After nearly three years without a festival, the beer enthusiasts and brewers attending the Firestone Walker Invitational were ready to get back in action. Case in point: the small but committed line of people outside the Paso Robles Event Center last Saturday at 8am. While they patiently waited for the noon event, I was going to grab a quick morning coffee – making me feel like a real slacker, in the process.
The group was excited with good reason. All attendees bought their tickets over two years ago to the canceled 2020 festival, which was postponed again in 2021. Admission, which is about $100, includes five all-inclusive hours of eating and drinking from some of the world’s best breweries, including Garage Project (New Zealand), Trillium Brewing (Boston), and Socal locals Monkish Brewing (Torrance).
Because of a deeply ingrained allergy to lines, I got there just after the gates opened. The enthusiasm had only grown since the morning. The line wrapped down Riverside Ave., spanning the length of the festival grounds.
In line, there was palpable anticipation, which became downright rapturous excitement as Firestone Walker’s Matt Brynildson and Green Cheek Beer Co.’s Evan Price came down the line with pitchers of beer. The two head brewers were pouring Parrotphrase, a grisette that they were uniquely qualified to serve, having collaborated on it together for the official fest beer. Parrotphrase, by the way, was worthy of the excitement – it drank super light on the hot morning, tropically hoppy and very sessionable.
Light and drinkable really was a theme for the day. Whereas in past years, hazy IPAs and pastry stouts have dominated the event, this year, subtlety ruled. Nearly every brewery had a version of a crispy beer, from classics like Russian River’s STS Pils (Santa Rosa), to new-school favorites like lager specialists Chuckanut (Washington), making their first appearance at the fest. It’s no hot take to say this is a harbinger for the future of craft beer as a whole devoting even more love to the crispy beer.
Inside the dusty, sprawling fairgrounds, 60 breweries and more than 30 local Central Coast food vendors were peppered across the field, with long lines at many of the usual suspects .Garage Project, Side Project (St. Louis) and Other Half Brewing (NY), in particular, drew serious attention.
Many of the other most highly sought-after beers were from well-known Southern California favorites. Under one big tent there was commotion around two festival neighbors. Beachwood Brewing (Long Beach) pulled out all the stops with seven beers, including four Blendery barrel sours. Next door, Green Cheek (Orange), surprised the crowd with an announced pouring of Cocohut Pineapple Plus, their piña colada-adjacent milkshake beer that was perfect for the dry, hot day.
Local stunners Highland Park Brewery (Chinatown) drew plenty of well-deserved love – even in a crowded field of excellent crispy beers, their Timbo Pils stood out as perhaps the best. Monkish, of course, drew lines reminiscent of the can release days at their original Torrance location, and personally blew my mind with their impeccable barrel-aged stout Little Twin Stars.
The Bruery (Placentia) also had incredible demand for their four timed Black Tuesday openings throughout the day, and Oceanside locals Bagby Beer’s No Hype Helles-style lager was a surprise hit.
Four other Southern California spots were among the 60 total breweries in attendance, Pizza Port (San Diego), The Lost Abbey (San Marcos), Topa Topa (Ventura), and Firestone Walker’s Propagator (Venice).
David Walker, co-founder of the host brewery, spent much of the afternoon at Firestone Walker’s center booth, pouring beautiful vintages of his barrel-aged beers, and ultimately busting out and uncorking multiple Jeroboams – three-liter bottles named for the biblical king – of Barrelworks sours. Bottle after bottle opened with a satisfying THUNK, before the hordes descended, holding out their glasses for a pour.
A true who’s who of the rest of California had a lot of buzz. This included Kern River Brewing Co. (Kernville), who debuted a shockingly easy-drinking double IPA, a near-perfect version of the rarely released Citra made with Nectaron hops. There Does Not Exist (SLO) drew masses – and a very busy taproom the night beforehand, being a short drive away from host Firestone Walker. Urban Roots (Sacramento), Alvarado Street (Salinas), and Sante Adairius (Capitola) all drew big crowds, and Humble Sea (Santa Cruz) was pouring their Keller Penelope pils from a traditional side-pull.
At what is an admittedly very hazy end of the day for me – five hours and perhaps 50 different tastes of beers will do that – the People’s Choice winner was crowned. Garage Project took home the honor, stealing the show with some truly impeccable sours. The Wellington, New Zealand, natives were the furthest travelers for the day, and won the award for the second consecutive festival.
On February 11th, 2020, the Firestone Walker Invitational sold out its 2,500 tickets in ten minutes. Those people scrambling for tickets had no idea that the fest wouldn’t happen for another 28 months. It’s difficult to set aside the pain the country has gone through since then. But even doing that, the brewing industry faced its own challenges in between: maintaining the health and safety of its workers; closures; shifting local regulations; and a long-overdue industry racial and sexual discrimination reckoning that is still ongoing.
It can be easy to forget, when you’re grabbing a shelfie from Trader Joe’s, or ordering your fourth beer at your local dive, everyone who has a hand in beer making. The hours that went into brewer’s calculations. The assistant brewer negotiating hundreds of pounds of spent grain. The brewery manager, trying to create a safe space for their team.
One especially unique thing about this prestigious festival is that the people who spent hours of sweat and stress making the beer are the ones filling your glass. And after all of the turmoil of the past few years, there was nothing more exciting than seeing 60 breweries put their incredible brewers and beers forward, and letting them take center stage for a day.