Behind The Brewing Innovation with Firestone Walker
With Firestone Walker releasing another handful of experimental new brews, we ask Matt Brynildson, Head Brewer at Firestone Walker, about the inspiration behind their brewing innovation. David Walker, co-owner of Firestone Walker, tells us about the deep connection of the Paso Robles brewery to wine and how that has influenced their outlook on beer.
What was your first thought when Hazy IPAs started gaining popularity? Did you like them? Did you want to brew them?
Matt Brynildson: I’m always fascinated by the creativity coming out of the craft brewing segment. I will admit that at first, the style confused me and some of the techniques that brewers were employing to make these beers down-right scared me. That said, it’s our job as brewers in this craft brewing arena to innovate and try new things. When we can produce a beer that is world class within that style, it’s time to release it to the world and see the response. For us that process started at the Propagator in Venice Beach where we brewed a dozen or more hazy beers before we felt comfortable. The response locally was incredible and those test batches were always the first beers to pour out. You can’t deny the enthusiasm that beer drinkers have for the Hazy IPA style and I have come to really love the style myself.
You’ve said that Mind Haze is a Hazy IPA the Firestone Walker way. What makes Mind Haze distinctly Firestone compared to other Hazy IPAs?
Matt Brynildson: It took us a little while to get to know and understand this emerging style. Early on there was a fair amount of brewer discussion about the best practices and end goals related to Hazy IPAs. We saw and tasted an amazing array of different Hazy IPAs all around the country. I interpreted the style a little differently than most. What I was experiencing and related the best Hazy IPAs to, was beers I had experienced in Southern Germany over my years of travel, especially the Weizenbock most specifically from the Gutmann Brewery in Titting Germany. The look and mouthfeel of NE IPA beers is closer akin to German Wheat Beer than Classic American IPA. Certainly the use of a high percentage of wheat, low bitterness, opalescent haze and soft mouthfeel are aligned with Hefeweizen.
We knew that in order for us to release a beer like this to a larger national audience, we would need to create a more robust beer with a longer shelf life. We focused on making a beer with all of the flavor notes, look and feel of the style, but reduced the yeast load going to package, focused on sound brewing and packaging techniques and a just-in-time production cadance. Lastly, we selected hops for Mind Haze that are not the typical hops used by other brewers. Cashmere, Mandarina, Azacca, Idaho 7 and El Dorado bring a soft tropical fruit aroma and flavor - almost a Southern Hemisphere hop effect to the beer but a different twist that was put together by our brewing team who spends a lot of time in the hop yards looking at and selecting new varieties for our Luponic Distortion program.
Where do you come up with the ideas for flavor profiles of the Luponic Distortion Series? What hop blend made up Luponic Distortion No. 12 and how did you think of combining those?
Matt Brynildson: Luponic Distortion is a hop exploration vehicle and has allowed us to bring an incredible number of different hop varieties into the brewery and explore their potential. It typically starts while we are selecting hops or visiting hop breeders and growers around the world. We get to rub a new cultivar or a hop that we haven’t brewed with. If we experience something we like, we will bring it to the Propagator and brew up a single hop beer. If that works, we will start to profile the flavors and aromas we perceive and figure out combinations of hops that with be complimentary within the Luponic Distortion base. We don’t usually divulge the specifics of the varieties we use, but Luponic Distortion 12 was a blend of hops from the Pacific Northwest and Germany. I’ve been especially excited about some of the new German flavor hops that have hit in recent years, hops that we first used in Easy Jack, and we have integrated a lot of them in Luponic Distortion releases. We are 12 revolutions in and there and there is no end to the new hop flavors and blends that we can come up with.
What’s the most memorable beer that you’ve brewed at Firestone Walker and why?
Matt Brynildson: That is nearly impossible to answer but I can name a couple beers that stand out. I’ll never get over my first impressions of Double Barrel Ale and the Firestone Union. That beer, although it wasn’t my creation, taught me so much about working with barrels, integrating wood flavors into beer and the beauty of barrel fermentation. It changed me as a brewer forever.
Our 10th Anniversary blend (first barrel-aged release) was a mind altering experience as well. Working with winemakers to create a beer was another formative experience that will stay with me forever. It paved the way for our Vintage Reserve Series and some of the most complex beers we have ever made.
The road to Pivo was another experience that changed my life. Spending time in Europe and really digging into a prolific style like that, then bringing that knowledge home and creating what has become one of the standards in American new world Pils, is something I couldn't be more proud of. I could go on, but those are some of my favorite beer experiences.
Firestone Walker has always had a connection to wine, but what was the inspiration specific to Rosalie? Are you a Rosé drinker yourself? How did you figure out the specifics of which ingredients you wanted to create the flavor profile desired in this wine-beer hybrid?
Matt Brynildson: The creation of Rosalie was a great collaboration within our brewery. So many of our team members live and play in wine country. If we are not drinking beer, we are studying wine and the culture surrounding it. Paso Robles is home to more than 200 wineries, so it’s easy to get pulled into the wine world here. Adam and David have vineyards and have worked around wine all their lives. We have been brewing wine grape hybrid beers at Barrelworks and in Paso Robles for a few years now, so Rosalie really was taking those experiences and focusing them an a highly drinkable, refreshing fruit-forward hybrid.
We refused to go the route of fruit concentrates or other flavoring agents. We contracted directly with a Paso Robles vineyard, harvested an insane amount of premium Chardonnay, Sauv Blanc and Viognier grapes, had our winemaker friend crush the grapes for us and the beer is co-fermented with that juice. It doesn't get any more legit than that. It would have been a great risk to commit to this investment in grapes before releasing a beer, but with the help of our winemaker friends, it felt very natural and I’m proud of what we created… and yes, I am known to drink Rosé when relaxing in wine country.
What’s your favorite part about being at a brewery that has such deep connections in both the beer and wine industries?
David Walker: Our roots are deep in wine culture and we still own and farm vineyards. The brewery grew under the eaves of a 3rd generation family winery, Firestone Vineyard, so much of the guiding principles learned from an estate vineyard were applied to our brewery. We want our brewery to be a destination and showcase for what we do. The Paso Robles and Buellton breweries are in the middle of two mature California wine regions and many of the staff have moved from winemaking to brewing and back to winemaking effortlessly. The artisanal worlds are clearly connected. If we can leave folks with a sense we care deeply about our beer and the lifestyle it affords us we will have been successful in showing them why we do what we do.