It’s that special time of year again. With Halloween in our rear view we all know that when walking into our local BevMo we’ll hear the early signs of annoying Christmas music, upon us for the next eight weeks, and showing little respect for our ear drums… and/or sanity. Walking past the holiday boxes of Midori and the Gentleman Jack with the commemorative tumbler glasses, our eyes will squint, darting from section to section looking to find one of the only good parts about the first half of November. SD Beer Week aside… But finally, our search will pay off, and we’ll snatch up our prize. Now it could be on display, passed on by the uneducated, waiting to be swooped up by that one asshole trying to hoard every bottle… but more than likely you’ll find this gem tucked behind a few other beers, hidden by a BevMo employee that “technically” left the last bottle on a shelf for customers, crossing his fingers all shift that we would not find it. But picking up this year’s silver box of Firestone Walker’s XVIII Anniversary, the music, the bad parking, the brother-in-law begging you to buy him a bottle too… it all fades away and for a second we’re happy.
Now admittedly, maybe your purchase experience wasn’t as dramatic as all that. Maybe it was. But regardless of how you got your hands on a Firestone Walker XVIII, the important thing is that you did. In this post, we speak to FW Brew Master Matt Brynildson to learn all about this year’s anniversary beer, and we’ll dive much deeper to discuss not only this year’s creation but also the last five. What has changed since then, and what hasn’t? Before we get too deep, let’s discuss the process of how their anniversary beers are made. This could be common knowledge to the beer geek, but for those that are not, welcome to the fold. With so many great wineries around the Central Valley where the Firestone Walker team rests its hat, they take advantage by bringing in winemakers, teaming them up, and having somewhat of a blending party to conceive each year’s anniversary blend. After a blind taste test a winner is decided, and that becomes this year’s beer. Pretty cool idea, right? So with that information as a baseline, here’s Matt’s take on it: Nick: How log does it take to perfect the blend? How many people are involved and what’s the general process? MB: The blending session only takes a few hours. We start in the early afternoon and finish up in time to have a big group dinner with he winemakers and their families. We keep adding winemakers to the blending team each year, we are up to 14 or so – more of the assistant winemakers have been joining in which makes it all the more fun and bolsters the team play. Nick: Based on my analysis, the blends use Parabola, Stickee Monkee, and Bravo by far more than the rest of all the other beers you’ve used to blend combined (see spreadsheet below), why do those beers lend themselves well as the base of most of your anniversary ales? MB: It’s really more of question for the winemakers since they are making the blend. A lot of the winemakers in this group are known for their big Rhone blends and I think a beer like Parabola works a lot like a big sturdy Syrah would in their world. Stickee Monkee has the most malt sweetness or malty body of any of our barrel aged beers and that is an important part of balancing out the hop bitterness and oak notes that are such a huge part of this program. Bravo is a beer that the group is very familiar with since it was one of the first beers we ever aged in oak. Nick: How do you think the anniversary beers have changed since you’ve been blending? MB: Every year is different, that is the beauty of this concept. The winemakers are encouraged to experiment and explore new ways to use the beers that or reoccurring each year and integrate the new beers that we add. There really is no way that they could create the same beer twice even if they wanted to. I think that one trend that we have been seeing is the use of hoppy beers in the blend. I think that hops are fascinatingly foreign to a winemaker’s normal palette of flavors and aromas. I used to get very nervous when the hoppy beers starting coming out, but I’ve learned to trust these guys and roll with it. Nick: Is the blend based on the popularity of certain beers? MB: The blending sessions started getting too difficult to control after a point. I guess it came down to the more people we added the more opinions collided and we were having difficulty coming to any conclusions. So we changed the format and turned it into a competition. The winemakers work in groups, often winemaker with their assistant, and each team comes up with their best blend. We then take their notes behind closed doors and make their blends up and present them blind to the group to pick their favorite blend. They end up having to judge their own work against the other winemaker’s best blends. The blend with the most points is the blend we make for that year’s Anniversary release. Nick: Do you have a favorite anniversary beer from over the years? MB: I think that some of the standouts for me have been 10, 13 and 18. I’ve loved them all and truly haven’t been disappointed at any level with the outcome of any year’s blend. Often the winemakers say that the component beers are so good that it would be difficult to make a bad blend. I’m not sure that I buy that, but I guess what that means to me is that they are able to come up with a good beer without having to reach too far. I get excited when the combination of 2 or more beers results in a completely different flavor or aroma than and individual beer provides by itself. That is the real goal with blending and is where the art starts to shine through. 10 really opened my eyes to that concept being a reality. Nick: Talk about some of the accomplishments of this year? Are they reflected in the beer? MB: I’m just happy that we were able to manage the winemakers, avoid any conflicts and come out of the room with a clear winner! These men and women talk their work very seriously and are every bit as competitive as any brewer I have met. They are a close-knit group but each individual wants to win and that shows. I think that I would like to start limiting the beers and forcing the winemakers to work within a tighter group of flavors and see what happens. I’ve noticed at more and more hops creep into the blend and I would like them to focus on the barrel aged beers more, like how this all started. Nick: What’s to look forward to in year 19? MB: There will be some new beers brewed this year that will be made available to the winemakers. Maybe we will eliminate the use of non-barrel aged beers and other than that– only the winemakers know. Thanks Matt! So with Matt’s input and an XVIII in hand, I set off on the beer-nerdiest concept I’ve ever come up with. Let’s look at the different blends and see what has changed over the years: One thing I noticed off the bat was that the winemakers really like using Parabola, Stickee Monkee, and Bravo. In fact, they’ve used a greater percentage of those three than all the other beers used, combined. This makes sense; a big anniversary beer should include the base of larger, more robust barrel beers. In my opinion this provides a greater ability to store and age these beers, which you’d obviously lose with a hop forward beer. Over the years we can see a pretty steady usage of Double DBA, Velvet Merkin, etc… while you see some wild cards darting in here and there, which is a testament to the wine makers reaching out for that little bit of difference that could put their blend over the edge as a winner in competition. Out of 16 total beers used in the last five years of blending, seven have only appeared in blends once (highlighted in yellow). A couple other points looking at this chart, year 14 used only 6 beers in its blend; this year’s uses a total of 9 with two never-before used beers. Newcomer Ol’ Leghorn, a blonde barley wine collaboration with Three Floyd’s brewing from Indiana, makes its first appearance in a blend after being released at this year’s Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest. Hydra Cuvee, an American Strong Ale collaboration with Flying Dog, is also making its first appearance after debuting as the SAVOR festival Commemorative Ale. If you think I’ve gone too far on this analysis, and believe me, so do I… I think Firestone’s approach is interesting for a few reasons. First off, they’re willing to put their beers into the hands of others to create something unique. If an anniversary beer’s purpose is to show off the talents and successes of a year’s worth of brewing, then let’s give a hand to Firestone Walker for looking past itself and utilizing the local skill sets of its regional winemakers to create beer. Often times the two industries are opposing figures at least on a consumer level, so I’m all for this collaboration. Secondly, I think that blending beer versus creating a new anniversary beer every year showcases the concept quite well that beer, hoppy or barrel aged, can have a lifespan longer than the average beer drinker might think. All of this leads to a unique experience in craft beer drinking… one that I look forward to every year. So now it’s your turn. Looking at this chart what stands out to you? How do you think this year’s blend stacks up to the others? Tag me on social media at @CABrewMasters (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter) and let’s hear it. Now grab a clean glass and get tasting!