Two of the great liquid loves of my life, wine and beer, are far too often spoken of as if there’s an unbreachable gap between them. For too many, the world is populated by either wine people or beer people. Which, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in these heady days of exceptionally affordable and high-quality wine, as well as beers that possess all the character and nuance of their grapey counterparts.
Last week, on a wine-tasting trip to Paso Robles, Calif., I had the opportunity to visit Firestone Walker, a brewery that is taking full advantage of its location in world-class wine country and producing a line of beers that span the distance between the worlds of wine and beer with astonishing success. In fact, they’re proving that there really isn’t all that serious a divide to begin with. Plus, my visit couldn’t have come at a better time: This spring, our own Monk’s Cafe will be releasing a Firestone Walker beer brewed in collaboration with one of Monk’s co-owners, Tom Peters. I didn’t have the chance to taste it at the brewery, but it sounds fantastic: An imperial porter that was aged in tequila barrels.
That beer, in fact, is typical of the sort of creativity and guts that this standout brewery is known for: Under the passionate leadership of partner and brewmaster Matthew Brynildson, Firestone Walker, in addition to its remarkable lineup of first-rate pilsners, ales and more, boasts a barrel-aging program that is nothing short of stunning.
“We maintain about 2,000 barrels in our barrel-aging program here in Paso [Robles],” Brynildson says. “And we have another 400 or 500 barrels in another aging program down in Buellton that we call Barrelworks. So basically, we have the barrel fermentation program, where we’re doing primary fermentation with regular yeast, making straight-ahead beers. We have the barrel-aging program using spirit barrels, where we’re taking big strong beers and soaking up all sorts of interesting spirits characteristics and barrel characteristics, letting the beers mellow. And then we have a third program in Buellton called Barrelworks where we’re actually sparking a secondary fermentation in the barrels ... and doing these wild ferments with whatever micro-flora is in the wine barrel prior to us getting them.”
And once a year, in what seems to be a proud bird-flip to the fallacy that the worlds of wine and beer are destined to be forever separate, they invite the region’s top winemakers to compete to create the best beer blend they can from a set range of Firestone’s beers. The winning recipe is then used as the basis for a special anniversary bottling of Firestone Walker beer.
The results—I tasted four previous releases—are phenomenal. And they prove once again that not only is the supposed divide between wine and beer lovers completely bridgeable, but that the professionals who craft each have the ability to work together to create something new and thoroughly exciting.
And in a couple months, we’ll have a chance at Monk’s to experience something brewed just for our taste buds first-hand, aged in barrel and crafted with a sense of vision and care that’s familiar to serious lovers of both the grape and the grain.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014