Behind the Firestone Walker Invitational

A big party designed for those who make great beer.

Brewers from 65 breweries from around the world were joined by teams from 27 select local restaurants at the Paso Robles Event Center to serve their best at the ninth annual Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival on the first weekend of June. This year’s fest flew under the radar for many beer lovers as there was no public ticket sales announcement last winter. Everyone who purchased tickets for the postponed 2020 event had been automatically granted access to the 2022 edition. 

When the gates opened, some attendees rushed to line up for Garage Project from New Zealand, Russian River Brewing, Side Project and other fan favorites. When they determined that the strongest brew of the festival, produced via the classic Eisbock method, was from Cervecería Antares of Argentina, fans formed an extra-long line there as well. (Meanwhile, a small parade of American brewers and some others stopped by to admire an Antares Catharina Sour and a Session IPA).

[ You know you’re at an International festival when you can try an Argentinian take on a Brazilian sour style ]

In fact, if you looked for them, you saw plenty of elegant beers under 6% ABV, and even some under 4%. Revolution Brewing, out of Chicago, brought “Where Eagles Rare: Barrel-aged English Mild,” which somehow kept the low ABV and the English Mild aroma but provided an exotic spirit barrel finish. Monkish, known as a Southern California haze mecca, was pouring Small Earth, a mixed culture table beer full of flavor but low in alcohol, alongside LXVE, a brilliantly clear six-month aged pale ale with Brett, which tasted like a devoted California homage to a specific monk-brewed beer. (Of course, there was much more crowd excitement over some intensely flavored imperial stouts that many Monkish fans were looking for).

[ Henry Nguyen of Monkish brought two Belgian-inspired beers, evoking the early days of his brewery ]

Many crispy craft lagers were poured: Urban Roots brought along five of them. Chuckanut Brewing out of Washington State, long known for German-style beers, brought what they do best, including a Kolsch that elicited the admiration of a younger generation of brewers.

[ FWBC’s Matt Brynildson and Chuckanut’s founder Will Kemper geek out on lager production ]

Brauerei Schönram came all the way from Germany with a classic selection including a Dunkel that triggered happy memories for anyone who’d ever traveled there. And of course, fancy hop varieties were everywhere, in every strength and permutation of IPA and IPA-adjacent style. 

[ Justin Crossley of The Brewing Network anchors a panel of three brewers, J.C. Hill (Alvarado Street Brewing), Neil Fisher (WeldWerks Brewing), Kevin Smith (Bale Breaker Brewing), and Blaze Ruud, from Yakima Chief Hops, talking about Cryo Hops, haze, thiol-promoting yeasts and more secrets of tropical IPA flavors ]

A mini-vacation for elite brewers

The Invitational stands out from most American festivals. Brewers come from near and far – sometimes very far. There were exciting craft beers from Belgium, Brazil, England, Holland and more poured alongside American counterparts. Each brewery was personally invited by Firestone Walker partner and brewmaster Matt Brynildson. He requires that an owner and/or brewer from each brewery come to staff their booth so they can personally interact with beer drinkers.

In order to entice these invitees, brewers are treated to rooms or campsites, free meals, an afternoon of beer and play at a local water park, winery tours and, in some cases, subsidized air travel. They also get an insider’s technical tour of the rather amazing production facilities at Firestone Walker.

[ Brewers can meet people from around the world or catch up with brewing neighbors: Faction’s Rodger Davis, Wynn Whisenhunt from Wondrous Brewing and Cellarmaker’s Kelly Caveney and Tim Sciascia]

Most attractive, they get to meet and hang out with fellow rockstar brewers. Some visitors arrange to do collaboration brews with nearby brewers while in California. In some years Cellarmaker Brewing, for example, has focused on brewing collab beers with select brewers who flew into SFO. This, too, is part of the educational impact of the festival as well as its social payoff.

[ Proud to pour at Firestone Walker and willing to bring a banner about it: Britain’s Thornbridge Brewery ]

The Invitational grew out of a relationship Brynildson and Firestone co-owner and co-founder David Walker have with local civic activist Tom Madden, a prominent local business attorney who is involved in many organizations. He approached Brynildson some years ago to suggest a destination beer fest, to complement the many fine wine events in the area. 

Madden encouraged Brynildson to create the best experience for both brewers and attendees. That led to the unusual red carpet treatment for brewers. Plus, even though profits go to support the local Pioneer Days Museum and parade, brewers are not asked to donate their finest beers. The festival pays for all the beers as well as the costs necessary to assure that they arrive in the best shape possible. (Now and then the complex shipping arrangements fail. This year Omnipollo, from Sweden, hung a sad sign at their booth explaining that kegs of their beers were stuck in Customs.)

The revenue from ticket sales covers most of the costs of the festival, including the “backstage” experience for brewers who attend, Madden told us. And Firestone Walker Brewing Co. fronts the beer purchases and takes on assorted preparation and staffing costs, as Brynildson explained. Profits to support the local museum and their extraordinary antique tractor collection come from a group of generous event sponsors.

[ Tom Madden and Matt Brynildson make the event as good for brewers as for ticket holders ]

Madden said that he had first thought a wine and food festival would be perfect on the rodeo and fairgrounds site but nobody on the local winery scene showed any interest. He then realized the venue would be even better for a craft beer event. A decade later, he told us, wineries are finally taking an interest in replicating the festival. Fancy that. 

Explore Beer By BART: Use our acclaimed destination list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places and their related transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.


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