Matt Brynildson knows as much about barrel-aging beer as nearly any other single person you could name in the American craft brewing industry. The beloved brewmaster of Firestone Walker in Paso Robles, CA, has headed the brewery’s barrel-aging efforts ever since the first time they put an imperial brown ale called Bravo into whiskey barrels in 2004. But in actuality, his barrel-aged roots go even deeper.
That’s because from 1996 until 2000, Brynildson was a brewer for Chicago’s Goose Island. Back in those halcyon, pre-Anheuser acquisition days, Goose Island pioneered the art of aging craft beer in used spirit barrels, most famously with Bourbon County Brand Stout—which you might call the barrel-aged stout that launched a thousand imitators, alongside contemporaries such as Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. It was here that Brynildson cut his teeth on the science of aging beer in spirits barrels for months or even years at a time. It was invaluable experience, to be sure … we wouldn’t have the likes of Firestone Walker Parabola today without it.
It made some waves, then, when Firestone Walker announced this week their intentions to make an interesting shift in their barrel-aged beer program. In addition to bottling Bravo for the first time, a beer they’ve been making (but never distributed) for 13 years, Firestone is setting a new precedent: Moving their barrel-aged beers to the same 12 oz bottles used for year-round stalwarts such as Union Jack IPA and Double Barrel Ale. No longer will any barrel-aged beers in the Firestone Walker Vintage Reserve series be available in their typical 22 oz containers. In 2017, even sought-after releases such as Parabola and Firestone Walker’s annual Anniversary Ale will be exclusively 12 oz. For reference, this series also includes Stickee Monkey, Velvet Merkin and Helldorado.
The response of beer geeks has been mixed, in exactly the sort of way that anyone who reads beer forums would predict. Many (myself included), like the concept as a way to both lessen the amount of beer you need to consume every time you open a barrel-aged bottle and as a way to potentially save a few bucks. Being a consummate beer omnivore, I rarely feel the need to purchase or drink large amounts of any one beer—all I really want is a serving, or a taste. Other fans have been less enthusiastic, citing a fondness for the “shareability” of 22 oz bottles and raising other questions about the move to 12 oz.
Wanting to take a few of my own questions to the man himself, I got Brynildson on the phone from California on Thursday afternoon. Here are some of his thoughts on the change in packaging, the release of Bravo after 13 years, and where the Firestone Walker barrel-aging program might go in the future.
Our conversation began with a brief reflection on Brynildson’s time at Goose Island that I won’t bother reproducing, except that he “learned a lot of what he knows about making beer” in his time there.
Paste: I’m curious—how satisfied were you with the earliest spirit barrel-aged beers at Firestone Walker? How was the first batch of Bravo, and after everything you’ve learned, is it much different 13 years later?
Brynildson: It really is quite similar, actually. It was designed to be a very different beer than say, Bourbon County Stout was … much drier, much less rich. The thing is, at that time you could have accused us of making mostly “pedestrian” beer styles, low-alcohol beers. Our portfolio wasn’t very aggressive. But then the 10th anniversary was coming up on the horizon, and we got the go-ahead to make something big, gnarly and awesome.
The original Bravo, though, was sort of like a side project to put in a barrel, a single batch brew that was created to be an element in the overall anniversary beer. We had a happy circumstance there in the fact that we didn’t have any kind of warehouse to put the barrels in, just our cold room. That really ended up differentiating our process from other breweries, because they were putting the barrels in an ambient temperature warehouse to kind of flux in temperature with the seasons. As a result, when we took the beer out of the barrel it had this wonderful, bright, non-oxidized malt character and we realized that we were on to something. It exceeded our expectations and convinced us to continue moving forward with our barrel-aging projects.
Paste: And Bravo has never gotten a proper release in all that time?
Brynildson: This is the first time ever. It’s weird that we have a beer this old that has never seen the light of day on its own. It’s always been in the program, every single year. It may have been on tap in the taproom at some point, but this will honestly be the first time that many people have ever tasted it outside of Anniversary Ale.
Paste: Did Sucaba not get brewed at all this year? Or did some get brewed, and it’s just being aged longer?
Brynildson: It wasn’t brewed. It wasn’t that we didn’t like that beer, we honestly just only have enough room to do the six releases in the barrel program per year at our current capacity. If we want anything new to come in, one will have to go out. Last year it was cutting Double DBA to release Helldorado. Obviously, it’s not an easy choice, but we also want to have a lot of variety on hand every year for our winemakers to choose from in blending our anniversary beer.
Paste: Were you hearing a desire from consumers that they would prefer smaller volumes of your barrel-aged beers?
Brynildson: We did hear that from some people, but just in my own experience as a beer consumer, I know there’s a ton of 22’s and 750’s waiting in my cellar that I don’t get around to opening because I’m always waiting for the right time when I have people over. I’ve never liked the beer industry standard of putting the biggest, highest ABV beers into the biggest containers. This just seemed like the best pure way to get as much barrel-aged beer as possible to the widest possible group of our fans. It’s the same amount of beer, but hopefully reaching more people. And honestly, I’ve always thought that with a 14% ABV barrel-aged beer, a 12 oz serving is perfect for two people to share.
Paste: With the Proprietor’s Reserve series (including Double Jack, Opal, Wookey Jack) being discontinued as well, will there be any remaining Firestone Walker beers in 22 oz bottles in 2017?
Brynildson: I think that by the end of 2017, our plan is to be pretty much out of the 22 oz bottle game. One of the driving reasons is that we’re really sensitive to shelf life, and you inherently have more problems with the bomber format than other types of packages, either can or bottle. We don’t want to see any more old bombers on store shelves.
And with the Proprietor’s Reserve series, that is being replaced by the new Leo vs. Ursus series. The first release is an 8.2% DIPA called Fortem that will be out soon.
Paste: Was there any consideration of using 12 oz cans instead of bottles? Or is that still seen as too risky, in the sense that the can doesn’t convey the “prestige” you need for consumers to know these are special beers?
Brynildson: Thing is, with Firestone in general, we’ve been pretty conservative in our march toward alternative packages. There was a time when Adam Firestone famously said that we’d never put our beers in cans, period. Obviously, things change. It was a big leap of faith for us to get on board with our first canned beers, but the ball is rolling. It won’t happen now, but never say never.
Paste: Do you anticipate the move to 12 oz bottles would change the way you design barrel-aged beers in any way? Does a different volume demand new styles of barrel-aged beer, I mean?
Brynildson: I don’t think so at all. My experience has been that there really isn’t a difference when it comes to bottle size in how well the beer ages, so I don’t see us making any changes.
Paste: I’m sure that you guys expected some criticism, whether from people who love the 22’s, or from people who have specific issues with the 12 oz bottles. The comments I found interesting on reddit and Facebook were ones calling out the practicality of individually boxed 12 oz bottles, calling them wasteful. One guy on reddit wrote “I’d rather they ditch the boxes and drop the price.” Thoughts?
Brynildson: I get the concern. We came out with the box early on, and we’ve liked them because it helps identify our program and gives you more space to write your story. They make things much more difficult for production, but we like the box, what can I say?
Paste: Are you aware of other breweries making the same type of downsizing on bottle size with their barrel-aged beers?
Brynildson: Some of the people who inspired us to move in that direction were Russian River and Lost Abbey, who moved down from 750 ml bottles to 355 ml, cork-finished bottles. That cork definitely helps the consumer know it’s still a special beer. Boulevard also moved from 750s on their Smokestack Series to custom 12 oz bottles, which I thought was a clever way to differentiate their product line.
Paste: Any chance that Firestone could use the same bottle type more in the future?
Brynildson: It’s tricky, because we don’t have that equipment at the brewery in Paso Robles. We’ve done it at our Barrelworks location; that’s really been our go-to bottle at Barrelworks. It’s certainly a possibility in the future, although it would be a substantial project to make that switch.
Let us know your thoughts below. Do you prefer barrel-aged beers in smaller or larger packaging? Will downsizing be the next trend in barrel-aged beer? How can breweries move these beers to 12 oz bottles (or cans) and trust consumers to understand that they’re still “special”? These are the questions that the industry will be tackling in the next few years.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident craft beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more beer content.