Immediately upon meeting David Walker, you notice he’s a little different from most other American craft-brewery owners. He’s tall and trim, owing to his frequent morning runs. He sports a perpetual layer of rugged-outdoorsman stubble and a movie-star mane of flowing locks (one reason, but not the only, he’s earned his nickname, “The Lion”).
Also: He’s British.
Walker is one-half of the eponymous Firestone Walker, a brewery he co-founded in 1996 with his American brother-in-law Adam Firestone (a.k.a., “The Bear”), a great-great grandson of the man who started the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. At the time, the Firestone family also happened to own a vineyard in Santa Barbara County, and it was there that the brewery first put down its roots.
Early on, Walker’s love for the beers of his homeland greatly influenced the brewery’s portfolio. Its first release was Double Barrel Ale, an English-style ale made using a Burton Union system that had been jury-rigged on the brewing floor.
DBA is still one of Firestone’s flagship offerings, but since hiring the immensely talented Matt Brynildson as brewmaster in 2000, the brewery’s more uniquely American beers have made Firestone Walker one of the most acclaimed producers in the business.
“There’s a famous story passed around about Walker pulling a fresh can of Union Jack IPA off the canning line, tasting it, and immediately telling a group of shocked beer bloggers: “A little too fresh for me—I prefer it a little older, a little maltier.”
Firestone Walker releases a series of complex barrel-aged offerings—from Parabola (an imperial stout), to Sucaba (a barleywine), to a slew of wild ales made at a separate “Barrelworks” facility down south in Buellton. And, of course, there’s its lineup of Jacks—uber-hoppy IPAs running the gamut from Easy Jack (a session IPA) all the way up to Double Jack (a DIPA).
Even if these are the beers that make the modern beer geek slobber, Walker seems just as content with the milder, maltier, and more Anglo-centric offerings the brewery was built on. (There’s a famous yarn passed around about Walker pulling a fresh can of Union Jack IPA off the canning line, tasting it, and immediately telling a group of shocked beer bloggers: “A little too fresh for me—I prefer it a little older, a little maltier.”)
Walker isn’t just a British beer fan misplaced in America, though. Behind his laid-back demeanor, he’s one of the more shrewd businessmen in the entire industry. Last year, he helped Firestone Walker partner with the famed Belgian brewery Duvel Moortgat. A few “big business = bad” beer nerds may have lost their minds, but Walker says the partnership still allows his brewery to operate independently while expanding production and distribution. Fittingly, Firestone Walker beers are now available on the continent Walker grew up on, potentially turning a whole new generation of Europeans into American craft-beer lovers.
As both David Walker and his brewery enter their twentieth year in the business, The Lion looks back on the ten beers that made his career.
Marston’s Owd Roger
As a red-blooded 16-year-old in rural coastal England, I was baptized with Marston’s 500-year-old favorite, Owd Roger, at The Mussel Inn in Down Thomas. This 7.6%-ABV strong ale with a sweet finish had wandered south from its birthplace in Burton-upon-Trent, and it left me glowing and firmly intrigued. It’s a game changer, and a beer that is as relevant to me today as any beer making its debut in the current beer revolution. (Photo: beersofeurope.co.uk)
In 1991, having arrived in California courtesy of the tech biz and a curly-haired Deadhead who became my wife, I was struck by the lack of tasty beer on tap. Beer in the bottle was a new concept to me. In the U.K., pubs were almost as convenient as your fridge, so there was little reason to dull the experience by drinking beer from any container smaller than a firkin. That said, I eventually found solace in a bottled beer called Redhook ESB, conjured up at the original Fremont Brewing next to Brouwer’s Cafe (the scene of many a stinky night). This American amber beer—technically flawed with its buttery finish—was a perfect companion as I began to discover and fall in love with the American craft beers made by small brewers scattered across the country. (Photo: 9-island.com)
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
It wasn’t long before I was introduced to my desert-island beer, the inspiration and nemesis of many a craft brewer. I have waxed lyrical about this beer many times, and it needs no introduction or explanation. A perfect malt bill covered in Cascade hops and wrapped in a bottle-conditioned cloak, carefully brewed at arguably the finest brewery in the world. Good anytime and anywhere, it’s the definitive California pale ale and the reason many other craft brewers have found willing customers. (Photo: lcbo.com)
Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale
And so it began. In 1996, my steely-eyed brother-in-law, Adam Firestone—a vintner who drank more beer than wine—and I hijacked a storied winemaking family tradition, borrowed the family name, and created the Firestone Walker Brewing Company. Our debut was Double Barrel Ale (DBA), conceived by Jeffers Richardson, our first brewmaster. It’s a beer that let us honor the great pales of Burton-upon-Trent within the U.S. A self-styled Burton Union system enabled us to funnel some of the beer through primary fermentation in virgin American Oak wine barrels, creating a wholly unique experience. A traditional malt bill created a caramely, biscuity flavor which, when fresh, balanced the marmalade notes of Styrian and East Kent Goldings hops. It’s a beer I have drunk regularly for nearly 20 years, and one that still brings a smile to my face. It will always represent so much more than the beer itself. It was our beginning. (Photo courtesy Firestone Walker)
Avery Brewing Maharaja
In 1999, the Firestone Walker brewery was sprinkled with some good fortune as it discovered its partner, Matt Brynildson, literally camping under full fermenters of beer in a defunct brewery [SLO Brewing Company] that was soon to be our new home. A Phish devotee and hop chemist-turned-brewer, he had ventured west in search of more music, sunshine, and hops. He ended up becoming the vision behind all our beers, our master brewer, and our partner. With Matt (who we dubbed “Merlin”) creating magic in the brewhouse, it became hard for me to find beer that stirred my palate as much as our own; especially beers that elevated hops beyond traditional levels. It eventually happened with Adam Avery’s Maharaja, an imperial IPA that brought me to a standstill. As thick as double cream, dosed in hop citrus, and beautifully balanced, this formidable IPA was perfect. It’s certainly left its mark. Our imperial IPA Double Jack was born shortly thereafter as Merlin became tired of my cravings for Maharaja. (Photo: sherryswine.com)
Firestone Walker Parabola
Merlin’s passion for going “off-piste” was soon to become apparent, as I regularly stumbled into aged-spirit barrels conditioning various potions otherwise known as strong ales. Empty barrels were delivered periodically in a horse trailer from the south somewhere, rolled into the brewery courtyard where the team would scrounge the angel’s share and steal them away to the corners Merlin had designated “Area 51 zones.” Our barrel-aging project started out as a clandestine operation, perhaps born out of the respect for wood’s fragility in the brewery—something we had experienced first-hand with our Burton Union. Why did we need yet more reasons to keep our lab busy? In the early 2000’s Merlin delivered a satin-smooth, 14% Russian imperial stout that oozed dark cherries, bitter chocolate, and hints of coconut. It was anointed Parabola as a nod to its mathematical formulation and brother-in-arms Abacus [which later became Sucaba after a trademark dispute]. From the moment we released this beer, I knew our beer was now entering another chapter, and that my palate was chasing it. (Photo courtesy Firestone Walker)
Bale Breaker Field 41 Pale Ale
As we moved into the second half of our second decade, the American hops narrative changed from being part of the craft-brewers’ conversation to being the only conversation. Hops and our punters’ fascination with them pushed the envelope of flavor to new limits—not always balanced, but nevertheless in search of the edges of flavor. Our own quiver of IPAs—Union Jack, Double Jack, Easy Jack, and [black IPA] Wookey Jack—were all variations on this IPA theme. While resting between market visits in a bottle shop in Oregon one evening and flipping through the scores of beers available to me, I was given a local PNW beer, Field 41 Pale Ale, brewed by a family of hop growers. At 4.5% ABV it was crisp, clean, and alive. I could have been standing amongst the hops in Yakima. It struck me at that point that freshness and quality was as important to the hops narrative as quantity. (Photo: balebreaker.com)
Firestone Walker Krieky Bones
In 2008, we resurrected our original brewery location in Buellton, 90 minutes south of Paso Robles. It had been neglected for many years as we poured all our attention into our Paso Robles brewery. As luck would have it, Jim Crooks, another of the fermenter-dwellers we encountered in 1999, was cultivating wild ales and yeast in even more hidden corners than those created by Merlin for his strong ales. Head of QC since 1998, Jim had been romancing wild yeasts since his college days, and it was now time to shed his lab coat and begin to take the brewery on a wild ride. The Buellton brewery was perfectly isolated for his purposes and Merlin’s peace of mind. Serendipitously, to add to the evolution, Jeffers Richardson, our original brewer, returned from a 15-year walkabout to accompany Jim on his journey. Together these firm friends have created Barrelworks, a brewery within a brewery. As the wood, fruit, and (human) characters rolled into the building, the funk began to take hold and a tapestry of beers were born. It therefore follows that in 2014, I hit the ripe old age of 50 and, as a nod to our confidence in the wild ride, Krieky Bones was conceived—a Flanders Red-style beer aged in a French Oak foeder adorned with sour cherries. A flush of cherries, balanced with champagne bubbles and acidity, make this one of the greatest birthday gifts I have ever received. (Photo courtesy Firestone Walker)
Boulevard Brewing Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale
Last year we climbed into bed with Duvel Moortgat, a four-generations-old, family-owned Belgian brewer. A desire to create a multi-generational platform for our brewery with like- minded folks was the goal, and we believe we have solved that riddle with this marriage. One of our new-found siblings in this family was a brewery we much admired in the Midwest, Boulevard Brewing. Their talented brewer, Steven Pauwels, a Belgium himself, created Tank 7, an 8.5% Belgian farmhouse ale with citrus mid-palate and peppery finish. It ticks all the boxes of this complicated style of beer. I am proud of our partners and truly love this beer. (Photo: boulevard.com)
Firestone Walker Luponic Distortion
Moving into our 20th year has been one hell of a ride, and only makes me wonder what the next chapters hold. The distance we have travelled is elegantly illustrated in my final beer: Luponic Distortion, which we could have never conceived of 20 years ago. It’s a beer that, as Merlin puts it, “is an ever-evolving mix of experimental hops, designed to deliver mind-blowing flavors that break the rules with each new release. The unique revolution number on the label tells you which release you have in hand. Crack fresh and enjoy the show.” Well, for the last few months, I have been cracking Luponic and enjoying this revolving-hopped IPA, all under 6%, and all made with experimental hops. It’s a not a new concept, but it’s definitely one in the inspired hands of my good mate Matt Brynildson, and I look forward to each new release. (Photo: wineandcheeseplace.com)
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman.