Sam Fitz is a Certified Cicerone® and the Beer Director at Meridian Pint and Smoke & Barrel. Read Sam’s take on Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier here.
California is one great place to take a beer trip. Northern California, one of the epicenters from which microbrews emerged in the early 70’s, was arguably the hotbed for the beginning of American craft beer. Sierra Nevada and the revived Anchor Brewery paved the way for American entrepreneurs to jump headfirst into a new world of quality brew. Today many of the world’s finest breweries are located in and around the Bay Area, and the beer culture there is largely unmatched across the globe.
Southern California, a later entrant into the craft beer scene, has come a long way in the past two decades and has started to rival its northern neighbor. The Stone Brewing Company was founded in 1996 and, in a remarkably short time, helped spawn a craft revolution in So Cal. They not only made great beer, but they also established a distributorship to sell the goods of their fellow microbrewers and spread the craft gospel. Now, it would take weeks, maybe months, to tour all of the fine breweries in the south of California.
Incorporating both of these beer destinations into one trip is a daunting task, but at least you can hurry up the 101, skipping the largely open and beer-barren landscape between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Wrong! Sitting on the side of the 101 in Paso Robles, looking like a giant barn in the middle of farmland, is a true gem: the Firestone Walker Brewing Company.
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Founded in 1996 by the son of a vintner (Firestone Vineyards) and his English brother-in-law, Firestone started with re-purposed wine equipment, an alarmingly deficient knowledge of and experience in brewing, and an absolute passion for great beer. Inspired by the original beers of Burton-Upon-Trent, the English city that championed a new “pale ale” in the mid 1800s, Firestone is the only American brewery that uses the “Union System”.
Firestone’s Union System utilizes 60-gallon heavy or medium toast American oak barrels that are linked in a chain. Certain beers are pulled from the primary fermenter at the height of activity and transferred into The Union to continue fermenting. There, the wood environment “improves the fullness of the palate, enhances hop maturity and lends a clean briskness to the finish” (Firestone website) and, as well, imparts a pleasant vanilla character. Not all of Firestone’s beers travel through The Union, but those that do, like the Double Barrel Ale and the Pale 31, are remarkable examples of Old World brews reincarnated in modern times. The brewery’s slogan, “Passion for the Pale,” pays tribute to Firestone’s intense attention to every detail of the brewing process.
In 2001 Firestone moved to their current facility and greatly increased production. No longer able to put their entire production through their Union, Firestone began to experiment with truly American beers, fermented completely in steel and relying on bold ingredients for superior flavor. The quality of these beers, coupled with the English-style beers produced by the Union System, are a testament to the range and skill of Firestone’s brewers.
Double Jack, the first Imperial IPA brewed at Firestone, is a 9.5% delight. Hops abound in this beer. Warrior and Columbus are added at the beginning of the boil to impart an intense, lingering bitterness not for the feint of heart. Cascade and Centennial, classic American aromatic hops, are added at the end of the boil for a citrusy juiciness reminiscent of your first taste of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Afterwards, more Cascade and Centennial are thrown in as dry additions to extract their aromatics, along with Simcoe and Amarillo, two of the heaviest hitters in the hop world. Simcoe gives the Double Jack a resiny pineyness that can’t be missed, and the Amarillo is notably complex, suggesting thoughts of cat pee, perhaps, or something more pleasant.
The first whiff of this beer reveals only some of what it has to offer. It seems to change with each smell. Once you detect a certain aromatic, you can start to hone in on it and identify that particular smell with each experience. After some time, the chaos that was the nose of this beer evolves into a complex web of smells, identifiable on their own but fascinating in harmony with one another. The hops almost seem to balance themselves, if that is possible, but there is also a surprisingly prevalent malt sweetness in the nose that goes a long way towards creating the perception of balance.
Sipping lends a nice surprise. Double Jack starts out sweet, not intense but very pleasant, defying the intense connotations your nose and brain created. The malt character is very enjoyable, straightforward, and gives way about halfway through to a floral, citrusy bitterness that is more focused than the hop aroma, less complex, but delightful nonetheless. The beauty of this beer is the complexity of its nose, but the true balance achieved in the taste is impressive for the style. Light in color, high in alcohol, diverse in flavor, Double Jack pleases on many fronts and should not be passed up. Fortunately, it is available year-round in DC on draft and in 22-oz bottles.