The Firestone Walker Invitational

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This weekend down in Paso Robles a new beer festival debuted. The Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest took place at the Mid-State Fairgrounds. I drove down Friday with Sean Paxton, the Homebrew Chef, who was scheduled to make cotton candy with sugar infused with Centennial hops. The festival was simply one of the best organized, best run, most enjoyable beer festivals I’ve been to in a long time, which was especially impressive given that it was a first time event. Here’s how Firestone Walker’s brewmaster Matt Brynildson described what he was going for with the FWIBF:

The Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest was born from a dream of creating a world class festival featuring not only the best brewers in the world, but brewers whom we feel are leaders in the craft beer revolution. These are folks of like mind and spirit, some new friends some of many years, who share our same passion for making craft beer and sharing it with the world. This is a day where we can all put down our sales and marketing pitches and simply commune and share our beers and stories with people who are truly interested in craft beer. The ground rules are simple. Bring a session beer and a special beer accompanied by the artisan who created it. Brewers, their beers, good music and folks who care.

In order to insure everyone could have a good time, many aspects of the festival were limited. There were only 40 breweries pouring their beer, 21 restaurants making their food and a limited number of tickets sold. I never heard the final head count, though throughout the day I heard estimates that ranged from 2,500 to around 3,200 but whatever the finally tally it never felt overly crowded and there was plenty of room in the Frontier Town area of the fairgrounds to stretch your legs and move about.

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Interviewed by the Brewing Network during the event, Brynildson added that he simply put together a wish list of breweries he would like to have at his event — several that didn’t even distribute in California — and was overwhelmed by how many quickly accepted his invitation. But that was awesome for anyone attending, as the likes of Bell’s, Boulevard, Revolution, Southern Tier, Three Floyds and others were there pouring beer.

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The night before the festival, Firestone Walker Brewing hosted an event for the brewers and media at their new taproom adjacent to the brewery.

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Mikkel and I trying to mimic the fighting lion and bear in Firestone Walker’s logo Friday evening. I guess I’m the lion.

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The festival opened Saturday at 1:00 p.m. At least an hour before, all of the ticket holders were checked in, had their wristbands on, glasses in hand and a program to study while they waited. When the gate opened promptly at one, everybody could just walk in and begin sampling their first beer. It was the first of many well-executed and well-planned aspects of the festival. Others included water stations throughout the festival grounds, ample ice, plenty of shade, abundant nibbles, and more substantial food available for purchase.

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There were two excellent bands — and perhaps best of all — the music was segregated from most of the beer and food booths, in a separate arena right next to them so that you could hear the music no matter where you were, but it was never so loud that you couldn’t carry on a conversation. If you wanted to dance or just listen to the music, all you had to do was wander inside the music area where there was stadium seating and a stage.

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Also, with a 2 to 1 ratio of breweries to food vendors, there was something to nibble on every other booth, such as this amazing dish by Chef Dallas of the Tenth Street Basque Cafe (author of Never Cook Bacon Naked).

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It was also great seeing Noah Regney, who used to brew for Pizza Port, but recently moved to Hollister Brewing, along with his fiance Sarah Huska, who used to live in Chicago where she worked with Ray Daniels on the Cicerone program. They seemed so happy, I always love seeing people in that state of bliss.

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Bay far, Masafumi Morita, from Yo-Ho Brewing in Japan, travelled the farthest.

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It was a gorgeous day on the central coast, perfect weather for a festival.

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Pat McIlhenney, from Alpine Beer Co., with Tomme Arthur, from the Lost Abbey.

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An unknown friend of Claudia and Rodger Davis, from Faction Brewing, along with Fraggle from beer Revolution.

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Patrick Rue, from the Bruery, with some Black Tuesday. Another great feature of this fest was that each brewery brought something rare, along with a session beer.

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Me, with Megan Flynn, from Beer West, our friend Marieke Gerritsen, and another friend.

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Lincoln Anderson, from Three Floyds, who brought along Dark Lord, accepts the “People’s Choice” award, voted on by the crowd attending the fest.

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Matt Brynildson toward the end of the day, enjoying the festival he conceived. The entire gang from Firestone Walker did an incredible job pulling off this festival and are to be congratulated. If you missed it this year, be sure to try and come next year. There’s no way this isn’t just going to get beter and better.

Comments

  1. Ben says

    Agreed, for the most part.

    Where I disagree – The staging they did of the early entrants. All those folks that got there hours early (not me) ended up doing so for naught, as the festival goers ended up in a crowd as opposed to a line. The initial rush was a little crazy, and I could easily have seen that turning into a weird/potentially dangerous situation.

    And by the way, where that crowd ended up waiting for an hour and a half: In direct sunlight, on a 90+ degree day, with no water (our water had been taken away during the check-in process). Not very smart on the organizers part. Thankfully there was a small awning on the side, but not many people could fit under there.

    The beer picks were mostly awesome (3F, Alpine, Bruery), with a few disappointments. Founders was especially baffling, they didn’t really bring any of their great stuff. Not sure why a few breweries were there (Moylans, Trumer) as opposed to some much more interesting (and interested, but denied) local breweries.

    The food was surprisingly good, I didn’t have high expectations but filled up fast. The BBQ, sopas, and the meatballs (from the Irish Pub??) were especially good.

    The music started out well with a great little 3 piece bluegrass-y band, but quickly devolved into a middle-aged cover band and something… else.

    Again, overall – Very good first showing. Hopefully they learn a few things from it and come back and kick ass next year. As a recent transplant from Seattle, I can easily say this could rival the festivals they have up there (though not from a cost perspective….).

  2. Paddy Boy says

    I was lucky enough to attend last weekend, and I have to say – this was a fantastic beer fest [major kudos to FW]. Beers were @#!! awesome (Dark Lord, Black Tuesday, etc), food was great, water was everywhere, not overcrowded, etc.

    Ben makes a good point about waiting in the sun to enter, but to tell the truth, I had forgotten about that until I read his post.

    I wish they were doing it again this weekend! I would drive up from Orange County all over again.

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