Three days before I was set to leave on a 48-hour jaunt to Central California wine country with my good friend Evelyn, I received a press release announcing the opening of Firestone Walker‘s latest project, Barrelworks–a wild beer program and new tasting room located at the award-winning midsize brewery’s Buellton location. Though the trip was originally planned so that we could pick up her wine club allotment at Chronic Cellars, we had already planned on stopping by FW and at least filling up a growler and eating a pretzel or something. Would I like to come see the place? Hell yes.The timing was perfect as Barrelworks had only been open less than a week and so I made an appointment to talk to so-called “barrelmeister” Jeffers Richardson on our way back to L.A. on Sunday and he said he would show us around the place. We drove up early Saturday and got lunch in San Luis Obisbo at Creekside Brewing, where I drank their Belgian-style IPA, which tasted like a straight up half-and-half mixture of an IPA and a Belgian-style golden (maybe with some wheat in the grain bill?). Then we wine tasted at a few places along the 101 between SLO and Paso (where Chronic is) stopping at places that Ev had circled in her latest issue of Wine Spectator like Ancient Peaks and Turley.
I love going wine tasting because you don’t have to commit to a whole glass and you get to quickly taste various grape and terroir-influenced wines and it’s fun to try and determine the difference. That said, my palate is nowhere near trained enough to actually taste the nuances that people insist are present in wines grown on opposite sides of the same mountain so I make up for my ignorance by asking a lot of questions and hoping that my friend buys a bottle so our tasters can be comped. I wonder if one day, beer will become as elevated as wine is with tasting rooms that aren’t bars at all where cheese boards are sold and someone stands in front of you ready to answer questions about the varietals they are pouring 1 oz samples of into a glass. Mammoth Brewing was the closest to this customer service-wise in my experience, but I imagine it’s just because the laws won’t allow them to sell full pints and even then, our server was a Jeff Spicoli wannabe and there definitely wasn’t a massive field of rolling beer hills behind the building.
Being Italian, wine is in my blood (formerly in my bottle), so I appreciate the fact that I live just a day’s drive California’s wine country; but while I’m willing to smell, swirl, sip and savor, afterward, I’ll still crave beer (and need to brush all the red-wine hair off my teeth). So after our last stop, we hit up din din at Firestone Walker’s Taproom restaurant, which didn’t exist last time I rolled through a few years ago. Though FW has been expanding onto a Stone scale-sized brewing operation, the interior of this restaurant manages to pull off the whole stainless steel industrial walls by not weirding me out in the corporate Disneyland way Stone does. The food was good, service even better and I parked myself for a good 5 minutes in front of a window into the bar’s walk in fridge which was lined with boxed and bottled Firestone goodies rarely seen in one place.
I mentally noted that except for the 805 blonde, all the beers on tap were beers that had been available in L.A. at some point or another and secretly wondered what was the point of coming all the way up to brewery for a beer if nothing featured was a brewery-only release. FW beers are so solid anyway that drinking a fresh Double Jack at the source could be just as good (okay, maybe a week fresher) than what I can buy at my local liquor place. Yes, SoCal beer drinkers are so spoiled that we have thoughts like this, but it leads to my next point which is that Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks is worth every second of the drive from Long Beach to Buellton simply because nearly every tap is pouring a beer that has never been put into regular distribution (most have never been served outside of the room).
Also, Barrelworks represents the next big phase of the craft beer industry’s growth–going big while making things small.
As American craft breweries expand to keep up with rising demand, the second wave names that started in the 1990s are poised to dominate this market share. We have already seen major buildouts or space upgrades to places like Stone, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium leaving their main facilities enormous destinations for casual beer tourists and local families alike. Last year at its Paso Robles brewery, Firestone Walker underwent a similar expansion, turning its former SLO Brewing Company warehouse into a beer-centric complex of freeway-adjacent buildings.
But while massive production of its year-round sellers has been streamlined in Paso, Firestone created a small-batch, traditional barrel-aging space attached to its other Taproom restaurant in 100-miles closer Buellton. “Here we’re down to pints per barrel,” David Walker told Ev and I when we walked into the barrel room with our jaws dragging on the ground. “I admit we’re a bit bipolar in that sense.”
In addition to being a place where brewery-only releases can be created and tapped, Barrelworks is an ode to the flavor complexities of the oak barrel and the warehouse is in the beginning stages of a grand experiment to invite in bacteria and wild yeast and create a house flavor like all those wacky Belgian farmers did by mistake centuries ago. It’s a created terroir concept akin to Bear Republic’s Sonoma County open inoculation for Tartare except there is a room of 400 used and fresh char oak barrels and everything from Lil Opal to Double DBA within the staves.
The tasting room itself (which Jeffers–FW’s original brewer from 1997 who created the Union barrel program that is still used to make the flagship DBA–calls the “blending room”) is a mini classroom of sorts with open oak barrels to put your face in and smell to informative signs on the wall that explain how wood and bacteria can make a regular beer taste so different. This isn’t the place to go and be snobby about barrel-aged beer (it’s not a secret club, dudes); it’s somewhere to go and learn more about this age-old traditional process, taste some wild by-the-barrel experiments and let adventurous flavor seekers blend some of the brewery’s rarest beers in beakers and see what happens (which as a customer made me feel almost as guilty as dousing a homemade meal in ketchup).
Nevermind the fact that I tasted every single beer on draft and threw up most of it on the drive back to L.A. (was the acidity from my gut or the sour beer? hmmmm), the experience was as friendly and educational (and wood-smelling) as going to Cantillon with David Walker standing in the for also-handsome-and-foreign Mr. Van Roy. I came home stoked that European farmhouse style beer practices have not only made their way into California (sorry, Logsdon, you are dead to me now), but it has grown alongside–if not because of–the massive popularity and large-scale production of Firestone Walker’s killer accessible beers proving that as breweries get larger and more popular, they can still remain small and experimental and traditional. Barrelworks is macro and micro beer-making living in harmony under one roof in Central California’s wine country.
Firestone Walker Barrelworks is located at 620 McMurray Drive, Buellton, CA. (805) 225-5911. Click here for hours and info.
Oh yeah. I also published this interview with Jeffers in the L.A. Weekly when I got home in the hopes of convincing others from L.A. to make the drive and have the life-changing beer experience that I did: