Firestone Walker Brewing Co./Courtesy Photo

Mariah Bravo
Special to Mustang News

There’s no better time to brew beer — at least not according to Matt Brynildson, brewmaster at Firestone Walker Brewing Company.

Firestone Walker in Paso Robles has become a leader in the growing craft brewery phenomenon. In less than a decade after Firestone Walker opened in 1996, it received the World Beer Cup Champion award for mid-sized breweries in 2004, 2006 and 2010. Men’s Journal highlighted the Firestone Walker Pale Ale as the “Best Beer in America” in 2006.

Firestone Walker’s success is partly due to its emphasis on quality, brand and preference to stay local, and doing so in a place where brewing is relatively new.

“It’s interesting because when I go to Europe, a young brewery would be 150 years old,” Brynildson said. “So a lot of us in craft brewing are in that infant stage.”

Though the brewery is in its juvenile years, Brynildson said that has never kept its founders from focusing on the ultimate goal — quality control.

Quality over everything

The brewing company may be relatively young, but its owners are not new to the wine and beer market. Adam Firestone, co-founder alongside David Walker, comes from a winemaking family that owned Firestone Vineyard in Los Olivos.

Brynildson said Firestone and Walker’s emphasis on quality control spreads out to the rest of the team.

“If you took a tour of the brewery, you saw the laboratory. We probably have more quality control man hours per barrel of beer than any brewery our size,” he said.

Firestone Walker performs nearly 200 individual quality control tests before the beer touches store counters.

“It’s an industry where good beer is just popping up everywhere, and there’s always little micro-breweries popping up,” said Tyler Madson, the packaging analyst in the quality control lab at Firestone Walker. “We got to stay with the competition.”

Craft brewing certainly did create a more competitive market.  Not since 1870 have there been more breweries in the U.S. than there are today. The craft brewing phenomenon has made complexity a must for micro and mid-sized breweries.

“(Customers) are looking for new twists on old classic styles, and so it’s a little more difficult,” Brynildson said. “It’s a little more fun for a brewmaster because I’m still looking for drinkability and balance, but now I need to bring in originality (and) creativity into that.”

Craft brewing took off when President Jimmy Carter exempted taxation of home-brewed beer for personal use during his administration in 1979. Hobbyists became more creative with their tastes and flavors. Before then, the 21st Amendment left out laws about home brewing, so it was still illegal.

“Craft brewing is only a few decades old at best, and most of the action has happened in the last 10 years,” Brynildson said.

Building the brand

Firestone Walker continues to get creative as craft brewing spreads through the market. The company releases a limited edition anniversary beer each year because its oak-aged beer 10 — commemorating the brewery’s 10th anniversary — was so well received in 2006.

Building on its reputation for rarity, Firestone Walker sets itself apart from any other brewery in the country with its oak barrel, union set fermentation – a process the company has patented.

Union set fermentation is when barrels are “linked together in a yoke of connected vessels (and) as fermentation proceeds, excess yeast and beer are pushed out of the barrel … into a common trough. From there, the beer is channeled back into one of the barrels, mingling the beers somewhat,” according to All About Beer Magazine.

The magazine also said Firestone Walker is one of two breweries in the world to use a union set fermentation process but is the only brewery to use the process and allow the oak to influence the flavor of the beer. Firestone Walker customers, such as Ken Lieber, attribute the fermentation process to the beer’s unique flavor.

“The oak barrel fermented (beers) were absolutely awesome,” Lieber said. “It’s a whole new taste and the flavors just dance in your mouth.”

Besides uniqueness and quality, Brynildson said building a brand that was “approachable” is a huge component of the brewery’s success, particularly the 805 beer.

“I think what helped us remember the brand (was) the name of it being the area code,” Shannon Alcott, 44, of Orange County said. “We would start asking for it down where we are at stores and nobody had it. Actually, the guy at the store where we went looking … wouldn’t carry it because his ex-girlfriend lived in the 805. And now in the past six months it’s all over Orange County.”

Hover over the hotspots to find out which Firestone beers customers prefer.

Graphic by Kristina Martin

Keeping it local

“I think 805 demonstrated to us what we already knew,” Brynildson said. “Someone is willing to give up six-pack beer … made by ‘Mega-brewery X’ made far away for a local brewer who’s making quality beer.”

Firestone Walker started canning the 805 beer last year, which was not its ideal choice of packaging. However, the company quickly realized the benefits of canning.

“Cans are completely impermeable to light and oxygen,” Madson said. “Light increases oxidation reactions, which decrease the shelf life.”

Cans will also help the brewery disperse its beer to small markets such as beachside breweries and golf courses that do not carry glass beverages.

As Firestone Walker succeeds in California, Brynildson said local markets are the ones he wants to remain focused on for the time being.

“From a brewmaster’s perspective, I think sometimes we grow a little faster than I’m comfortable with, to be honest … because our job is to make the same quality or better each year. The faster you grow, the harder that becomes,” he said.

Brynildson believes spreading the beer out to farther markets will disturb the quality, which he is not willing to sacrifice. Firestone Walker does sell some of its beers across the country, but for now the owners have no immediate plans to become “too big.”

“Beer is this perishable food product, and we forget that as beer consumers sometimes,” Brynildson said.

To keep dominating in the local markets, Firestone Walker has given consumers a new project to anticipate: the opening of a restaurant and brewery in Venice Beach, California, in mid-2015.

According to the Firestone Walker’s website, its goal is to do what it’s known for — offering a unique experience for craft beer enthusiasts.

Click through the images to take a virtual tour of Firestone Walker Brewery Company. Photos by Kristina Martin.

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