Last weekend I took advantage of an incredible opportunity. Like a story involving a Nigerian Prince and his bank account, someone approached me months ago and said, “Nick, we’d like you to join a group of beer savvy, like minded individuals on a weekend excursion to Firestone Walker in Paso Robles, to build relationships with their staff and gain an inside look at some of their programs. There will also be multiple parties which take place in barns.” Fighting off a first response of, “Get the fuck outa town!” I followed up on the off chance that his could, possibly, maybe, be true.
Fast forward to the sunny afternoon of Sunday, April 12th in Venice Beach. It was the sort of day where if you were a productive member of society, you’d be wearing your Sunday best, skipping around to farmers markets and indulging in the newest brunch spot with a French Bulldog in tow. I, however, required sunglasses and Panda Express to give my body the relief it so desperately required. The weekend had taken its toll.
I rolled off the bus, our weekend chariot manned by mustachio bus driver Frank Frankowski (real name). I collected my things and gave hugs and hand shakes to new friends and old. I left slightly smelly, slightly hung over, and a bit buzzed. I climbed into my girlfriend’s car, gave her a smooch, and settled in for the ride home. A fat grin slid across my face.
I’ve struggled the last few days on how to recount my weekend adventure to Firestone, the 3rd annual trip (and my first) courtesy of the Los Angeles Beer Bloggers. I want to share the experience as I saw it, so that others can understand what it’s like from the perspective of beer media. This is an important distinction, because 99% of craft beer fans will unfortunately never have the chance to experience what the 23 of us experienced.
As a relative newcomer to the world of beer media, I feel like I’m just getting my bearings on how to navigate this world. Coming from a background of photojournalism I have questions; regarding the ethics of a trip like this, and regarding the value of my own opinions. My book California BrewMasters was nothing more than a collection of opinions and ideas from the brewers themselves, I simply asked the questions. The second question is easy enough to answer; my job is to both ask questions and promote an industry and subculture that I hold dear; the world of craft beer. I consider myself first and foremost a fan with a voice.
It’s the first question I’m having trouble answering. What are the ethical boundaries between journalists and breweries? I really don’t have an answer, but I think it’s a conversation we need to take up as journalists and bloggers. Reconciling free beer and exclusive events with the need to remain unbiased is a personal conundrum. But that being said, I honestly don’t think my opinion of Firestone beer has changed (who doesn’t already think the beer is top quality?), and I don’t think my reporting will either. For the sake of transparency, here’s what happened: Firestone Walker chartered a bus from Los Angeles to Paso Robles, from Friday to Sunday. There was plenty of Firestone beer on board, and throughout the trip we indulged in fantastic beers. We were shuttled around to various educational activities and events, all curated by Firestone. We paid for our own hotel rooms.
I won’t let my internal struggles bore you to death for too long, instead let’s discuss the weekend’s activities. If you do have an opinion on the ethics of craft beer blogging, I’d love to continue the conversation. Please share your thoughts in a constructive manner.
We started with a stop at BarrelWorks in Buellton on Friday afternoon. We were greeted by Director Jeffers Richardson and Master Blender “Sour Jim” Crooks. All too brief, after a quick tour and several beautiful sour beers later, we had hopped back on the bus bound for Paso. For the record, my favorite was the SLOambic with olallieberries.
An hour later I plopped my bags on a fresh hotel bed, and unzipped the luggage. After unpacking a few bottles into the fridge, I whipped out a tattered gray fedora and brown leather suspenders, preparing myself for one of the most enjoyable events I’ve been to in a long time. Prohibition themed (I don’t just roll up random parties in a fedora and suspenders, I swear), “From the Barrel” is a secret worth knowing in Paso Robles. For the past 5 years, 400 guests have lined up outside a beautifully decorated old school barn to imbibe in the glory of barrel aged everything and anything.
Whiskey, triple check. Barrel aged beers and sours from the very best breweries in California, check. Barbeque and other fine finger foods. Check and check.
So whatever you do – do not go to this event next year. You’ll have a terrible time. Wink Wink.
Day 2 began with a hangover that I quickly cured thanks to coffee, advil, and the perfect bagel sandwich. Frank Frankowski drove the bus to Firestone Walker, where we found Jeffers stationed in a room that housed a single massive canning line. He couldn’t shake the top hat he had adorned the night before, and I’m not sure we could blame him.
We learn about acidity and how it relates to beer. We learn how they measure acidity on both a pH balance as well as Titratable Acidity level (TA). You can measure TA with your mouth, and according to Jeffers, doing so provides a better understanding of how an acid level fits in with a particular beer. You can find the TA level written out on the front of any BarrelWorks beer. We tried Citric, Lactic, and Acetic acids diluted in water to understand their flavor components, and were rewarded afterward with sour beer. We were also given varying levels of acids and were asked to calibrate our palate, giving our best guesses to TA levels in different cups.
We were also briefed on the power of bacteria as well. Agrestic, a popular BarrelWorks beer, as an example, is DBA wort shipped from Paso Robles to Buellton in stainless steel trucks. It is then fermented at Barrelworks, and placed in barrels for a secondary fermentation. The barrels are 13% American Oak, and 87% French Oak. They age approximately 14 months to give you the level of maturation expected out of a beer like that. These beers, which are soured due to bacteria, are kept at a facility over an hour away to prevent contamination. As Jeffers told us, “you can’t sanitize a piece of wood. We’re beating bacteria back, not sterilizing.”
We enjoy lunch and snooped around a barrel room, because what’s better than a whole room filled with barrel aged beer?
We enjoyed lunch and our second test begun soon after: blending our own anniversary beer. For those unfamiliar, check out this article I did on how Firestone makes an anniversary beer, but long story short, it’s a blend of many of their beers combined into one. We divided into teams of three, and the trial and error of blending yielded some delicious results. I’m happy to report that my team, Team Saucy Jack, took home first prize in a blind taste test. Cardboard crowns were awarded as a result.
Our evening plans were perhaps the highlight of the trip, at least for me. Boarding Frank Frankowski’s bus, we weaved through the beautiful landscape of rolling green hills until we happened upon Thacher Winery.
There, we enjoyed Firestone cans with our hosts David Walker, Jeffers Richardson, and the Thacher family. We toured the winery and gained an understanding about the culture of Central California, and the similarities between the worlds of wine and beer. We tasted wonderful wines (I highly recommend this winery if you get your hands on it) and ate wonderful food over wonderful conversation with wonderful people. We sat by the fire and roasted marshmallows while sipping on Team Saucy Jack’s winning blend long into the night.
I’d like to think I ride the line between a realist and an idealist. While the naysayer in me could point to this trip as a glorified sales pitch, what I came to realize is that there was no sales pitch to be found. At best they want us to all leave LA behind for Paso. What I found instead was good conversation with genuine folks coming together for a common purpose.
I write (too often) about the importance of community building and quality; it makes this whole industry tick. What I had the chance to experience first hand was relationship building in action. Firestone was more interested in our thoughts and opinions than anything else. I took the weekend as a sounding board between the brewery and the beer lover. Not only that, but thanks to this trip I’ve built better relationships with my fellow journalists; something I find invaluable. In an industry that throws around words like “collaboration” so often, we can’t think that word applies exclusively to beer recipes. We all learn and build from our shared experiences, and this trip was really, at its base, a fermentation technique to propagate community.
So as I end this piece (finally, right?), I want to thank Firestone, yes, for their outstanding staff and the experience of a lifetime, but also my beer-journalist comrades. They made the trip what it was. Jeff’s larger than life burrito, bottle shares on off limits hotel balconies, and the collective disappointment in the lack of Pivo Pilsner (am I right?) are now cherished experiences that I can thank craft beer for. The whole experience I equate to the two things that craft beer has always, always been good at – bringing people together, and getting us all drunk. Here’s to next year.