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Firestone Walker Does it Right

Bill Shellenberger, June 09, 2014 -   

My experience with beer fests has been generally positive (because beer!), although somewhat underwhelming. Get in line to enter the building, and once inside stand in more lines to get your beer on. Hold off breaking the seal for as long as possible so as to avoid the least fun line of all. Drop $20 on a hastily thrown together imposter burger and cold fries, because you can totally reset your BAC with a little overpriced fast food (in lieu of Jim Koch’s magic yeast). But, in all the semi-organized chaos, you get the chance to sample some new beers, maybe find a new brewery to follow, and, if the beer gods smile on you, get a taste of a legit whale.

I attended Firestone Walker’s 17th anniversary party last year, and came away extremely impressed at how organized and well-run it was, and my appreciation only grew in light of other recent craft beer event horror stories. So while I was confident that FW would give it their best, a beer fest is a beer fest, right? Large crowd of passionate craft beer enthusiasts + limited quantities of uber-rare beers = petri dish for problems, regardless of how well-intentioned the hosts are. So how well did FW do?

SPOILERS: They nailed it.  Absolutely exceeded my most optimistic expectations.  Great planning, down to the smallest details, and then flawless execution.

First, they provided – free of charge – transportation to and from the event grounds, from a variety of locations on both sides of town. Not your typical hotel shuttles either – full tour buses. Having a ride back to your hotel after roughly four hours of drinking mostly high-gravity beers is quite a boon, and allows you to fully enjoy the event without worrying about arranging transportation or trying to drive yourself.

For general admission, the fest started at noon. I arrived a little after 10:30 to a line about 2 NYC blocks long. Knowing how these things usually go, I started calculating alternate plans about which breweries/beers to target first, as I assumed a good number of those in front of me would rush the highest profile targets (wisdom on the street seemed to indicate most would hit Three Floyds first, hoping to score some Dark Lord). Would they have anything left by the time I got to them? 

In the midst of my impromptu strategizing – I think it was roughly 11:30 now – the line started moving…quickly. Several people were checking IDs, followed by the line splitting into six to eight lines for scanning the actual tickets. Once my ticket was scanned, I proceeded to another area where multiple tables held the souvenir glass snifters (and a nifty little plate with a slot for the stem of the snifter, so you could hold your beer/food with one hand and eat with the other). A little further on, there were tables that held the programs, which contained a map of the event grounds, all the breweries in attendance and descriptions/tasting notes of their featured beers.

With glass and program in hand, I then proceeded to an area – one of several – where multiple staff were pouring samples of the Firestone Walker/Three Floyds collaboration beer Ol’ Leghorn, an aggressively hopped blonde barleywine (initial thought was very good but not quite great – but I bought a few bottles and will fully review later). After getting a taste of things to come, there was another area set up where you could buy some swag while waiting for the event to start. By this point, I was floored (pleasantly) at how ridiculously painless and efficient the whole process was. And I wasn’t the only one. Many, many people were saying, “Firestone Walker does it right.” That was to be a common refrain for the remainder of the day.

Finally, there was no set line into the area of the grounds where the beer stations were located – there were several areas that would all open simultaneously and let people pour into the drinking grounds organically. I suppose that might not sound orderly, but believe me, providing several different avenues of attack worked like a charm. No pushing, tripping, yelling, cutting holes in fences, or any other nonsense that I could see. Hailing from the Northeastern U.S., where impatience is a virtue, this alone impressed the hell out of me!

So far I’ve spent a great deal of time in a beer fest review talking about the logistics of the event and not the event itself. I really feel that it is important to highlight the fact that these seemingly trivial logistical details all set the stage for a tremendously well-received event. The brewery/beer lineup was world-class, no doubt. But in my experience (and recent event disasters support this), if the logistics of lines/entry/etc. start to fail, that world-class beer lineup on the other side of the fence quickly becomes an albatross as people start thinking they are going to miss it. Serious kudos to the team at Firestone that organized this event!

Still with me? Thanks! Couple additional important non-beer related notes: all the food was included in the price of admission. And it wasn’t filler junk food either – some of the best restaurants in the Paso Robles area attended and served up some seriously good stuff. Pork belly sliders, BBQ riblets, paella, and gelato were among my favorites. Very, very cool to have food that matched the beer in quality – and have it included instead of a la carte.  There was an ample number of water stations spread around, and there was a large area under cover with seats and elevated hosing spraying mists of water – a great place to take a breather and stay cool.

Finally, on to the beer: The Bruery really crushed it – their lineup was tough to beat and they consistently had the longest lines (30-45 mins) all day. Black Tuesday w/ Pistachios and Vanilla, Grey Monday, and Rue d’ Floyd (collaboration with Three Floyds). Worth three turns through the line for those gems. 

Fifty Fifty brought out the big guns with a couple Eclipse variants: Coffee Vanilla Eclipse and Eclipse aged in Pappy Van Winkle barrels. They also poured their Old Conundrum (barleywine) aged in Pappy barrels. They were filling the snifters to the rim as well, which was awesome.

Surly (one of the breweries whose beer I’d never tried) poured Darkness – wow what a rich, decadent beer! Definitely one of the day’s highlights for me. 

Beachwood BBQ blew me away with their System of a Stout – it was like drinking an espresso. Had I tasted it blind (and not at a beer fest), I wouldn’t have known it was beer. 

Alesmith brought Barrel Aged Vietnamese Coffee Speedway Stout and Jamaican Blue Mountain Speedway Stout. Both absolutely amazing. The BA Vietnamese variant wins by a hair. Milk chocolate, coffee, roasted malts.

Kern River’s Citra DIPA was as outstanding as advertised (and was a refreshing break from all those huge barrel-aged stouts/porters!) 

I was stoked to taste one of the few Russian River beers to elude me thus far: Beatification.  Really, really nice. Solid tartness with apple notes.

Founder’s KBS is a classic, of course, and Bolt Cutter is a 5-star barleywine, bourbon, oak, vanilla on display here.

Three Floyds didn’t bring Dark Lord (that I saw, at least), but I tried Blot Out the Sun.  It was solid. Notes of licorice, very slick mouthfeel.

Cigar City ran out of Hunahpu’s before I could get any, and literally was my only “don’t miss” target that I, well, missed. Go figure.

I cheated and hit Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks and the Paso Taproom on Friday, so I pretty much skipped their ridiculously awesome lineup at the fest.  They were pouring many of their usual suspects (the Jack family) plus I saw Sucaba and their Barrelworks’ beers like Opal, Lil Opal, Agrestic, and Bretta Rose. I think Stickee Monkee was there as well. If there is any doubt: yes, Firestone can absolutely brew sour/wild ales with the best of them.  Agrestic was my particular favorite. The tartness is strong in that one.

With so many outstanding breweries attending, and each bringing a number of beers, it was inevitable that I’d miss quite a few breweries whose beer I’d have loved to try.  I was especially disappointed to miss Jester King, Crooked Stave, 8 Wired, Boneyard, and Mikkeller.  You can check out the complete list of attending breweries here.

As you’ve probably already gathered, in my view, the amazing beer lineup backed by some outstanding event planning make the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest a rare can’t miss event. It’s the best beer event (fest or otherwise) that I’ve attended, and it’s not particularly close. I look forward to making this an annual pilgrimage.

Hope to see a BeerGraphs group there next year!

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