Nestled in the eastern foothills of California’s Santa Lucia Coastal Mountain Range sits Paso Robles, a city of more than 30,000 that is mostly known for its wineries. “Mostly” because amongst the chaparral landscape, part of the fourth-largest craft brewing company in America also resides. Having approached making beer and running a brewery like a winery for 25 years now, Firestone Walker Brewing Company continues to stand out in a crowded industry of more than 8,000 craft breweries.
A sprawling nine-point-seven-acre solar field was newly installed last year on the “estate” grounds. Every step cofounders David Walker and Adam Firestone have taken in these past 25 years aligns with how a generations-old family winery would do things. And it clearly works. We caught up with Walker to discuss these 25 years at the forefront of showing brewers a different path.
Gear Patrol: Congrats on 25 years, how does that feel?
David Walker: It feels great. You know, it feels like forever and the blink of an eye. The biggest evolution is seeing how the brewery is a sort of an extension of those 25 years and each building, each piece of equipment, each decision we've made, each person we've added is just sort of another brick in the wall. And it's a great feeling.
Q: You installed one of the largest onsite solar arrays in brewing and your water recycling program has been at the forefront of the beer industry for a long time. How necessary are those steps, especially given your proximity to climate change-caused disasters every year?
A: I think there's a number of things. First, it aligns with our personal desires and culture. I would say just about all the folks at the brewery are sensitive to climate change and, most importantly, live in the community that we produce our beers. For us to be good neighbors is reflexive to us. Plus, we've always run incredibly efficiently — brewers have done that for thousands of years. Most of the moves you make in order to achieve sustainability, align with prudence and efficiency and you recycle, reuse, repurpose all of those things. Obviously, we're very lucky to be in California because of the abundant sunshine. So it's sort of a no-brainer to harness that.
Q: Being located in wine country is one thing, but Firestone Walker has always taken an approach similar to how a winery does things. How much of a conscious role did that sort of operation play in how Firestone Walker operates?
A: Well, we were sort of born under the ears of a family winery. My partner, Adam Firestone, was running a third-generation family winery and that's when we decided to start the brewery — our first facility was on a 40-acre vineyard. We were very impacted, obviously, by wine culture. We didn't start a craft brewery as a disruptive counterculture brand. We started it as an evolution of our fascination with taking stuff from soil to glass. And it was very natural that beer was gonna follow the same evolution as the American wine industry had from the early ‘70s.
We saw everything through the lens of wine culture. We integrated wood into our brewery in very early days because we felt comfortable with wood. We blended. Brewers don't traditionally set out to blend beers — winemakers have to, they're at the mercy of fruit, vintages and a whole series of other things that we don't have to cope with as brewers. We blended from the word go, DBA itself is a blend — it's a blend of an English Pale Ale, one that went through primary fermentation in 60-gallon clean American oak wine barrels and the other stainless steel. So the very first beer we made was a blend. So the point is, we’re wine guys making beer.
Q: On that note, DBA just got a makeover. How did it come to be that was the first beer you brewed?
A: It was heavily influenced by English Pale Ales. Adam and I, we love those beer styles. So an English Pale Ale was natural for us. It also was a natural for the American palate in 1995. Americans had been somewhat disinterested when they needed something that had flavor, but those flavors had to be familiar enough and coachable. You couldn’t just knock them over the head with wild, hop-forward beer because you had to give them something that was drinkable and fresh but had material — something with friendly taste differences to light American lagers. An English Pale Ale did all of those things and the ruby red color just made a big difference.
We make a sublime beer in Pivo Pils, but we couldn't have launched our brewery on the back of that. There was just no contrast, no visual contrast for a consumer who was still trying to discover what the hell these small breweries were doing.
Q: How do you think the American palate has changed over these 25 years?
A: God, it's a great question. I think it's become more adventurous and engaged. I think when we started, the American palate expected nothing. They drank beer for refreshment and good times. Since then, the American palate slowly realized, Hang on a second, I'm looking for flavor and complexity and provenance and local stories. Since you've started to layer on all of those dynamics, the American palate is what I call rapacious now. It's chasing everything. You could say that American craft beer has sort of completely disrupted. Certainly the alcoholic beverage world, now you have a whole range of different beers and beyond beers that are sort of seeping into the market.
Q: Matt Brynildson has been your brewmaster for two decades. How has that consistency, along with the fact that he is one of the best brewmasters in America, helped Firestone Walker grow and evolve into what it is today?
A: He's the vision for the beers. We've had a sort of continuous narrative, in terms of the way that we make beers and the style of beers. And this, once again, speaks to our roots in wine. Wineries tend to sort of grow: you create an estate and you create a beautiful vineyard and then you place a winemaker at the center of it and you hand them the keys. Matt, from a brewing standpoint, has the keys to the brewery. He's obviously very connected to and aligned with what Adam and I like and see as relevant beers, but he's not asking for advice on how to make them.
Q: 805, a beer that is sparsely distributed but makes up close to 60 percent of what you brew, has been your overwhelmingly most popular beer in the past decade. How has that played a role in your growth over that time?
A: It was huge serendipity. We never set out to create a brand of 805 scale. Truly we were curious craft brewers trying to make the perfect beer and develop a healthy brewery. When 805 caught the imagination of a broad range of palates, you know, our brewery just took off. The positive side to that was it was extraordinarily gratifying to see. The challenge with that is we had to build a brewery because it was our intention to brew every drop of that beer. We had to build a brewery to manage it and that was a huge capital raise. We now have a brewery that can cope with the future of 805 and can help manage its popularity.
Q: You had to unfortunately cancel the Firestone Walker Invitational Festival this year for the second time in a row. What do you see as the future of beer festivals and are you planning on having the Invitational comeback post COVID when things are safe?
A: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that without question we do. I can't fathom life without congregating. I'm not willing to just say that was some weird social habit people had prior to COVID.
Q: For Firestone Walker on the whole, how has the past year been dealing with all this?
A: I think we've become a lot closer and we've had to all understand the virus and how it reacts and where our challenges are in terms of how we work — our work-life balance. It's been sort of cathartic in some ways, in terms of helping us all understand the sort of stuff that's necessary to work and to make beautiful beer and the stuff that's unnecessary. So that piece has been a learning curve for everybody. We're blessed we make beer and people want beer, so we've been busy the whole pandemic. I mean, because of things like not having the Invitational and not having folks come to our brewery, all the small-batch beers that we made that were just too small to distribute, we opened up a Brewmaster’s Collective, which is a membership program whereby you can sign up and get these beers. Once we realized we created this platform, all of a sudden, it's like, okay I can now make even smaller batches of beer and even rarer offerings because we know that we've got a very definable amount of people who want it. We never had that sort of sniper ability before, it was always left to the smaller brewpubs. Now we can and it's pretty satisfying.
Q: A few other breweries have recently launched these private memberships. Those smaller batches, tying into the whole wine theme, I think of vintners reserves and private label juice that only certain people can get. Do you think we're gonna see more of these private clubs in brewing?
A: Yeah, I would hope so. You've got 11,000 wineries out there. And I would say, all operate clubs like this and the consumer should have access to these things. My hope is that small craft brewers can have all the same benefits as small wineries. Beers that we're putting into our club, are breathers, designed for shipping and designed in many cases to be aged. It's a no-brainer.
Q: America went over 8,000 breweries last year and is still growing. Do you think we're starting to hit a saturation point? Or do you think there's still room for more growth?
A: The small brewery, where you're selling your beer direct-to-consumer is a very healthy model for a brewer. People can open up a small brewery in a small community, brew beer and make a great living — it's a great lifestyle and they're doing what they love. So people will continue to be drawn to starting breweries, I think, forever. I've said many times, there are 11,000 wineries in America, and they're constrained by climate. I can see the 8,000 brewers continuing to increase for the reasons that I've just given you. I think it's a different mindset that starts a brewery. I think it's gonna be hard to start a brewery with a view of making it a half-million barrel brewery, but I think there's a lot of people who will see it as a small family winery.
Q: It's been a little over five years since Firestone Walker was acquired by Duvel Moortgat [which also owns Boulevard and Ommegang]. What has that experience been like?
A: It's been exactly as we'd hoped it would be. The Moortgat family are phenomenal brewers and they're a small family-owned brewery. When we set out to build this third phase of the brewery, we needed an ungodly amount of money to do what we needed to do, or at least it appeared that way to us. So, we set out looking for a banker and we came back with a brewery. They're the majority partner but Adam and I still have a material shareholding and run the brewery entirely, without any sort of operational involvement. They're great mentors, good friends. We make more beer than Duvel, so it's a real partnership. Moortgat is 150 years old this year and for us, one of our main intentions was to build a brewery that would last for 100 years. And, this helps us do that.
Q: I don't know if I've ever read or heard the story behind your vintage Land Rover.
A: Olivia, she's the same vintage as me. Born the same year, so she's bloody old. She came out of a farm up in Sacramento and has been lovingly restored. She was a gift for my fortieth from the brewery. So she has her providence at the brewery as well. I'm not a classic car guy so as long as she works, she's restored as far as I’m concerned. I always keep an obligatory pair of running shoes in the back because often I've had to abandon her and run the rest of the way. We used to do this thing called Walker’s Wild Ride. When we make some pretty potent wild ales, we treated those ales with dramatic fermentation so we wouldn't even transport those beers in brewery-owned vehicles. So we had elected Olivia to move them around. She's part of the crew. My partner Adam Firestone has a Willy’s Jeep he calls Kilroy. Occasionally we get them both out.
Q: What do you love about craft beer right now?
A: It's still the people, nothing beats drinking beer brewed at the brewery around people in the brewery. And I know that sounds straight out of central casting, but it really is not. We have 500 or so folks who are part of this brewery and it's just really great satisfaction knowing them and knowing we all sort of share what we're doing.
A: On the other side of the coin, what do you wish was different about craft beer right now?
Q: I wish the pace of innovation would slow down. I wish we could get back to drinking an English Pale Ale fresh off the cask and all would be well. But now, just keeping up with the consumer is the most difficult thing. And that just seems to be accelerating. It's a self-perpetuating cycle and as much as the consumer is promiscuous, that retailer then has to keep up with the promiscuous consumer, the wholesaler has to focus on constantly changing priorities. And then the brewer is constantly trying to sort of invent new beer styles. Great, amazing beers are being forgotten, and in some cases, mediocre beers are being created.
Q: What beer do you feel is most representative of Firestone Walker the best?
A: It’s not tough to pick one. It’s DBA. That beer, all our hopes and dreams as brewers and of building a brewery and in what we wanted to do as brewers, is wrapped up in that beer. We wanted to celebrate traditional beers and that beer was made in a traditional way. It’s a balanced beer, which speaks to our happy contentment as brewers. I like to say we want to make balanced beers, beers people want to drink. I drink DBA as often as I can.
Q: Any wisdom to impart over these 25 years?
A: Breweries are living, organic extensions of the folks that are part of them. You’ve got to stay engaged. If you’re not engaged, they quickly change and they get sick. As long as there’s passion and curiosity and excitement in a brewery, it’ll always grow and be a fantastic place to spend your time.