Kicking Off Festival Season in Paso

Due to a beer schedule conflict, we missed the inaugural Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival last year. Hearing many good reports from the first edition, Merideth and I didn’t want to miss the second installment. Mainly because we would never hear the end of it from Fran.

Glass waiting to be grabbed.

On a very warm early Saturday afternoon, Merideth and I, plus our friend Carlo, climbed out of our comfortable, air-condtioned vehicle at the Paso Robles Event Center. As we walked the length of the long line to find our spot at the back, we stopped and chatted with a few friends along the way. Despite the heat, the crowd was animated and chipper, patiently waiting for the opening bell.

These days, Merideth and I appreciate more and more a well-run, well-organized festival. For us, a hallmark of such a festival is how quickly the eager beer drinkers get to drink beer. About a half-hour before opening, the gates were opened, tickets were checked, programs and glasses were handed out. Once through we were held in a pen waiting for the top of the hour.

Like many people, we perused the program while waiting to be freed. With the heat, Merideth and I knew we were going to drink as much session beer as possible. Flipping the pages, we identified all the sub 5% ABV beers we might want to try.

The line for Dark Lord

A few minutes early, the festival opened. Like Christmas shopping mothers after cabbage patch dolls at Walmart, the crowd surged towards the Three Floyd’s booth at the back of the festival grounds. OK. I exaggerate a bit. It was more of a calm rush with an orderly queue forming. By the time we walked in, it stretched across the festival grounds.

I have to admit, I don’t get the Dark Lord mania (Yes, I have tried it). With so many great beers to drink, waiting in a long line in 100° heat for close to a fifth of the festival for one beer doesn’t make sense to me. There was one positive aspect of the Dark Lord craze for the rest of the festival goers. It kept a large number of people out of circulation. Once it blew, queues appeared for food and breweries that didn’t exist previously.

A lot good beer at
the Firestone Walker Invitational…

While in the pen, we also identified our first beer, Nebraska Brewing’s Apricot au Poivre Saison. Conveniently one of first booths, we quickly each had a pour of what would be my beer of the day. I love beers brewed with black pepper and spiciness of the Saison played very well with the pepper bite.

We spent the next couple of hours doing laps in the expansive festival grounds, coveting shade, misters and the big vineyard fans. Eating and drinking along the way, we would occasionally halt our wanderings to talk with friends. Recommendations for food and beer were usually exchanged and the typical response was “Is there a line?”

Here are some of my favorites beers at the festival:

  • Apricot au Poivre Saison / Nebraska Brewing
  • Zwickelbier / Trumer Brauerei
  • Paradise Road Pilsner /Figueroa Mountain Brewing
  • Saison / Funkwerks
  • Cabrillo Kölsch / Golden Road Brewing
  • Small Talk / Triple Rock Brewery
mmmm….. cupcakes….

The food maybe was the highlight of the day. Included in the price, the fare wasn’t your normal festival deep-fried and sugar-laden food. Local restaurants and caterers provided a cornucopia of wonderful small plates to enjoy while sampling the beers. Highlights included avocado ice cream, pull-porked sandwich, beer-infused gelato, Moroccan chicken lettuce wraps, and a yummy Paella. But the stars were the beer cupcakes, four flavors to choose from. Merideth and I tried all four, several times each I think.

A little past the half way point of the festival, we decided to call it a day. We were enjoying the beers, the food and seeing friends, but the heat was getting to us a bit. Admittedly, I was also tired of rubbing elbows with so many sweaty people. We traded the bustle of festival for the cool and quiet Barrelhouse Brewery tasting room.

We heard a lot of hype about the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival and kudos to Firestone Walker for living up to it.

View all the images from our day in Paso Robles…

Seeking Solace

I definitely don’t live the playboy lifestyle when Merideth is traveling (or even when she’s home for that matter). My usual bachelor routine has me and the pups in bed reading by 7:30pm with lights out coming soon after that.

I’m not sure what inspired me to break this normal routine and drive down to Paso Robles for Firestone Walker’s release party for their new seasonal beer, Solace. Maybe, I was a little jealous that Merideth was in Denver. Maybe, I was a bit bored of my normal routine. Quite possibly, it’s just that I love going to the Firestone Walker tasting room and any excuse will do.

Reached a milestone on the drive to Paso Robles

Whatever the reason, late afternoon on April Fool’s Day, I found myself hurtling down Hwy 101 to Paso Robles. During the boring, almost two hour drive, I fretted that the release party was a very elaborate April Fool’s prank. I kept telling myself that even if it was a joke, I still would enjoy a pint of brewery fresh Union Jack IPA. The only thing that broke up the worrying was the excitement of hitting 200,000 miles on my 2000 Honda CRV. As I said, it’s a boring drive.

Pulling up to the brewery, I was very relieved to see a number of other cars pulling up also. Either a number of people fell for the April Fool’s joke or there really was a beer release party. Parking the car, I wondered what it was going to be like. My only frame of reference for a beer release was Pliny the Younger a few months back. I doubted it was going to be a repeat of Younger.

A nice-sized crowd at the Firestone Walker tasting room for the Solace release.

The tasting room was already crowded when I walked in; the most crowded I have ever seen it. I immediately got the impression that I was the most distant traveler. Everyone else seemed to be local Firestone Walker fans who popped in after work. Or, in the case of the regulars, they had been there all afternoon. All the tables were taken but I managed to grab the last remaining bar seat.  I ordered a pint of Solace.

The Solace was flowing

Solace is described as an unfiltered wheat beer. For some reason, I assumed that Firestone had bottled the Hefeweizen that is regularly served at the tasting room. I was incorrect. Solace is a brand new beer that Brewmaster Matt Brynildson jokingly calls “a Summertime Belgo-Bavarian Zwickle Saison…”

My first pint of Solace

But that’s information I learned after the fact. So, sitting in the tasting room drinking my pint of Solace, all signals to my brain said, “Hefeweizen.” I conveniently ignored that fact that both Solace and Hefeweizen were on the beer list.

Solace poured cloudy. The aroma was banana and cloves. The first taste was trademark Hefeweizen. But then, the brew kicked into its Belgo-Saison phase and the Hefe characteristics that I love so much, disappeared. Soon after, shock set in… I just drank a Firestone Walker beer that I don’t  love!

Needing some solace from this disturbing occurrence, I ordered a pint of my beloved Union Jack. As I sipped my IPA, I contemplated what had just happened. I decided it must have been an April Fool’s prank; a very elaborate April Fool’s prank.

Just in case I still needed more solace when I got home, I purchased a growler of Double Jack.


What is a Beer Geek?

In the 90’s we started referring to ourselves as ‘beer geeks’. Back then, the moniker for us had nothing to do with being able to discern and describe the subtle nuances of beer. Heck, we can’t even do that now. It was more a way to convey the lengths to which we would go for good beer. Living in Oakland, it was commonplace for us to travel to some far off brewpub, such as Anderson Valley, have a few beers and head back home.

Enjoying a White Ale at Telegraph Brewing Company
Enjoying a Golden Wheat Ale at Telegraph Brewing Company

Our Independence Day mini beer tour stirred up in me feelings of nostalgia about our early gonzo travels for beer. We had been wanting to visit Telegraph Brewing in Santa Barbara for quite some time but hadn’t had a chance to fit it into our schedule. Then, a beer release made for an imperative trip.

At the end of June, Firestone Walker released their Double IPA, Double Jack. Offered  in limited quantities, I knew I would have to seek out Double Jack somewhere else because it would most likely not make it to the Monterey Peninsula. A visit to the brewery seemed to be the best bet. Armed with a reason to head south on Hwy 101, we decided to go all the way to Santa Barbara first, then hit Paso Robles on the way home. Voila!… our July 4th beer tour was born.

Stout wowing the beach goers in Santa Barbara
Stout wowing the beach goers in Santa Barbara

Early on July 4th, we loaded Porter and Stout into the car  and were soon zooming south. We welcomed the cool weather on this holiday because we wanted to bring the dogs. Going away in a couple of weeks, quality time with the pups was important. After four hours of driving, we found ourselves on a beach in beautiful sunny Santa Barbara. The dogs were pleased to get out of the car and Stout was soon catching the frisbee while Porter did his normal hound dog thing. But we weren’t in Santa Barbara to go to the beach. So after a quick walk, it was time to try some beer.

Telegraph Brewing
Telegraph Brewing

I’ll admit I am a sucker for breweries that are really casual and laid back. I love the roll up the door, ”c’mon in and have a beer” attitude,  a seemingly simple concept not grasped by all breweries.  Telegraph Brewing gives off that exact vibe.  Arriving a half hour after they opened, we joined a small crowd in the tasting area of their industrial space to try a few beers.

Tasters at Telegraph Brewing
Tasting beer at Telegraph Brewing

There were four beers to try: White Ale, Golden Wheat Ale, California Ale and Stock Porter. We both ordered the $6 taster set which included a sample of all four beers plus a 10 ounce pour of our favorite. Telegraph also sells 10 oz  glass and 16 oz pints, plus growlers, bottles and kegs to go.

The beers were worth the four hour drive. I liked all four with the White Ale and the Stock Porter being the standouts for me. The White Ale, a Belgian-style Wit, was a perfect accompaniment for the sunny Santa Barbara weather. And the Stock Porter, a blend of fresh and barrel aged beer, hit the spot with its chocolaty, roasted flavor and 5.7% ABV. Merideth’s star was the Golden Wheat Ale.

We could have hung out all afternoon, but we needed to head back north. Buying a few bottles for home, we rejoined the dogs and started back up Hwy 101 to find some Double Jack.

Enjoying a Double Jack at Firestone Walker in Paso Robles
Enjoying a Double Jack at Firestone Walker in Paso Robles

A couple hours later we reached our halfway home point, the Firestone Walker tasting room in Paso Robles. And I was drinking a Double Jack.

What a wonderful beer! I am a huge fan of Pliny the Elder but I might like Double Jack a little better. It has a little more malt balance to go with the hop bomb characteristics. My only fault with Double Jack is that it might be a little too easy to drink for a 9.5% beer.

Firestone Walker was a quick visit. Despite our early start, it was already getting late and the dogs were hungry.  Back on Hwy 101, we continued north for the last two hours home.

After almost 12 hours on the road, we were back at home relaxing in front of the TV and enjoying a brewery fresh Union Jack. What a perfect ending to a nice July 4th with the family.

Enjoying a Double Jack at Firestone Walker in Paso Robles
Enjoying a Double Jack at Firestone Walker in Paso Robles

I am a huge fan of Firestone Walker’s Union Jack IPA. So, when I heard they were making a Double IPA version, Double Jack, I had to try it. Recently released and only in limited quantities, I knew I would have to seek out Double Jack as it wouldn’t be coming to the Monterey Peninsula. Visiting the brewery in Paso seemed to be the best bet.

A SLO Saturday

We decided to break from our normal weekend routine and take a little road trip down to San Luis Obispo. Lately, weekends have been about Merideth writing the book and me doing yard work. We needed a little respite.

Our early beer travels mostly involved day trips to nearby cities. We were young and didn’t have money for elaborate trips.  It’s interesting how things come full circle, except we’re not that young anymore.

SLO’s newest beer venture

We left Carmel Valley bright and early on Saturday morning and drove two and a half hours to our first stop, two-month old Creekside Brewing in San Luis Obispo. After Creekside, we planned to head back north, stopping at the string of breweries that were about 10 minutes apart.

Did you know there is a creek that runs through SLO city center? I certainly didn’t. Located a block off of downtown, Creekside Brewing sits right above San Luis Creek in a very pleasant, small-town California setting.

Creekside’s outdoor seating overlooking the creek

There is a cave-like bar downstairs, but on this beautiful Saturday, we sat on their quaint little deck that overlooks the creek and ordered a taster set.

Creekside had five beers available to try; Hefeweizen, Dunkelweizen, Pale Ale, Stout and a ‘Lite’ beer. Unfortunately, they were out of  IPA which, as a hophead, is my benchmark beer.

All the beers, were well done; the Stout had a nice roast to it; the Hefeweizen was very Bavarian. Even the ‘Lite’ had a bit of oomph for the usually dreaded style.

Summer weather really hit California on Saturday and it was nice to relax with a Hefeweizen and watch the world go by… at least for a hour or so.

Central Coast Brewing

A short drive brought us to our second stop in San Luis Obispo, Central Coast Brewing. It began in 1998 as a brew on premise and, like other BOPs, Central Coast altered their business model as the craze waned.

Their new model has them brewing their own beers under the Central Coast Brewing label as well as making private label brews for local restaurants. On Saturdays, you can still brew your own batch of beer.

Today’s offerings at Central Coast

The couches set in front of the bar area make the tasting room cozy. There is a nice outdoor standing area, as well. Presently, CCB can only serve taster-sized beers. However, in the future they hope to serve full pints. In the time that we were there, a steady stream of customers came through ordering tasters and purchasing bottles to go.

Beers are 5 tasters for $5 from their regular beers, with specialty beer tasters costing $2 each. We had almost nine beers to choose from with the most interesting being a Chai Cream Ale. The second chai-flavored beer we have tried in the last year, I have to say that the Stout we had at Yak & Yeti was a better complimentary style to the chai. As Merideth commented, the light body of the cream ale gave it the flavor of a holiday spiced beer. The Chai Cream Ale will be great to drink in the Fall.

In the end, we weren’t able to spend a lot of time relaxing at Central Coast because our friend JJ called. She was waiting for us at Dunbar Brewing.

Taster set at Dunbar

The newest entry on the Central Coast beer scene is Dunbar Brewing in Santa Margarita, a one road town just north of San Luis Obispo. Located in a small space behind Ancient Peak Winery’s tasting room, Dunbar could be one of the smallest breweries we have ever seen. The kit appeared to be one of those high-end homebrew set ups that I have always dreamed of having (if I ever manage to actually get back into homebrewing). Dunbar Brewing is a one-man operation and Chris was manning the bar as we entered the air-conditioned oasis.

Merideth and JJ

Joining JJ and a bevy of locals at the intimate bar, we ordered our taster set. Chris had five beers available, English Ale (a Bitter), IPA, Scotch Ale, Brown Porter and a Stout. It is always a somewhat dodgy proposition visiting a very new brewery – sometimes things aren’t quite dialed in – but Chris’ beers were quite nice.  The IPA and the Porter were the standouts.

It was great catching up with JJ. Unfortunately, the afternoon was progressing and we had one more stop to make.

Union Jack IPA with it’s 2008 GABF Gold Medal

While we have no plans of moving, if we did, it might be farther south on the Central Coast to be closer to Firestone-Walker. I am a huge fan of their beers and we just don’t get to their tasting room enough.

Besides the regular lineup of beers, there was a Hefeweizen and Lil Opal, a 3.5% session beer made from the second running of their Big Opal Wheat Wine.  Both were very tasty beers. What I really stopped for was a brewery fresh pint of Union Jack, Firestone’s 2008 GABF gold medal winning IPA. Not only did I get a pint, but I was also able to hold Matt’s gold medal.

Our SLO day was over.  A beautiful day, good beer and great people… another satisfying day of beer travel.