11:35 A.M – Buellton, CA Two and half hours up the coast from Orange County, the bus door snaps open like a UFO in a corn field. I jump out, apply a fresh coat of lip-balm, and crack my bones like I’m in a home run derby. A seagull flies over my head, lands atop a nearby flagpole flapping a British flag, craps, and flies away.
I’m outside Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks, which I understand pours my style of drink: wild, sour and funky beers. After sitting on the road for a couple hours, I could easily drink a beer out of a hobo’s shoe! Stepping inside the warehouse, I’m sucked into a booming craft beer vortex. Nipples slowly erect with the temp, retinas dilate to the dark…I slide my fingers across a barrel and knock on it for good luck. “There’s creatures living in there” I whisper to myself like the creepy little lady in Poltergeist. The lights kick on, revealing an aging beer mothership of deliciousness. I feel like we’re here for a beer séance. Lets join hands!
Audio: Jim Crooks explains some history and philosophy behind Barrelworks
Inside, QC manager/Master Blender Jim Crooks (aka Sour Jim) gives the rundown on Barrelworks. Teamed up with OG brewer Jeff Richardson (originator of the Firestone Walker barrel union) started this “padded room for brewers” to create wild beers away from the production brewery. Micro-organisms like Lactobacillus, Pediococcus and wild yeast can wreak havoc in a brewhouse like an infected cruise ship, hence the need to “infect” these beers well away from home base. At the production brewery, bugs “can be the end all, the be all…We test for these bugs every single day, if any show up anything, be it in the DBA union, the entire union will get cancelled…get thrown out” says Jim. In a controlled environment such as Barrelworks, brewers can go nuts.
Starting with only 28 barrels last year, Brewmaster Matt Brynaldson secured 400+ two-year old Opus One barrels (pictured above with colored stripe) to use at Barrelworks. Using base beers brewed at the production brewery in Paso Robles, fermented beer is racked into barrels and transported to Barrelworks for inoculation and/or aging.
As of early 2013, the barrels are being used for:
- Aggrestic Ale = DBA + Brettanomyces in secondary + Lactobacillus. Takes on a Belgian style Flanders quality.
- Sour Opal = Lil’ Opal + Bugs
- Reginald Brett = Double DBA, Aged in Bourbon + re-racked and inoculated with Brett.
- Brettaweisse = Hefeweizen + Brett (Described in this post)
- Raw Barrel aging with no bugs/brett is also done to see the character a raw barrel will impose on a base beer.
- Collaboration with Mikkeller – Brewed saison, hit with bugs and locally sourced wine grapes. Will be available at the Firestone Walker Invitational beer festival in June.
After a beautiful Taphouse lunch, Jim puts my sour beer protégé Simon Ford and I to work blending a batch of Sour Opal. With samples from three barrels, paperwork and a Ph meter, we get to work making notes of each and what works best. With souring, beers don’t really start to get interesting until the Ph gets less than 3.8, but we opt to use our palates instead of a meter. In the end, our zippy blend makes our palates do the Harlem Shake. “I think I’ve got a winner here” I say to David Walker. He samples it silently and slides the glass back on the table without saying a word. Ah well, we enjoyed it. Must be a British thing.
Using my best guilt tactics, I ask Sour Jim if I can take some bugs home to further my own sour beer program. “Is there any way you can pay it forward like Vinnie Cilurzo did for you?” “(laughing) We used to steal bugs on coasters, let me get you some baggies” says Jim. Simon and I are giddy at the thought of dumping bugs from this roller coaster day into our homebrews.
The fun doesn’t stop there, as the unimaginable happens: Jim sneaks Simon and I deep into the barrelhouse for an impromptu tasting. Pulling a nail out of a few special barrels, Jim shows us the nuances of a few favorites. The same base beers with the exact amount of inoculent in similar barrels can have vastly different character. Each barrel is its own microclimate, its own universe. I have goosebumps. What a day!
Barrelworks in Buellton is not only a place for the brewers to go wild, it’s a place where the craft beer curious can learn more about barrel aged beers. It’s a beer geek’s classroom! Barrelworks has a full Taproom restaurant, gift shop, brewery fresh and cellared beer store, funky tasting room and a climate controlled barrel warehouse. Self guided tours are available. With a beautiful 2.5 hour coastal drive up, this is the perfect weekend getaway!