Written by Tom Becham
For my birthday in September, a friend took me up to Firestone-Walker Barrelworks. If you have tracked my articles over time, you may realize I am a bit of a Firestone Fan Boy. But since Firestone has won at the Great American Beer Festival four times for Best Mid-Sized Brewery, I don’t think my enthusiasm is misplaced. They’re obviously doing some things right.
The reason why we specifically stopped at Barrelworks will also be unsurprising. Barrelworks is Firestone’s relatively new facility, where beers are barrel-aged, and tapped for visitors. While Firestone has barrel-aged beer for years now (their Firestone X was the first; every subsequent anniversary ale has been barrel-aged, too. Given the wine background of the Firestone family, this brewer was one of the first to experiment with the process.), they only recently started to make sour and wild ales.
Now, my complaint about many American producers of sour/wild ales, is that they seem dedicated to producing the most mouth-assaultingly sour beer possible, the kind that could thin paint, or strip enamel directly from teeth. It’s an outgrowth of the American tendency to want everything “bigger, better, faster, more, more intense!” One can see this in the IBU fight in Double India Pale Ales a few years ago. Brewers strove to make the bitterest beer they possibly could, some of them clocking in at over 130 International Bitterness Units (never mind that most scientists who study taste claim that human ability to perceive bitterness ceases around 100 IBUs).
Firestone, however, takes the Belgian approach: Balance.
Let’s remember that until very recently, sourness in a beer was regarded as a flaw (it quite literally is an infection, from “bugs” like lactobacillus, pediococcus, et al.). So, Belgian sour producers sought to hide the flaw as much as possible. Generally, by infusing the sour ale with fruit. Cherries and raspberries have traditionally been the fruit most used in such brews, as their flavors meld most successfully with a sour profile, and are widely available in Belgium.
Firestone, in a very short period, has acquired an incredible reputation for making sour/wild ales, and I decided that if their dedication to such beer equaled their commitment to the quality of their more standard brews, I had to try some. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find their Barrelworks beers anywhere outside the brewpub in Buellton, California. (Though I have recently seen some of the more common ones in Costco and Trader Joe’s.)
I was not disappointed upon arrival there.
The staff at Firestone Barrelworks are all very knowledgeable about beer, even including the young lady who pulled taps for us. That always makes the experience more enjoyable.
The offerings at Barrelworks included such typical Firestone-Walker offerings as a couple years of their past Anniversary ales, some barrel-aged stouts, strong dark Belgians, and barleywines. Bravo, which Firestone seems a tad confused about, is variously called a “straightforward barleywine” on their website, but an “Imperial brown ale” at Barrelworks. Nonetheless, it is a deep, rich beer, perfect for sipping on a cold evening by a fire, though a little goes a long way.
The Helldorado blonde barleywine is oaky, malty and grainy, but has a slight medicinal taste that I couldn’t shake, despite the layers of vanilla over it. Here’s hoping it ages that unpleasantness out.
Reginald Brett, on the other hand, is a transitional kind of beer, being a soured barleywine. It actually started as Firestone’s Double DBA (itself a barleywine version of Firestone’s flagship Double Barrel Ale, a malty interpretation of an English Bitter). It is a thoroughly complex beer, with layers from the oak-aging, the “bugs”, and the masterful use of malt. I fear my powers of description aren’t enough to do it justice, but I would recommend any lover of strong beer, sour or wild ale, or anything unusual to put this one on your Bucket List. Yes, it really is that good. And reviewing it is more than a bit like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in action.
So, on to the sour and wild ales…
Bretta Weisse is a Berliner Weisse clone, and well done at that. Berliners aren’t exactly exciting beers, and this one doesn’t break that mold. But it has the same rich mouthfeel of the original style , with the light body, and slight acidity with a lemony finish. In short, it is “more-ish” (makes you crave more), and isn’t so overwhelming in any respect that you couldn’t drink several.
Agrestic is FW’s attempt at recreating a Flemish Red-style ale, and uses Firestone’s Double Barrel Ale as the base beer. I am particularly proud that when I first tasted this beer over a year ago, I was able to tell that it was basically a soured DBA. But, the hallmarks are all there for anyone who cares to notice. The deep maltiness and slight hop bite are overlaid with a slight sour funk that reminds one of Duchesse de Bourgogne, or even the standard offering from Rodenbach. Unexpected, and quite nice. This could well be a “session sour” for those who like such beers.
Where Firestone barrelworks truly excels, however, is their fruit sours. First among them is SLOambic (the name is a pun on “San Luis Obispo”, the county where Firestone is based, and known to everyone in Southern California as “SLO Town”). SLOambic uses a blend of berries, and this year’s version is dominated by olallieberries. While this is an interesting and tasty sour, the flavor of the fruit gets a bit muddled by the funk of the bugs. And as one of the FW brewers said to me that day, “If you make a fruit sour ale, you should be able to taste the fruit, right?” Well, the fruit is evident, but one cannot really tell *which* fruit is prevalent. This could be a great sour, but needs some fine tuning.
Krieky Bones is the cleverly named cherry sour (“kriek” is the Flemish word for cherries, and is the word used to describe any Belgian-produced cherry sour), which is a much more fully-realized beer. The cherries are melded excellently with the sourness level, and upon warming, the sourness fades into a supporting character, with the cherries playing the main role. EXCELLENT!
But by far the best beer of the lot is Bretta Rose. This is a raspberry sour (which Belgians would call a “framboise”), and the raspberry is omnipresent, from the first whiff of aroma, to the very last taste. The berries never become too sweet, the beer never too sour, and the exquisite balance carries through from colder to warmer temps. Bretta Rose commands huge offers in online beer trades, and it’s easy to see why. If there is such a thing as a perfect American-made sour ale, *this* is it.
All in all, if you ever make it to the Central California Coast region, a stop at Firestone Barrelworks should be at the top of your to-do list. You’ll be glad you stopped. For lunch, if nothing else.
Tom Becham; super brewery reviewer deity puts on his cape in Oxnard, CA, where it is rumored there are many oxen infested with big bugs. The cape is constructed of ground up bugs which cannot be removed from those oxen, hence they are processed together. The unanswered question therefore being, “Doth this mean he always has an… ox… to grind?”