Firestone Walker's second annual beer festival was held this past weekend and I was one of 4,000 or so fans lucky enough to have scored tickets to the event. Last year, this was my favorite festival and despite a feeling that this year's festival was a bit more crowded and the lines were a bit longer the organizers from Firestone didn't disappoint.
The festival featured 40 hand picked breweries from around the world, all of whom brought one smaller beer and a special or hard to come by beer. Brewers were also encouraged to serve their beers in person. In other words, the festival organizers didn't want the marketing team or booth babes serving beer, they wanted the brewers there to describe and talk about there wares. This strategy allowed festival goers a unique opportunity to meet and chat with the people who make their favorite beers. Walking around the festival I saw, Julian Shrago from Beachwood BBQ, Jesse Houk from Golden Road, Kyle Smith from Kern River, Nick Floyd from Three Floyds, Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River, and of course Matt Brynildson and many others. It's these requirements and the brewers willingness to come out and serve their beer that make this beer fest such wonderful event. Where else can you meet with brewers of this calibre all in one place?
Add to the amazing selection of beer and breweries, the 22 food booths representing many of Central Coast/Paso Robles fine restaurants and the musical entertainment provided by Hot Buttered Rum, and The White Buffalo and the afternoon couldn't get much better.
The barrel aged trend dominated the festival's special offerings with many of the brewers showcasing incredibly rich, complex, and high alcohol beers. Southern Tier poured "Schizophrenia" a dark chocolate stout (14%), Alesmith brought "Barrel Aged Speedway Stout," Three Floyds brought their elusive and highly coveted "Barrel Aged Dark Lord" (15%) for which the line extended well across the festival grounds, Rahr and Son's poured "Barrel Aged Tenderfoot Barely Wine," Sierra Nevada featured "Barrel Aged Maple Stout with Coffee" and the list goes on. Unfortunately, the weather didn't agree with the heavy barrel aged selections.
I'm a firm believer that much of the enjoyment of beer, food, and wine is contextual. One's personal attitude, the surroundings, weather, and people involved effect the pleasure we derive from beer and this year's weather didn't agree with many of the big beers that brewers were showcasing. As I've said before, big, barreled aged beers aren't my favorite, but they have their place. For me, that place is sitting around a fire on a cool fall or winter evening, sipping these belly warmers from a tulip or snifter, not walking around a Central Coast fairground in temperatures in the triple digits. In that context I'm looking for summer beers, refreshing, hoppy, spicy and light. Not lawnmower beer, but saisons, blondes, pale ales, malty pilsners, and even a well balanced IPA/DIPA seemed more appropriate to the heat and festival vibe.
Not to worry though, Pale ales and IPAs made up quite a few of the taps. Pliny made an appearance (no, not that one "the Elder") as did Bell's "Roundhouse IRA," Birrificio Italiano's "Tipopils,"Three Floyd's "Dreadnaught," Revolution Brewing's "Dos Osos," Alpine's "Keene Idea" and "Hoppy Birthday," Odell's "Tree Shaker" (3000 lbs. of peaches in a DIPA), plus many others.
But my favorites were the cidery/winey sours, the belgian/farmhouse style beers and traditional small beers all of which seemed a better fit for the day's festivities. Top of my list were the surprisingly good sours from Bear Republic. Known for their heavily hopped "Racer 5," "Hop Rod Rye," and "Racer X," the brewers at Bear Republic also have a deft hand with complex, sour, lightly fruited beers. Their "Cuvee De Bubba," a spontaneously fermented, barrel aged beer was as complex, light, dry and slightly sweet as good sparkling rosé. The "Tartare," which they describe as an interpretation of a Berliner Weisse, was deliciously tart, light and refreshing. Rounding out their offerings was the light, spicy and floral Belgian single, "Cher Ami." Dogfish Head's "Sixty-One," a hop forward IPA brewed with Syrah grape must, was delightful and interesting. As was Boulevard's "Test: Nelson Grape Ale" brewed with pale malt, muscat grape must and Nelson-Sauvin hops. These along with more traditional Saisons from Funkwerks, Mikkeller, Nebraska Brewing, Lost Abbey, and New Belgium kept me quite happy. Of those, I especially liked Nebraska's "Apricot au Poivre Saison," where the fruit, pepper and barrel aging added to the character and complexity of the beer, but it remained a solid saison. Here too, I really enjoyed Pizza Port's (Ocean Beach) "In Bloom" a traditional saison lightly flavored with rosemary, orange peel coriander, sage and honey and Lost Abbey's "Le Carnevale."
By the end of the day, I was glad that many brewers are embracing small beer. Golden Road's "Cabrillo Kolsch," The Bruery's "Hottenroth Berliner Weisse," New Belgium's "Shift Pale Lager," Surly's "Bitter Brewer and Greenflash's "Citra Session" none of which weighed in over 5% alcohol were refreshingly good, thirst quenching-palate cleansers on such a fantastic summery day.
But then again, what do I know? If line length is any indication, the most popular beers were the biggest, heaviest barrel aged bombs. And as an added testament to their popularity, this year's people's choice went to Cigar City's Brandy Barrel Aged Hunahpu's Imperial Stout, a heavyweight that was as big as it gets.
The organizers are already hard at work on next year's festival. I encourage all beer lovers to follow Firestone Walker on twitter and be ready to pounce when next year's tickets drop. I know I'll be back.