Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival, still awesome

I’m standing next to the Three Floyd’s tent sipping on my second pour of Zombie Dust pale ale when I hear the shouts crescendo—three, two, one!. The countdown comes to an end, and then thousands at this year’s Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival blitz through the main gates. They’re careful not to full-on sprint to their favorite brewer, however. It’s more of a run-walk. This is probably because, in years past at various beer festivals, videos of grown men hauling ass to guzzle down prized brew has discouraged running. Perhaps it should be hashtagged: #beerrunshaming? Nevertheless, the run-walk remains hilarious.

The crowd before entrance at noon. Firestone does a great job of checking IDs, passing out glassware so that everyone can enter right when the fest begins. (Sounds smart, but NOT ALL FESTIVALS DO THIS).

Anyway, if you’re into the still-exploding craft-beer scene but haven’t pilgrimaged to Firestone Invitational, I think it’s same to say that the event is one of the premier beer gatherings on the planet. This past Saturday, more than four dozen of the world’s baddest brewers—from California’s The Bruery to Missouri’s Side Project Brewing, Cigar City in Florida and Jester King in Texas—converged on Paso Robles, a click over 260 miles southeast of Sacramento, for a five-hour crush of 3-ounce pours and grub from nearly two-dozen regional restaurants. Bands jam (local boy Jackie Greene headlined) and friendships are forged in malt, hops and yeast (the hotel afterparties are legendary). This fourth incarnation of Firestone sold out in minutes. Maybe even less than a minute; I received a media pass, thankfully.

I’ve been to festivals from Alaska to France, and Firestone really does it right. Their super-hospitable to the visiting brewers—even setting up a campground for those who want to pitch a tent or bring an RV—and it’s truly a welcoming experience for all.

But let’s talk about the brew!

I enter the festival grounds an hour early, along with the VIP and industry crowd, and the first tent I see is Three Floyd’s, which also will be the days longest line (and winner of the festival’s audience award). Zombie Dust, the flagship pale ale from FFF, is my first pour and tastes wildly fresh, with a hop character that pops like fireworks. Never tasted it this alive. 

Three Floyds also poured six super-rare, barrel-aged variants of its Dark Lord stout—but I don’t do Disneyland or 500-person beer lines and did not sample any of those.

There is some complaining on the FWIBF thread on Beer Advocate about line-cutting and shoving during the pouring of bourbon-barrel aged vanilla Dark Lord; I personally did not witness any cutting or shenanigans, and am hoping it wasn’t an issue for the 3,000 attendees.

Vinnie Cilurzo (above) is the head brewer at Russian River, and he was pouring the latest and unreleased batch of Beatification (below), a lambic style beer that is spontaneously fermented (which means no yeast pitch). This brew is bright with lemon character and should be remarkable when bottles drop (he says end of summer). It’s still a little green, perhaps a bit rope-y. Cilurzo was also part of a four-brewer panel discussing sour beer during the event.

Kern River Brewing Co. is east of Bakersfield and only releases Citra (below), its double-IPA, twice a year—and you have to win a lottery to purchase bottles! But fresh pours abound this afternoon, and it’s dry, pine-y finish sealed the hype deal.

Michigan-based Founders toted in kegs of Canadian Breakfast Stout (below), a super-impossible-to-acquire coffee-chocolate imperial aged in bourbon barrels that previously held maple syrup. Not my style—but it’s the beer I’m thinking about days later.

Side Project Brewing, the—uh—side project of Perennial out of Missouri, blew through their bounty perhaps quicker than any other brewer at FWIBF—which is too bad, because Saison du Fermier is something everyone should be crushing.

Brewer John Kimmich (above) of Alchemist in Vermont looks relaxed in a tight-fitting blue T-shirt and khaki shorts. He makes the most popular brew in the world, Heady Topper double IPA, but today is pouring two different beers. He’s also passing out stickers of the letters “DB” with a red cross through them.

“What’s this mean?” I ask.

“It means don’t be a douche bag,” he answers while handing a pour of Petit Mutant, a cherry sour with a uniquely spiced fruit profile.

(Kimmich is the only brewer that I’ve ever seen bring a glass sanitizer to a beer festival, which is just the raddest.)

The foreigners nearly rule the day. Birrificio Italiano’s pilsner is so crushable that I could quit water. Birrificio del Ducato entire lineup is delicate, artful brewing.

Bridge Road head brewer Ben Kraus. Nice dude, great Enigma pilsner.

And Bridge Road Brewers out of Australia poured a pilsner with the new Enigma hop that was unlike any other light-bodied beer.

Firestone’s wild ales, part of its sorta-new Barrelworks program, do sour beer right, in particular the SLOambic sour (see below).

And their Parabola aged with Intelligentsia coffee would be the best thing at Starbucks by far.

When festivals are busy and the lines long, there’s always my go-to: Citra dry-hopped Trumer Pilsner. Head brewer Lars Larson only makes this a few times a year—mostly for his house parties, he says—and it’s straight crushable.

Pours upon pours turn into slurs upon slurs, but thankfully Firestone—ever the host!—served barbecue plates and live music back at the brewer’s campground. The ribs and chicken disappeared with the 89-degree sun. But then, of course, more brew—peach sours, cinnamon and ancho chili ales, port-inspired sippers and an endless flow of Pale 31 into the late evening. Then it’s three, two, one: You’re passed out, asleep.

Until next year …

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