Published in Taste California Travel Magazine, 2004.
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Firestone-Walker Beer Chalks Up Awards, Opens Restaurant
By Mark Storer
Anyone driving within a whiff of the flowering vineyards of Santa Barbara County has been in Firestone Country. The Firestone family, nearly legend in these parts, has been spearheading winemaking and selling for some 30 years. The passing of the proverbial torch from dad Brooks (formerly a term limited California Assemblyman, now a Santa Barbara County Supervisor) to sons Adam and Andrew has completed a circle that has found the Firestones dedicating themselves to the “new” family business, wine and beer making. Most recently, it’s the beer that’s at the forefront of Central Coast gastronomic discussion. With the addition of a new full-service restaurant to the Firestone-Walker Taproom in Buellton, CA, Firestone has once again asserted a kind of classy dominance in a crowded field.
In the early 1990’s, Adam had the idea to begin brewing beer and with his brother in law, David Walker-a Brit with a sensibility and knowledge about beer that’s as complex as any like-minded wine expert. Thus began Firestone-Walker Brewing Company. The result has been simply the most successful regional beer ever produced in the United States. Taking a cue from the European and more specifically the English tradition of brewing beer that’s fresh and in limited supply because it is regional, the Firestone-Walker Brewing Company has consistently won award after award for the quality of their product. Most recently, the World Beer Cup, held in San Diego, voted Firestone champion of the mid-sized brewing companies category.
“It’s extraordinary,” said David Walker laughingly. “I questioned it initially—I didn’t know what it really meant.” Further review, however, of the announcement had Walker’s head in the clouds. “There was over 1300 breweries represented and 562 of those were in the U.S.” Out of all of those, the judges voted Firestone-Walker the best. In addition, Firestone-Walker’s head brewer, Matt Brindleson, was voted champion brewer. This didn’t shock Walker as much.
“When you go to beer competitions with Matt, it’s like hanging out with Mick Jagger,” explained Walker. “People crowd in over your shoulder to get a word with him. It’s truly amazing.”
If you’ve not availed yourself of Firestone’s beers, you need to. But, like all good things, supplies of the stuff are limited and you probably won’t find bottles of Firestone-Walker ales in Maryland grocery stores. However, the beers can be found all over the Central Coast, “within about a 300 mile radius,” said Walker.
The most popular beer the company produces is the Firestone-Walker Double Barrel Ale. It’s the first beer the company brewed and it has a strong, malt-flavored presence, not one that is sharp or fruity. “The hops are blended well and the result is a true English style ale with a full-bodied, well-rounded taste,” said Certified Beer Judge Scott Wolfe. “It’s got a lot of flavor.” Wolfe’s comments obviously reflect those of other judges like the ones at the World Beer Cup.
“Really, we’re the only regional brewer in Central or Southern California servicing some five to 10 million people which is extraordinary. We don’t have any aspirations to be a million barrel brewery, we’ve sort of found our niche,” said Walker.
That niche is really about more than just the beer, now. The Taproom in Buellton was literally that from the time it opened on May 15th, 1999 until now; serving nothing but Firestone-Walker beers, pretzels and mustard and frozen pizzas. The addition of the restaurant with simple, fresh food like wood fired-oven pizzas and fresh fish choices along with fresh salad greens and local vegetables makes the Taproom a true destination rather than simply a local attraction.
The Taproom also has a fairly impressive wine list that features more than just the Firestone varietals. Showcasing wines from all around the Central Coast, the restaurant shows how it has tapped into local culture, local fare and local pride. Andrew Firestone, in a previous interview, maintained that most of the wine-makers don’t really consider each other competition. “We learn a lot from each other,” he said. “It’s a pretty tight community.”
The appeal is indeed local with a concentration on the local wines, local ingredients for food and, of course, local beer. While the beer is actually brewed at Firestone-Walker’s Paso Robles brewery, the Taproom has maintained a reputation as the place to buy not only the Double-Barrel Ale, but a porter, a lager and other specialty beers that can be paired with food as easily as any wine. “We’ve come a long way, it seems,” said Walker. The gift for understatement is clear: Firestone-Walker is on a roll and the Taproom is open for business.
Mark Storer is a freelance writer and food and wine columnist for the Ventura County Reporter. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, Christianity Today, The Plain Truth and many others. He may be contacted at Marks2112@adelphia.net
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