applied to each glass by The Bruery, who presumably made an intensely flavored coconut beer and then adjusted their lines in such a way as to apply dense foam to each glass. In conjunction, this mixture tasted exactly like the best piña colada you’ve ever had—irresistibly over the top and impossible to dislike. You have to take your hat off to these guys, because every year they find a way to raise the bar.

garage project half a brain (Custom).jpgJust look at that irresistible FOAM.

The Rare Barrel — Blurred SB

The name of this beer refers to an intent on the part of The Rare Barrel to genuinely blur the lines on what can be considered “beer” and wine. As a result, it’s made with up to 50 percent sauvignon blanc grape must as fermentables, placing it into some kind of classification limbo.

Given that information, the most surprising thing to me in consuming Blurred SB is that I still really wouldn’t have mistaken it for something other than “beer.” I feel like mouthfeel is probably key here—despite deriving so many of its fermentables from grapes, Blurred SB retains a very beer-like mouthfeel, no doubt thanks in part to its carbonation level. It packs some wonderful flavors of white grape, kiwi, lychee and grapefruit citrus into a package that is supported by moderate tartness, a dry finish and lingering hints of oak. In description, this is one of The Rare Barrel’s most experimental beers, but in execution it’s actually one of their most refreshing and accessible.

Green Cheek Beer Co. — Happily Deceased

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As I observed at last year’s festival, and as we confirmed the last time we blind-tasted IPAs, Orange, CA’s Green Cheek Beer Co. is our pick for the brewery making the best non-hazy IPAs in the country right now. That isn’t to say they can’t make a delicious hazy IPA, but this brewery’s mastery of clear IPA is on another level, and we hope that a bunch of other places are studying what they’re doing and discovering the tools to bring on the next clear IPA renaissance.

This year provides proof as well that it doesn’t even need to be one of the Green Cheek IPAs we’re familiar with in order to get excited. Last year it was the brand’s Radiant Beauty that had me in a tizzy; this year it’s the significantly different Happily Deceased West Coast IPA. This crystal clear beauty is hopped with Mosaic and Nelson Sauvin, providing an interesting contrast between tropical fruit (mango), passionfruit, white wine and no shortage of resinous, “green” character as well. Firm bitterness is also present (remember when that was a given?), but it stops short of itensity. It’s just a lovely beer that presents extremely lush but distinct hop flavors, without all the muddled, yeast-derived notes we’ve come to expect in the style. I sincerely hope we see more IPA like this in the next year. Apparently, it’s made a big impression on some folks—like this YouTube songwriters who composed a 3:30 minute song entirely about Happily Deceased. As the time of this writing, it has 5 views.

Honorable mention: Green Cheek was also pouring a lovely helles (Oaked Just Right) that has the neat distinction of being briefly aged in the same barrels that Firestone Walker uses to age their classic Double Barrel Ale. The love affair between FW and Green Cheek this year was cute to see.

Creature Comforts Brewing Co. — Pearson

For whatever reason, when I looked at this beer name, I was absolutely convinced that it would be pronounced “Pear-Son,” and that it would be a pear beer as a result. As it turns out: No, that’s not right, and why did I make that assumption? I’m still not sure, but what this actually turns out to be is a celebration of all things peach-related from Georgia.

The house mixed culture from Creature Comforts already has a pronounced stone fruit character, which is perhaps why this ultimately works so beautifully and seamlessly. What stands out in this wild ale is the wonderfully soft mouthfeel and sheer gentleness of its acidity. That isn’t to say that this beer is lacking for “tartness” in any respect—it simply demonstrates the difference between expertly made beers with a degree of tartness and ones where that sourness takes on a much more harsh, garish quality. This is just a celebration of the fresh, fuzzy, juicy flavors of a perfectly fresh peach—not overly sweet or artificial, but delicate and understated. In a word, “authentic.”

Blackberry Farm — En Honneur de Toi

Tennessee’s Blackberry Farms made a welcome first appearance at this year’s FWIBF, presumably in recognition of the fact that they’ve been one of the very best American brewers of classic-style saisons for many years now. If you have any doubt of that, go out and get a Saison DuPont, and compare it side by side with Blackberry Farms Classic Saison. The results will be more than favorable, and that’s more or less the best compliment I can give to a saison.

En Honneur de Toi, on the other hand, is more of an attempt at producing a mildly imperialized take on that style of saison, albeit with a somewhat bigger hop rate that features the Comet hop. The result is a big, beautiful, complex ale that is yeast forward on the nose, bringing expansive herbal, spice and tropical fruit notes into play. I get plenty of pineapple here, and a gingery spice, but the ABV is also high enough that it accentuates the slightly toasty/bready malt character of this saison as well. Hints of booze contribute a slightly vinous character to the fruity flavors, making for a burly saison that is slightly more decadent than the Classic, while still falling in a fairly drinkable ABV range at 8%. It’s a beautiful beer.

Half Acre Beer Co. — Bon Hut

One of the more oddly striking sights of the 2019 FWIBF was seeing the Half Acre representatives pouring this beautifully purple sour from clear 750 ml glass bottles—something you don’t realize looks weird until you see it. As it turns out, the brewery is experimenting with how UV light/sunlight affects packaged sours in ways that might actually prove advantageous to the profiles of certain beers, so there you go.

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Regardless, I honestly didn’t perceive any lightstruck quality on Bon Hut—rather, I was just struck by how delicious this blend of blueberry, plum and black currant fruit is. The brewery took two-year-old base sour and re-aged it for six weeks on a collection of dark fruit, pulling off one of the festival’s prettiest-looking beers in the process. This is brimming with berry complexity on the palate; slightly jammy, but benefitting from a sense of tannic dryness on the tongue as well. Slightly vinous and wine-like, I can see why the brewery used “grenache grapes” as a touchpoint. Solidly tart, but not overtly sweet, it was right up my alley.

Trillium Brewing Co. — DDH Congress St. IPA

For as often as I am critical of poorly done, overplayed NE-IPAs these days, it’s nice to get the occasional reminder of why this is a style that so many are chasing after in the first place. To be perfectly honest, I’m not always a huge fan of Trillium’s house style—I often find their DDH IPAs to be overwhelmingly green or grassy in comparison with say, Tree House—but the DDH Congress St. the brewery was pouring at FWIBF this year could not have been more perfectly pleasant. It was the kind of beer that justifies why people drive across country to buy cans of hazy IPA. If they were all this good, I wouldn’t have any complaints about the style.

DDH Congress St. doubles down on the beauty of the Galaxy hop, delivering a hedonistic amount of citrus (especially orange/tangerine) juiciness, supported by peach and mango. Unlike so many others in the same mold, this beer doesn’t feel choked by grassy/leafy trub, or yeast—it genuinely comes off as “juicy,” something that must be harder than many of us expect to achieve, given how many other beers are trying to replicate it and failing. This is clean, soft of mouthfeel and only moderately sweet in terms of residual sugar. It’s right in the center of the bullseye, and even if I keep railing against bad NE-IPA, this is a style I want to continue to exist. I just wish more of them were like this.

Jackie O’s — Apple Brandy Brick Kiln

Although I was staying away from giant, barrel-aged beers more than usual during this year’s FWIBF, it’s not like I was going to avoid them entirely, right? Especially when they come from a brewery with as much mastery over extracting flavors from barrels as Jackie O’s. Apple Brandy Brick Kiln is a beastly English barleywine, weighing in at 11.6% ABV, given a lengthy 16-month rest in apple brandy barrels before being unleashed on the world. As is so common with Jackie O’s, you know that they gave this one exactly as long in the barrel as it needed. These dudes? They don’t rush this stuff.

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This beer is massively flavorful, swimming in maple syrup and toffee caramelization. Deep, deep maltiness shines through the barleywine base, with dark toasted bread crusts and dark fruit flavors of plum and raisin. It reminds me quite a bit of Revolution Brewing’s much-loved Straight Jacket barrel-aged barleywine, a beer that once won our barleywine blind tasting, and Brick Kiln is very much in the same mold. This is deeply contemplative, brandy snifter beer that demands a long drinking session to really savor—although it’s wonderful to have at a festival like the FWIBF, that isn’t truly its natural habitat. This is a beer you pour before putting on a Criterion Collection blu-ray of some classic film noir like The Third Man. One masterpiece demands another.

While I’m at it, here are a few barrel-aged monster beer runner ups: WeldWerks Rye Vanilla Medianoche, Half Acre Double Barrel Benthic, Three Floyds Dark Lord (still a classic).

Sante Adairius Rustic Ales — Family Whistle

Not all the best beers of this festival had to be the most bombastic or exceedingly complicated. Which isn’t to say that “barrel-aged saison” isn’t a thing of complexity, which it is. But Sante Adairius presents this passionfruit saison with a particular degree of focus that I couldn’t help but admire.

Passionfruit is a bit of a tricky flavor. In an array of other tropical fruit notes, it can get kind of lost. On its own, it can be mis-identified as peach, apricot or other stone fruits, as it shares some of the same characteristics. This beer captures the inherent nature of passionfruit in a way that is much more precise and clean and distinctive than you usually find. It’s refreshing, but substantial—you’d certainly never know that it was 7.5% ABV, that’s for certain. Lightly tart and refreshing, it carries through a very subtle ribbon of oakiness into its finish, while primarily being a celebration of the beauty of passionfruit. Needless to say, if I had regular access to this in cans, I’d be consuming an irresponsible amount of it. So it’s probably better that I don’t.

Side Project Brewing — Saison du Blé

Standing in line for the Side Project booth, especially once non-media attendees start entering the grounds, might be the time of this festival where you’re most likely to hear insufferable, indignant beer geeks in a huff about one thing or another. This year, at 11 a.m., it was angry geeks pissed off that certain breweries’ strongest and rarest beers weren’t already pouring for their first tastes of the day. What do you mean, I have to drink regular old DARK LORD? Where’s the Marshmallow Handjee?!? Whadd’ya mean, Side Project only has beautiful wild ales on? You’re saying I can’t pound some Derivation as the first taste of the next six hours of festival drinking?!? You’re saying we should leave some beer for the schmucks with regular tickets?!?

Which is to say: Don’t be like these bros. These fests shouldn’t be about ticking off the rarest collection of shit you can say you’ve ticked off, they should be about appreciation of the greatest beers. And really, even in a field of exemplary wild ales, does Side Project make anything more perfect than their classic Saison du Blé? It’s a beer that once placed #1 in a Paste blind saison tasting for a reason, combining the best aspects of modern American mixed culture wild ales with the flavors of classical Franco-Belgian saison. White grape and sweet-tart Meyer lemon meets with soft, bready wheat flavors and perhaps a tiny hint of vanilla, marrying beautifully with brettanomyces funk and earthy complexity. It’s a beer that will be eternally in fashion, and we’ll be happy to keep singing its praises. The rest of ya’ll can keep bitching about access to prestige stouts.

Firestone Walker/Cigar City — Los Leñadores

The festival’s annual collaboration beer between Firestone Walker and one other brewery—this year it’s Cigar City—has never been a let-down in the past, but 2019’s offering was particularly unique. And when I say “unique,” I mean it in the sense of “I don’t think I’ve ever had a beer quite like this before.”

Los Leñadores starts with a base of imperial brown ale—it’s a different beer from Firestone Walker Bravo, I asked—which is aged in high-rye bourbon barrels from Four Roses. We’re off to a good start here already, but where things get really interesting is the additional aging this beer does on rare African and Brazilian hardwood varieties, in the form of spirals—the varietals are known as African Padauk and Brazilian Amburana. These spirals take what I’m sure would have been an excellent barrel-aged imperial brown ale and transform it into something totally different.

firestone lenadores inset (Custom).jpg “Infused with exotic wood spirals.”

The end result, on first sniff, is incredibly reminiscent of an oatmeal raisin cookie. It is absolutely redolent of a variety of warm, aromatic spices: Cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, ginger. And then you realize that there were no dry spices involved in this beer’s creation. Somehow, it has derived all of those spice notes from the wood, in a manner that is entirely unlike any kind of wood-aged beer I’ve tasted before. I can only assume that after tasting this, other breweries will be scrambling over each other to investigate the properties of these rare (and surely expensive) hardwoods, but man, it’s a worthy field of experimentation to be sure. And hell, I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful malt complexity of this beer, or the expertly (and almost disturbingly) well hidden booze, for a 11.6% ABV product. Los Leñadores is a marvel.

Firestone honorable mention: Of all the other stuff pouring at the Barrelworks booth (it was a lot), I was also taken with “Violet Underground,” a novel beer making use of golden raspberries to deliver intense raspberry fruitiness without the expected pinkish hue. Also: This beer is made with “candied violet petals,” which might be the most fanciful ingredient of the festival.

Casey Brewing and Blending — Funky Blender Preserves Nectarine

Nectarines don’t seem to get quite get as much play in beer as other stone fruit varieties like peaches and apricot, despite their similarity, and I wonder if this is because their character is a bit more delicate and difficult to capture in a way that is both authentic and crowd-pleasing. Regardless of the reason, I’ve had a good number of nectarine beers over the years, but it seems like they rarely impress in quite the same way as their peach or apricot cousins.

It was nice, then, to see Casey come through with a beer that really made nectarine a star in the same way that other wild ales have captured the vibrancy of peach or apricot. This is a big, assertive one—puckering tartness that is more bracing than a similar beer such as Creature Comforts Pearson from earlier on this list, with more of a lactic presence. That’s not a downside; it simply plays to a slightly different crowd that is seeking a more assertive form of tartness. Certainly, the sourness is well matched by a slightly decadent, fruity sweetness, and an unexpectedly creamy texture. This is a bombastic, fruity sour overall, and one that is very much in the mold of what is being sought after by a lot of drinkers right now.

Other Half Brewing Co. — Broccoli Special Reserve

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Once again, it’s time to give credit where credit is due, when it comes to properly executed NE-IPAs. To put it simply, there’s a reason why some breweries like Other Half rise to the top of the heap, even when so many others are trying to replicate the same style. Put this beer into a blind tasting, and it will rise above the rest of the group, because it actually achieves what most of the examples of this style are trying to do.

Broccoli Reserve is massively juicy, with huge, engrossing flavors of peach, pineapple and sticky resin. It’s a good reminder that you can in fact make a NE-IPA that has a ton of “green” and “resin” flavors without it also losing track of the juiciness, or manifesting the “hop burn” mouthfeel that now plagues the style. This beer is juicy, moderately sweet, low in bitterness and more drinkable than 90 percent of the imitators. It is, in short, what NE-IPA is supposed to be.

Accept no substitutes. If we could somehow hold NE-IPA to this standard, we’d be better off for it.

pFriem Family Brewers — Brouwer’s 14th Anniversary

It’s always fun at a festival when you hear a beer description and actually have to stop for a second to think “Have I ever had anything like this before?” A huckleberry sour? Uh … I’m not sure? And so obviously, I’ll be tasting this.

The results are much more complex and nuanced than I was initially expecting. It tastes like a melange of every dark berry/black fruit variety you can think of, although the one note in particular I keep returning to is that of pomegranate, followed by fresh wildflowers, and backed by moderate to high tartness. And yet, the light color tricks the brain into repeatedly thinking “this can’t have just tasted the way it tasted, right?” It’s an alluring contradiction.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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