For decades, Paso Robles, California has been a tourism destination … for oenophiles. The city’s natural geography, with hills warding off the cool sea air only miles to the west, creates an intensely warm, dry climate in which a variety of grapes have thrived since the 1800s, building the region into one of California’s most popular wine producers. Just trying to count all of the vineyards and wineries in the immediate area is incredibly daunting—they spread out in all directions, borders mingling with one another in endless hills of yellow, heat-blanched grass and green vines. For tourists who enjoy a leisurely drive down the Central Coast, it’s a beautiful place to visit, provided you remember your sunscreen.
And for a long time, that’s what Paso Robles was—but no longer. The city’s beer scene has awoken, led of course by Firestone Walker, which has been making world-class beer in Paso since 1996. Their production is currently grouped into that of parent company Duvel Moortgat by the Brewers Association, meaning they’re part of the 6th largest craft brewing company in the country, as of 2016. They continue to lead the way, both in scale and innovation.
But it’s not just Firestone Walker anymore, either. A younger generation of new breweries have moved into Paso, giving the locals an array of exciting new options. They include the new project of the well-respected former brewmaster of Green Flash, as well as several other young businesses within the same downtown Paso Robles walking area. And as the number grows, so does the number of tourists thinking of Paso as a “beer town” in addition to being a wine town.
I recently had the chance to return to Paso for another superlative Firestone Walker Invitational (you can read about all the best beers from the fest here), and this year my goal was to hit as many of those new breweries as possible. I almost succeeded—the very short timeframe of my Paso visit meant it was more or less impossible to physically step into one of them—but at the very least, I did manage to drink beer from every Paso brewery.
So if you’re headed to Paso for a wine jaunt, make sure you check out the beer side of the equation as well. It’s the perfect mix of venerable (Firestone Walker) and fresh.
Where else could you possibly start? It’s easy to call Firestone Walker one of the best pure breweries in the U.S., and I don’t think it’s exaggeration at all to say they’re the best “large, regional U.S. brewery” out there. In their size tier, Firestone stands alone both for the quality of their year rounders and their continued innovation in barrel-aged beers. They have the consistency and resources of a big brewery, coupled with the experimental verve of a brand new one still looking to make a name for themselves. It’s the reason why they’ve done so well for themselves since 1996, and it’s the reason that when any beer fan thinks of Paso Robles, they think of Firestone Walker.
The other thing they have going for themselves is that Firestone Walker does seemingly every style of beer equally well. Great pale ales and IPAs? From the underappreciated Pale 31 to Union Jack to whichever Double Jack replacement they have going in their Leo v. Ursus series at any given time, they’re all great. Lagers? They’ve racked up awards with Pivo Pilsner. English style beers? The original flagship, Double Barrel Ale. Dark beer styles? Velvet freakin’ Merlin. Hell, I even had a hefeweizen with the Firestone Walker name on it while I was in town. And that’s not even getting into the world of their barrel-aging program, where brewmaster Matt Brynildson’s mad science is free to run wild. Parabola, the much sought after barrel-aged imperial stout, is only the tip of the iceberg there.
Suffice to say, if you’re coming into Paso for the first time, you’d be insane to not visit Firestone Walker and have a meal at the taproom. This one is just a given for a “Paso beer guide.”
Only six months old is Silva Brewing Co., conveniently located in the same building as what is probably Paso’s most popular beer bar, The Pour House. It’s the brainchild of married duo MJ and Chuck Silva, who departed San Diego’s Green Flash Brewing in 2016 in much the same manner as his contemporary at Stone, Mitch Steele. Like Steele, who is opening a new brewery in Atlanta, Silva sought out what he felt to be an ideal location to start fresh with a small venture, and the result is the new brewery that bears his name. I had a chance to sit down with him for an interview that will appear on Paste in the near future, but suffice to say, Silva says that it’s every brewer’s dream “to own a small brewery,” simply for the freedom it implies.
At Silva Brewing Co., the West Coast IPA pioneer seems to be diversifying his game a bit. You can find the expected collection of hop-forward beers (pale ale, “golden IPA,” “red IPA”), but Silva is simultaneously exploring an interest in classic German and Belgian styles as well, lending the overall lineup a bit more balance. The 1st Gold Kolsch and Suite B altbier are both approachable German ales, while the Seville orange peels in the Mind on My Orange Belgian saison lend a nice, juicy citrus note. There’s a smattering of darker beer styles, including a unique walnut milk stout, but my favorite beer from Silva was the one he seems to intend as a flagship: Paso Pale Ale. Packed with plenty of Citra and Simcoe, it’s bright and citrus juicy while being quite dry and quaffable. Definitely a beer to build your lineup around, especially in the oft-times smothering Paso heat.
When I visited, the tiny Silva Brewing Co. tasting room was almost completely overwhelmed by beer geeks in town for the FWIBF, but it’s pretty clear that this place is mostly about the beer, rather than the ambiance. You’re drinking in what is basically the brewhouse itself—hot, loud and close to the action. On the plus side, you can always duck next door to the Pour House and simply drink Silva’s beers there. It will be interesting to see him build his barrel aging program from scratch in the years to come.
Another brewery under a year old, although they’re about to celebrate their 1 year anniversary on July 1, Earth & Fire is only a short walk from Silva Brewing Co., on the other side of an inconveniently placed railroad line. They have a great sign on the exterior of the building, compelling people to get off the highway running through Paso to have a beer, and honestly: Who are you to deny them?
The feel here is a bit more casual than at Silva, and the tasting room is more “homey”—not in the center of the brewhouse, filled with industrial equipment, but more akin to what you’re probably expecting, in a small room filled with couches, board games and mismatched furniture. I immediately got a free-wheeling vibe when I asked the beer server about the fact that a pale ale on the menu was stronger in ABV than the IPA and was told “Well, it’s a two barrel system, so they drop the hydrometer at the end and the ABV is what it is.” That seemed a bit questionable to me, but despite the laissez faire attitude, the pale ale in question actually hid the booze surprisingly well.
Also impressive at Earth & Fire was the Hip HOP Anonymous DIPA, which surely must win some kind of award for being the only beer in the continental U.S. named after a Rob Schneider reference from Big Daddy. With an intensely tropical bouquet reminiscent of fruit punch or juicy fruit gum, it was perhaps the most uniquely flavored beer I had from one of the Paso locals. The best overall beer here, though, was a nicely balanced, tactful saison with no shortage of flavor for its modest ABV. That one is a winner.
From Earth & Fire, Toro Creek Brewing Co. is only a couple blocks further north, forming an obvious walking trifecta with Silva for anyone visiting the downtown Paso area. However, unlike the other two, this location is simply a taproom rather than a full-scale production brewery, as the actual brewing facilities are housed on the company’s pleasant-looking hop farm, somewhere in the (much less hot) country between Atascadero and Morro Bay.
Accordingly, and as a result of the fact that these guys have quietly been around since 2013, the Toro Creek location in downtown Paso feels much more polished in its presentation. Honestly, this was likely my favorite discovery of the trip. Walk in, and you’re greeted with the sound of vintage vinyl spinning on the record player—The Mamas & The Papas when I entered, which quickly segued into Cream’s Disraeli Gears. The ambience is laid-back but hip—I would kill to know where the hell they got the pea-green, crushed velvet couch that is hanging out against the back wall. That is a “statement piece” for your taproom, if I ever saw one. BEHOLD:
The beer was equally good. The one knock is that they had significantly fewer on tap than Silva or Earth & Fire, having blown through all the coffee stout they had available, but one could hardly argue with the three year-rounders available: Session IPA, red ale and saison. Now, given our beer geek cynicism, “red ale/amber ale” is hardly the thing that many of us are looking for in 2017, but Toro Creek’s example is the sort of red ale that makes an excellent argument for the continued validity of that old brewpub staple. Unlike the weaker examples, it’s not simply a caramelly, overly sweet, simplified mess, but instead a nicely toasty, balanced beer with true depth to its malt complexity. The session IPA, likewise, was one of the better low-ABV beers I tasted in Paso: Grassy and floral, with notes of pine resin and grapefruit, but quite approachable. One might wish that they had a bigger lineup to sample, but the atmosphere makes this a place I’d love to visit again.
Unfortunately, this is the only brewery in Paso that I wasn’t able to physically visit during the trip—my apologies to the Barrelhouse folks. Ultimately, I only had a single afternoon to devote to the task, and I couldn’t quite work it in, which means I also didn’t get down to the Firestone Walker taproom this time around. However, I did get a chance to drink a few Barrelhouse beers while out and about in Paso Robles.
Barrelhouse is four years old, putting it in a similar bracket as Toro in having a bit more experience than the latest class of breweries such as Silva and E&F. Unlike Toro, however, their presence as a destination for hanging out and drinking is considerably more established. In fact, one really gets the sense while talking to locals in Paso that Barrelhouse is considered by many to be “the local brewery” one visits for a good, occasionally rowdy time on a Friday or Saturday night, thanks to the larger capacity, outdoor beer garden and impressively full calendar of music and events. In terms of mentions alone, more locals spoke to me about Barrelhouse than any other brewery. Bonus: The city’s sole cidery, Tin City Cider, is right next door.
As far as the year-round beer portfolio is concerned, approachability is clearly king, with multiple spins on session ales and blonde ales, including a pleasantly orange-infused Sunny Daze citrus blonde ale I enjoyed at my hotel after the madness that was FWIBF. There are also plenty of IPA spin-offs in the year-round and seasonal beer lists, but Barrelhouse has clearly been busy on the barrel-aging side of the spectrum as well. This year alone they’ve put out a maple vanilla imperial stout and a “brown sugar imperial ale” aged in rum barrels for a year, which is an impressive degree of restraint and investment of time and resources for any young-ish brewery. They also have a new, very intriguing-looking series of “Central Coast wild ales” that take advantage of the local wine industry for grapes and wine barrels—trying some of these will be high on my priority list next time I make it to Paso.
These are the breweries based in Paso Robles proper, but keep in mind that if you’re headed up from the south there are quite a few potential others to hit on the way. Immediately to the south in Atascadero there’s Tent City Beer Co., while San Luis Obispo can boast quite a few: Central Coast Brewing, SLO Brew, Libertine Brewing Co., Bang the Drum Brewery and Tap It Brewing Co., several of which are in walking distance of each other.
Like so many other small cities, the brewing scene of these Central Coast hubs have come alive, making what was already a tourist destination for the wineries that much more enticing. If you’ve ever wanted to take a trip into Californian “wine country” with your significant other, only to be held back by the fact that they prefer beer, now is most definitely your chance to make it happen.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more beer coverage.