The Beer Highway in Northern California (Part One of Three)

Written by Tom Becham for

Due to some family considerations, January saw me and my wife traveling to Northern California by car. While I did not, and could not make this entire trip about beer, we did manage to visit a couple prominent breweries and/or their taprooms while on the road.

The first of these places was Firestone-Walker. Their actual brewery is in Paso Robles, but their taproom – with nice attached restaurant – is just off the highway in Buellton, California. As Firestone is located smack in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country (and since the Firestone family is also involved in wineries), the brewery’s fondness for barrel-aging beers seems natural. Combined with Firestone’s fondness for barrel-fermenting and aging beers, is their effort to make beers that are as English in character as possible. The results tend to be ales that one could easily find in a pub in Yorkshire or Kent, but with a unique twist.

Firestone’s justly renowned flagship beer is their DBA or Double Barrel Ale. It drinks like an English pub bitter. Indeed, if Wells Bombardier had a bit of oakiness to it, it would be a dead ringer for DBA. The unfiltered DBA (only available at the taproom or brewery) is even more scrumptious, with a silky mouthfeel and the indefinable quality that many German dunkelweizen’s have to warm the belly and taste rich without being filling. The unfiltered DBA is not quite cask ale, but it is very close. And if you possess the must-have craving for cask, you can simply drive on down the road to Firestone’s brewery, where they frequently have a firkin on tap.

Another unusual effort from Firestone (and a bit of a departure from their usual British-inspired ales) is a brew called Solace. Firestone says it’s a Belgian-style witbier. Other sources I’ve seen call it a witbier/saison hybrid. While the bottled version of the beer does indeed have some of the funky, yeasty character of a saison in conjunction with the grainy wheat, citrus peel and spices of a wit, the tap version seems all witbier and nothing but. In either case, it is well-crafted, subtle and a great match for a wide range of food.

Another exclusive-to-the-taproom treat is the honey blonde ale. I will be honest: I am not generally a fan of blonde ales. I regard them as the ale world’s equivalent of bland “lawnmower” lagers. I make a great exception for
versions like Firestone’s though. Not only would it be a perfect summer quaffer, but it would pair well with any manner of delicately flavored foods. Not only that, but Firestone manages to keep this brew just slightly on the sweeter side and still tasting a bit of honey. If you know anything about how honey ferments, you’ll realize what a feat this is.

Also suggested drinking from Firestone-Walker:

– Firestone-Walker Pale Ale, a slightly more American-inspired pale, but still with British hop levels

– Walker’s Reserve Porter, a straightforward but flawlessly executed porter that even the dark beer haters will like

– Velvet Merlin (formerly known as Velvet Merkin), a truly velvety oatmeal stout that is complex and far too drinkable for its 6.5% ABV

– The Nectar Ales product line, including Red Nectar ( a very nice amber ale) and Hemp Nectar ( a rather spicy but sessionable brown ale bittered with non-narcotic hemp seeds)

Firestone-Walker also makes some interesting limited edition ales, which are worth varying degrees of attention.

Black Xantus is an well-done Imperial Stout, but not outstanding enough to separate it from a crowded field of competitors.

Double Jack in an Imperial IPA, with the usual high ABV, and a malt content that makes it less noticeably bitter than its straight-IPA cousin.

The best of the FW’s limited beers is its anniversary ale, also variously known as Quercus Alba or simply Fourteen (or whatever numbered year anniversary the ale is commemorating). These beers are generally incredibly complex and beautifully blended versions of several other Firestone-Walker beers and rightfully command a high price for boxed bottles.

I must also say that the taproom was nice. The bar area was fairly typical of such animals, and the dining room was the airy, wood-covered refuge one expects. The fare was also the usual pub grub, but well done. The burgers certainly hit the spot and beat all hell out of fast food.

If you are in the area of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties in California, I’d definitely suggest a stop at either the Firestone-Walker Brewery in Paso Robles, or the taproom in Buellton.

Reserve 15: coming fall 2011

(Part Two – San Francisco: Magnolia Brewpub and Anchor Brewing.)

Tom Becham lives in California, he’s a homebrewer and reviews beer, brewpubs, breweries and beer events for

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