Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sampling the head of Firestone Walker beers

Posted By on Wed, Aug 1, 2012 at 7:03 AM

David Walker, left, and executive chef Andrew Sherrill.

Firestone Walker Brewing Co. is one of the most decorated breweries in the nation. Started by David Walker and Adam Firestone in Paso Robles, Calif., in 1996, it's been knocking down the medals for the last decade.

We could list miles of accolades, but let's just look at the results from last year's Great American Beer Festival: Its Velvet Merlin won gold for Wood- and Barrel-Aged Beers (a process we wrote about here); it won gold and silver for American-Style Pale Ale, one of the most competitive categories at the competition; gold for its DBA in the Ordinary or Special Bitter category; another silver for its Double Jack in the Imperial IPA category; bronze for its extra pale ale in the Session Beer category; and, on top of all that, Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year, under head brewer Matt Brynildson. And then there's all the hardware from its World Beer Cup wins. (But we'll just keep going.)

So, suffice it to say that when the Blue Star hosted co-owner David Walker — an outgoing British expatriate who sounds like Hugh Grant and couldn't believe how excited everybody was to meet him — at a dinner featuring some his more lauded creations last Wednesday, we had to be there. (Tickets were $65 but — disclaimer — we were comped.)

What follows are snippets of our conversation with Walker, plus a couple food shots that you can click on to see full-sized. For a more in-depth look at the food and beer, see Focus in the Beer's great post.

ON THE BEER SCENE IN CALIFORNIA VERSUS COLORADO: "I’m not sure of this, but my sense is Colorado has a little bit more developed craft [beer] consumer. And that’s not to say there aren’t millions of craft consumers in California, it’s just that there’s more per capita in Colorado than in California. I could be wrong, but that’s what I think. But, you know, this is sort of a recreational, cool state. People sort of choose to live here, and they’re making life choices, and craft beer’s a life choice, you know? And so people are already in the zone, I think, when they’re living in Colorado, where as if you’re born in a giant major city, like some of the cities in California, maybe you aren’t as ... I don’t know ... you’re just a little different.

An incredible bit of meat on toast: bison meatloaf on potato bread, with bourbon cheddar, pickled shiitake mushroom (brilliant) and crispy onions.
  • Bryce Crawford
  • An incredible bit of meat on toast: bison meatloaf on potato bread, with bourbon cheddar, pickled shiitake mushroom (brilliant) and crispy onions.

"But that said: markets like San Diego — which, you know, San Diego’s the second-largest city in California — is arguably the most vibrant craft beer market in America. You could argue it could be the most vibrant beer market in the world. It’s creative; there’s 60 or so breweries, and climbing. They’re just very, very different places. It’s hard to compare them."

ON HOW HIS BEER HAS DONE IN COLORADO SINCE BEING INTRODUCED LAST YEAR: "You gotta understand: We still sell about 70, 75 percent of our beer in California. We have ventured out into states with a long-term future, [but] we sell more beer in Fresno than we sell in the state of Colorado. But we’re doing really well here, I think — in relation to our plan, I think we’re right on target. But it’s a smattering in terms of craft beer that’s drunk in this state. We’re just adding to the color, we’re not even an object."

ON WHY THE BREWERY, OR ANYBODY, GETS BIGGER: "Yeah, that’s actually a really good question, and that’s a question we ask ourselves, especially in a state of 35 million people — why not just go deeper? Why get bigger? That’s actually a good question. I think we would like to be a strong regional brewery, and we are a strong regional brewery. But I think we’d like to keep growing steadily. It’s all relative. Our growth wouldn’t be tolerated by a large international brewer. Our brand would probably have been sidelined many years ago. But I think it’s natural to want to grow. I think it’s actually easier to grow than to stop growing."

The second-best dish: ridiculous tea-smoked duck breast, with brown-butter pears, chilled potatoes and an herb-goat-cheese vinaigrette over endive.
  • Bryce Crawford
  • The second-best dish: ridiculous tea-smoked duck breast, with brown-butter pears, chilled potatoes and an herb-goat-cheese vinaigrette over endive.

ON CONTINUED GROWTH COMING WITH ECOLOGICAL DECISIONS: "This is a journey, OK, and what happens is you hit a milestone — the horizon changes. And so obviously the decision you make here might get affected by the vision that you have when you stand on your next hill. So, to a certain extent, it’s difficult to make large judgments about what we should be and what we shouldn’t be. We’re very focused on the quality of the beer, so that’s the common denominator to everything we do. So, we don’t do anything — anything — that compromises that. So, if growth is gonna compromise it, we won’t grow. If non-growth will compromise that, then we’ll grow. That’s the way we prefer to look at it; growth is probably a benefit of that philosophy."

ON THE MOST EXCITING DEVELOPMENTS IN THE CRAFT BEER INDUSTRY CURRENTLY: "It’s a little bit like, 'The more fashionable you are, the quicker you’re out of fashion.' And craft beer is a little bit like that at the moment, in terms of there’s so many interesting things happening, you almost look dull for doing the interesting thing you did last week. And a lot of that comes out of the fact that there’s so many breweries and personalities involved now. So, what’s exciting about craft? Craft’s exciting, end of story. Right now, this is it: This is a maelstrom of enthusiasm and growth and passion. I mean, it’s a cool place to be — a really cool place to be."

ON COLORADO SPRINGS' BEER SCENE: "There’s a lot of small communities that are starting to incubate small brewers. Like I said, we were in Fort Collins yesterday, but Fort Collins has had 30, 40-plus years. ... Before you knew it, you were in a community where a lot of people depend on beer for their living. And so it becomes a discussion in the community.

So, I don’t know a lot about the Springs’ beer scene, but what I would say is that the more brewers you have here, the more interesting it will become. And when you’re the only brewer in town — and we were for a long time, in Paso Robles, on the central coast of California — you feel somewhat special, but you also feel somewhat isolated. And when more breweries start coming in, and we’ve started to see a lot more breweries come to our area, it’s all of sudden: There’s a community there. It just sort of reinforces what we’ve been up to for 16 years. So, for new breweries to come in here, it must be a real pat on the back for Mike Bristol [of Bristol Brewing Co.], to say, ‘Look, what I’ve been doing here is good.’"

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