Conspiracy Under the Tarps: We Dig into the Origins of Barrelworks

The Best of the U.S. Meets the Best of Belgium
Firestone Walker’s David Walker (L) and Matt Brynildson (center)  share a lambic with Cantillon Brewer, Jean Van Roy (R)

It started with a chance encounter at Cantillon in May 2011.  Steve Shapiro (one of the two of us responsible for Beer By BART) visited the famed Brussels lambic brewery.  And he was delighted to run into Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matt Brynildson and a tall companion with a British accent.  Steve remembers that Jean Van Roy was astonished that he and Matt knew each other. That encounter was, however, Steve’s first introduction to Firestone Walker Brewing’s co-founder, David Walker. Steve remembers Matt whispering about Walker sipping one of the complex, acidic Cantillon beers. “Look, he’s smiling!”

Steve snapped a photo (above) as the three brewing legends enjoyed another lambic creation together.

Not long afterward, we ran into David Walker at San Francisco’s City Beer Store.  Curiously, he implied that he was the one interested in starting a sour program but facing resistance. It caught our attention. A few very nice sour “wood aged” beers from the brewery had already showed up here and there. What was going on?

David Walker, Jeffers Richardson, Jim Crooks
David Walker, Jeffers Richardson and Jim Crooks at the Firestone Walker Invitational beer fest, after the launch of Barrelworks

But eventually all was moot. We were delighted when we heard of plans for a sour fermentation facility called Barrelworks in Buellton, an hour and a half south of the main Firestone Walker location in Paso Robles, way down on the Central Coast.

We got to know Jim Crooks and Jeffers Richardson, the two who anchor the program, each with his own complicated and engrossing back story at Firestone Walker.  Still, the more we heard about their own stories and about Barrelworks, the more puzzled we were.  Had it really been a forbidden project when Walker sipped at Cantillon? The website hinted of drama, but was that just marketing hype? What was true?

So last summer we decided to track this down and take whatever time the story required.  The idea was that we would get the versions of the origin tale from various protagonists and show how differently they saw things.  We were delighted when Beer Advocate Magazine took our project on, and we dug in.

Curiously, each thing we looked into was deeper and more complex than the last. The secrets behind Barrelworks went all the way back to the unusual origins of Firestone Walker itself.  Matt Brynildson, Jim Crooks, Jeffers Richardson, Adam Firestone and David Walker all gave generously of their time and did deep dives into all kinds of tales that we reluctantly left aside as we sharpened our focus and fought to stay within the word count.  Our respect, friendship and appreciation for the people at Firestone Walker grew over the course of our investigation.

The story’s up now on the Beer Advocate website, and we hope you enjoy all of it.

“The problem was that it was getting harder and harder for Crooks to keep the burgeoning project secret. “It was like, this is Jim’s deal, and it was like, don’t tell Adam,” Firestone sighs, recalling his brewers’ increasingly ridiculous attempts to keep him in the dark. “‘Guys, I can see the barrels! They’re dribbling all over the floor. They smell like hell!’”

Alas, some of the weirdly wonderful or disputed details ended up on the cutting room floor as we trimmed the story down to article length. Thanks to Tom Griffin, who told about bringing the first second-hand bourbon barrels out to California, thus getting Matt Brynildson into the incredibly delicious Anniversary beer tradition that recently resulted in another must-not-miss example.  We hope to tell those tales another time.  Mike Hoffman told us how he lost the SLO production brewery, with many details that were eye-opening and fascinating but would have taken us far outside the original focus of the story.  Thanks to Ryan Sweeney from LA’s Surly Goat and related beer bars who told us about arriving at the Paso Robles pub one day and having a draft beer from that sour program that did not exist. There it was, on tap! We dropped another thread of the story that had to do with the unforeseen demand for 805, the popular mainstream blonde ale.   The rise of the Barrelworks program was mentioned as a soul-saving counterbalance to the monotony of producing so much 805. We kept scrapping quotes packed with astonishing insights in order to get the bones of the story in.

And we are excited for the next chapters and new beers coming from Firestone Walker. We’ll be bugging them about the progress of the Belgian sour project mentioned in the beginning of the article, and following their beers.

Jim-and-Foudres
Jim Crooks and one of his talented wooden foudres in the wood cellar at Barrelworks

So please check out our Feral Ones story in BeerAdvocate magazine.  And, as our editor Ben Keene reminds us, if you subscribe to BeerAdvocate, not only do you support beer journalism, but next time we write something there you will see it all gloriously laid out in a real glossy magazine you can touch, (perhaps with something akin to this issue’s historic Area 51 brewing images from Jeffers), a month before it ever goes up online.

– Gail and Steve

[photos by Steve Shapiro and/or Gail Ann Williams]



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