We've been fans of Firestone Walker beers for a long time now, from their easy-drinking Double Barrel Ale to their wonderful summer Belgo-Bavarian Zwickle Saison Solace to the lush, chocolaty Parabola. So we're thrilled to welcome Firestone Walker's Brewmaster, Matthew Brynildson, to join us for a pint and some conversation.
Who: Matthew Brynildson
What: Brewmaster and Partner, Firestone Walker Brewery
Where: Paso Robles, California
How did you learn to brew? When did you know you wanted to brew professionally?
I started homebrewing while I was an undergraduate at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo MI. I spent some time in Europe as part of the coursework and was really turned on to better beer and classic brewing styles through my travels. Back home, the local craft brewer was Larry Bell of the Bell's Brewery, who also ran the home brew shop in town. Larry started his brewery in 1985 and has always been well ahead of his time. I learned a lot from drinking Larry's beers and hanging around the brewery. I was studying chemistry in school and I had the opportunity to work at KALSEC (Kalamazoo Spice Extract Company). I was fortuitously placed in their hops division doing work with hop extracts and exploring hop chemistry. I found myself working in the brewing industry in a highly specialized lab, homebrewing in my off time and drinking Larry's beer in the early stages of the craft beer revolution. The forces were unstoppable.
We were very close to Chicago and so I was able to spend some time at the Siebel Instituteand thus gain some formal brewing education. Shortly there after I took a position with Goose Island Brewing in Chicago, working for John and Greg Hall. It was a time of intense learning and experimentation. Siebel and all their great instructors where right there to answer our questions. It was a real epicenter of learning, and brewers from all around the country were spending time in Chicago to attend Siebel at the time. It was an amazing time to get into the business and an amazing place in the country to learn how to brew. I later moved out to the west coast thinking at the time that I was moving to the big leagues of craft brewing, but I often think back and realize that there was some very awesome things already happening in the Chicago brew scene in the late 1990s.
What is your day-to-day life like at the brewery?
No two days are ever the same. My position requires that I interface with all of our brewery's departments from the brewhouse all the way to the warehouse. Some days are all about troubleshooting while other days are about creating new flavors. I often talk about being a brewmaster as something closely akin to being a professional sports team coach. You need to bring a talented group of people together who are passionate about making beer and direct traffic within that team and the production facility. There is a lot of listening and communication. I might formulate the recipe that we are following, but the team executes the brew and makes the magic happen. There is a lot of moving parts and people in the brewing process and I get a lot of satisfaction out of watching and fine-tuning that process.
What's the most exciting part about brewing at Firestone?
There are a lot of exciting things about our organization: brewing our beers in oak barrels, the amazing raw materials that we have to work with, and our amazing brewing team to name a few. I guess the thing I get most excited about is that we purposefully try to keep the hype down and the quality up. We make all of our decisions internally, based on quality. This doesn't create a lot of growth and excitement at first, but it makes great beer. After years of brewing beer for the Central Coast we are starting to be recognized as a quality regional craft brewery. We are gaining the respect of beer lovers in Oregon, Washington, Arizona and more recently in my home town of Chicago! It's not about hype, but about the beer, and that is pretty exciting.
How would you describe the Firestone brewing style? Would you say your focus has broadened over recent years?
We have for years followed the motto that we brew very few beers very well. Our program has always centered on balance and drinkability—it is a defining part of our DNA as a brewery. The brewery has followed a very classical approach of not having a huge portfolio and really concentration on a core few beers, which for us has been Pale Ales. We always experimented with other styles, but they were never a part of our greater distribution program. More recently we have taken the governor off a little and brought out the Proprietor's Reserve series of beers.
What are your favorite brewing ingredients?
I could write a dissertation on this subject. I started as a hop chemist and I will always be a hophead. Hops are what separate real beer from every other beverage and food in the world. There is an incredible world of flavors and aromas that hops can provide and the longer I brew the more humbled I have become relative to this amazing ingredient's potential and what I think I understand about it. Like most things, more is not always better. The best brewers learn how to use the hop to create depth, illusion, euphoria and love. I like barrels too, but that's another subject.
What are the biggest challenges in the job? Have you had any brewhouse disasters or disappointments? Or experiments that really paid off?
I could write a book about the mishaps that occur in a brewery on a regular basis and another about all of the mistakes that turned into winning beers. We manage to learn every lesson the hard way, but I think that brewing has the same challenges as any profession. People are the most unpredictable ingredient in the equation, without a doubt. Beyond that, mother nature is in control and the farmer is the conduit through which we receive our raw materials. The closer the brewer is to the farmer, the better we are able to deal with the inconsistencies that are innate in a natural product. Water, malt, hops and yeast—each have variability. The biggest challenge is dealing with the unexpected and still producing a consistent product.
How do you come up with new recipes for Firestone beers?
We are constantly brainstorming about might fit into the Firestone Walker lineup, but as I said before, it is rare if we are able to bring a new product to trade. When we release something, we want it to be perfect. We are fanatical about it. When I travel I am constantly on the lookout for new ideas and new flavor hooks. We don't have a true pilot brewery or test facility, so once we make a commitment to trying something out, we simply go for it on the 50bbl system. Our barrel program has allowed us to brew a lot of experimental beers and then lay them down in oak in hopes that they will make the cut in our anniversary program. Once they graduate from that program, there is a chance that they will see the light of day on their own. Parabola is a good example of that. We brewed that beer for 5 years in the blending program before we released it in its own package. We were able to get a lot of practice in before the big day.
What new brews can we look forward to in the coming months? Can you tell us a bit about the brewing process for Abacus?
Abacus is the next release. It a beer from our barrel aging program that is more than 5 years in the making. We are trying to create something with this release that bridges the gaps between wine, spirits and beer. I think about tasting a lost barelywine aged in an old port wine barrel or spirits barrel in some forgotten cave and it conjures up all sorts of wonderful flavors in my mind. I like barrel aged beers that don't have the classic sherry, overripe dry fruit oxidation notes. I like relatively lean beers that express assertive barrel characteristics and I think Abacus showcases this. Our brewery is in the middle of wine country and we have learned a lot from our neighbors. Wine makers have a wealth of information that brewers can draw from and apply to beer. I think Abacus is one of those beers that really demonstrates what we have learned about barrels over the years.
What beers have been inspirational to you over the years?
Timothy Taylor Landlord Bitter and Marston's Pedigree on cask, Herren Pils, Duvel, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Bell's Expedition Stout, Porter, and Two Hearted Ale, Goose Island IPA and Bourbon County Stout, Birrificio Italiano Tipo-pils, and anything Vinnie makes...I could go on and on.
Firestone beers are remarkably food friendly; do you have a favorite food and beer pairing?
We are always playing with new pairings. Jamie Smith recently discovered that both cayenne and habanero-infused citrus chocolate with Union Jack IPA is amazing, and it's even better with Double Jack DIPA. I feel the same about Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog and a light wheat beer like our Solace or our Hefeweizen. It's a homerun every time.
Sean Paxton has created a signature dish with us that has some great flavor hooks: Union Barrel Smoked Sea Scallops served on a Roasted Fennel-Celery Root Purée with a DBA Demi-Glaze served with 100% Unfiltered Double Barrel Ale. We serve DBA straight from the oak barrel in our tasting rooms, which really showcases what oak can do to the flavor profile of a beer. Sean breaks down a used union barrel that has been used to ferment DBA and smokes scallops with the wood. He then incorporates DBA in the sauce. It is absolutely perfect.