Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking with David Walker of Firestone Walker Brewing Co.

Firestone Walker Brewing Co. opened in Paso Robles, California in 1996. Twenty years is a long time in craft beer, and during those two decades, the company’s grown to become one of the most relevant and interesting breweries in the world. But in the last five years or so, Firestone Walker’s entered hyper-growth, more than tripling its annual output from 95,000 BBLs in 2011 to 350,000 BBLs in 2016.

 
 
Much of this expansion can be attributed to the huge success of 805 Blonde Ale, which was released in 2012, is sold almost exclusively in California, and now makes up 60% of the brewery’s total production. Plus, in 2015, Firestone Walker was acquired by Belgium’s Duvel Moortgat brewery (which also owns Boulevard Brewing Company and Brewery Ommegang), a partnership that has allowed the business to remain stable during this period of exceptional growth.
 
Firestone Walker co-founder David Walker is originally from Devon, a county in southwest England. He relocated to the West Coast in 1991, and established the brewery in Los Olivos, California with his brother-in-law Adam Firestone a few years after that. The company relocated to its current home in Paso Robles in 2001. Walker makes regular trips home to see his family and check on his beer, which, along with 20 U.S. states, is distributed in the UK. On his most recent trip, GBH caught up with Walker over a couple pints in a central London pub.

It must be nice to drink some cask ale when you’re over here.

 

There’s a lot about traditional British beer that I love. It’s the weather, the pub, the beer, the way it’s poured—the whole thing is actually impossible to replicate. And I’ve tried. 

You’re not doing a terrible job all things considered.

[laughs] The first beer we ever brewed, Double Barrel Ale, is an ode to British Pale Ale. We actually rigged up our own version of the Burton Union system. Even today it’s a beer that goes through primary fermentation in linked oak barrels. They’re not classically Burton Unions anymore, but the whole process is a nod to the Unions still bubbling away up at Marston’s.

You’ve just discontinued three big fan favorites in Opal, Wookey Jack, and Double Jack. Why get rid of a range of beers that, for many, feel integral to Firestone Walker?

 

Well, we’re still going to be making them. They’ll be brewed on our pilot brewery at Venice Beach and they’ll be available in our taprooms. We wanted to remind people that these are beautiful beers. The best way to do that is to take them off the pitch for a while. As a brewery, we’re at capacity. We’ve been growing too fast for too long. Literally every ounce of space needs to go toward the beers people are really mad about. Double Jack and Wookey Jack are hop-forward, delicate beers. They're not beers that should sit on a shelf for someone to discover or rediscover. We’re going to release a whole new set of beers into the brewing calendar slots that were reserved for those beers. Hopefully these will resonate with people as well.

 

So you’re at capacity, but you’re still working out how to fit new beers into your schedule?

 

Well, in order for us to do that we had to pull those guys out of the schedule. Just to give you some perspective, those three beers were less than 2% of our production. They were called our Proprietors Reserve series, but they didn’t feel reserved any more.

 

What’s the feeling internally about this? Is anyone down about this decision?

No! Everyone’s really fucking excited because this gives us room to experiment and we’re already working on some new recipes. For the first time in 20 years, we bought a pilot system, which we’ve installed at our small production brewery in Venice Beach. Everybody wants to get their hands on that and compose some new, interesting beers. The beers that we manage to create there that pass muster will go into our Reserve series. 

 

You’ve had some amazing success with some of your newer beers. Pivo Pils has won a ton of awards and 805 has been incredibly popular in California. How has this changed Firestone Walker’s approach to market?

805 has been a complete cuckoo in the nest—it’s now about 60% of our production, 98% of it is sold in California, and most of that within 150 miles of the brewery. I like to think that out of all the breweries in the world the beer gods chose to bestow a beer with that kind of velocity to us. It’s probably the least dimensional of our beers, but it’s caught the imagination of the 20 million people that live within drinking distance of our brewery. It’s even outperforming a lot of the macro beers in the local market. It’s been a huge surprise to us. We’ve tripled in size over the last six years and, functionally, 805 has been responsible for most of that. Pivo is a gloriously beautiful beer, but it doesn’t have the same trends as 805.

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What does the export market represent for Firestone Walker when, with 805 as an example, there seems to be so much room for more growth locally?

I wish I could say there was a plan. There really isn’t. We still sell about 85% of our beer in California and then about 90% of our beer in the Pacific Standard time zone. The rest we sprinkle around 20 other states, plus a little bit of export. I hate to be too honest about it, but I just wanted to drink my beer at home. My family and my friends were like, “What the fuck, where’s the beer? We want to drink it!”

It does feel like there’s room in the U.S. market for growth, but with so many brewers opening and expanding, how difficult do you find it to sustain your own?

 

There are a lot of breweries in the U.S., but I think there’s going to be a lot more. I mean, there are 11,000 wineries in America and they’re constrained by climate. With nearly 5,000 breweries in America that aren’t constrained by climate, you’ve got to figure that culturally and economically the U.S. can support a lot more breweries.

We started our brewery 20 years ago when craft beer was an odd thing. Now, being a craft brewer is actually quite common. We’re all still watching it and seeing how the American market will evolve. I’m incredibly confident that the American palate loves well-made, fresh beer that’s got an authentic story.

Eighty percent of Americans are still drinking industrial Lagers. I don’t care how well-branded they are or how cheap they are, eventually someone is going to discover the taste of a beautiful, well-made, local craft beer that will trump that every time. No pun intended! [laughs]

What challenges have you encountered shipping fresh beer from the U.S. to Europe?

It’s incredibly difficult. We’re a little bit conflicted, really. I don’t think it’s a longterm model—we’ve still got 30 states in the U.S. to supply, after all. We started exports because a couple of wholesalers were committed to shipping the beer cold from Paso Robles and getting it to bars in the best shape they could. There’s a tiny bit of the old fashion notion that I want mum to see my beer, and that was really it. I don’t think there’s any real economic thinking behind it—we’ve got 300 million people in the U.S. we can reach with fresher beer. My brother, Adrian, manages our export program, and he does his best to get our beer across the world in less than 30 days. Fingers crossed, so far so good. The feedback I get is positive and the minute that stops, well, we’ll stop shipping here. 

How do you compete with the emerging craft beer scene here in the UK?

I’m actually really pleased to see the emergence of great British craft brewers. The palate doesn’t lie. If locally brewed beers are fresher and easier to drink, then ultimately they will substitute imports from West Coast USA. Frankly, fresh beer is beautiful, and beauty wins.

Some larger craft brewers such as Lagunitas and Goose Island are starting to play the local card by opening taprooms across the U.S. What’s the likelihood of Firestone Walker opening up locations outside of California?

There are regulations that make this very difficult. Tied house laws in the U.S. changed at a fundamental level after prohibition. As such, state laws are pretty strict over how many additional brewpubs you can have. We have a pub attached to each one of our production facilities, and that’s it. This is for a couple of reasons. First of all, opening more pubs would upset our customers. Secondly, we want to focus on making beautiful beer and not running pubs, so I think we’re going to remain as we are. To a certain extent it’s easy for us to do that. We are domiciled in a state of 40 million people, with the GDP of France. We have three locations, each spread two hours apart and with its own brewpub. We’ll be able to sustain our brewery for many, many generations based solely on the population of California.

How has working with Duvel Moortgat eased pressure on the business?

The Moortgat family hasn’t really eased any pressure based on how we currently operate. They’re a generational, family brewery that’s very committed to beer culture and running a family business. But in the U.S., Firestone Walker is much larger entity than they are or ever could be over here. Where they bring incredible value to us is through their culture. It’s difficult to articulate the generational history of the Moortgat family.

I think that’s the case with Belgian beer culture in general. That generational attitude is instilled into these family brewers. In America, craft beer is still too young to have that same attitude.

Yes, and essentially Duvel Moortgat are instilling that attitude into us. Two years ago, my business partner [Adam Firestone] and I realized we were going to hit a wall in terms of our production. We did a napkin calculation and knew that to expand our brewery in order to accommodate our growth would incur generational debt. We didn’t want to sign up for that, so we went out looking for money and came back with the Moortgat family. We just felt more comfortable doing with a brewer what we would’ve done with, say, a venture capital firm. And obviously there’s a huge difference to doing that with a large multinational brewer versus a family brewer like Duvel Moortgat. 

You say your values are different in terms of culture. Does that present any challenges?

There’s a certain respect between Belgium and the U.S., and that’s how I’d describe our relationship. Culturally, the Belgians like to do things their way. Their’s is a modest, quietly confident culture. We certainly have that feeling with Michelle Moortgat and the Moortgat family.

How has the partnership opened up relationships with Boulevard and Ommegang?

Boulevard is a lot like us. They started 27 years ago, and we’ve both had a similar journey. We both dug in with no more aspirations than to maybe make a bit more beer than we did the year before and we’re very successful in our regions. We’re very compatible in that way. Boulevard has been able to help us this year because, as I said earlier, we’re at capacity. We’ve brewed some beer with them this year and that’s really helped us. But the real value with our relationship is the comfort in numbers. We look at the brewing world in a similar way and we get to work with some great people.

Would you ever consider building a brewery on the east coast, or is the extra capacity Boulevard gives you enough?

It helps a little bit, but remember that beer has to come back west because that’s where we sell most of it! Ultimately, if we end up becoming a really important national brewery in the U.S., then we’re going to have to build a brewery on the east coast. That’s probably going to eventually be on the cards, but hey, we might never get out of the west coast, which is OK too. People are always going to be curious about our beer, just like I might curious about beers from Brazil or here in the UK. For now, we’re going concentrate on sustaining our brewery in California—expansion really depends on how the next 20 years evolve.

Has your relationship with Duvel influenced your activity in Europe or does that all come from you?

There’s no question that Duvel has a European outlook, but there’s no compelling reason for us to sell beer outside of the United States short of my curiosity. We’re actually talking about doing some exchanges with our brewers. I can’t think of anything better than one of our brewers creating a West Coast IPA at a brewery such as De Koninck in Antwerp. We’re already working with Liefmans, who are a Moortgat family brewery. They shipped us about 100 kegs of [Sour Belgian Brown Ale] Goudenband, and we’re putting that into our wild ale program. Some of our guys are going over there to talk about our Barrelworks program. 

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You’ve just opened in Venice Beach. What’s the goal there?

Twenty million people live south of our brewery in Paso Robles. We’re right in the middle of wine country in the center of California. Central and Southern California is our home market—that’s where we sell most of our beer. We just wanted to be more relevant in that particular area. We decided that if we were going to build a pilot brewery we were going to put it in the middle of that community. We like Venice, it’s got a little bit of an edge but it’s also at the forefront of taste. We spent about three years looking for a building before we bought the one we’re now in. We’ve put a really expensive, 8hL (6.8 BBL) Kaspar Schulz brewhouse in there along with a team of young brewers and we’re just going to riff on different styles. We know we’ve got a consumer in that area who’s going to be interested in that. The facility is called The Propagator. It’s a nod to the fact that we really want to propagate ideas, get instant feedback and keep us connected to the market that’s drinking our beers.

Stone recently made some layoffs, which has sparked concern about the growth potential of craft beer at a national level. What steps will you be taking to ensure you’re prepared for a more competitive environment?

I think Duvel Moortgat is a big part of that. It was all to do with the fact that we didn’t want to load the business up with a lot of debt that had a lot of strings attached to it. We’re only in half of the U.S. If we do start losing sales in some of our local markets, then we can open up new markets. We don’t have unnecessary goals. In fact, I had a meeting with Adam [Firestone] and Michelle [Moortgat] recently, and Michelle said: “Is there any way you can make less beer?” [laughs] Hopefully we’ve set ourselves up for the future, but you know what? There are no guarantees with anyone’s future. I could get run over by a bus tomorrow! Adam Firestone grew up in the bleachers of the American wine movement and he’s seen booms and busts in that world, so he’s always been very pragmatic about the electricity within craft beer. I like to think that we’ve learned from those lessons and have a fairly longterm, somewhat conservative outlook on how we’re going to manage the brewery for the next 20 years. 

Is there a sweet spot at which you’d like to see Firestone Walker level out?

Absolutely! [laughs] I mean, speak to our brewers, those guys are exhausted. We have a new 200-barrel brewery coming online next June which will tie into our existing brewing environment. That’ll be like going from first gear to fourth gear—it’s going to be huge for us. Mind you, if Matt Brynildson has his way, it’ll be up and running sooner than that.

Words + Photos by
Matthew Curtis