Recently, I heard a German friend of mine who knows his beer and grew up tasting the best of Europe say unequivocally that, today, the best beer in the world is made right here in the U.S.A. The reason is simple: European brewers are hamstrung by “purity laws” that are designed to honor the past and protect tradition, but also end up putting the brakes on innovation.
Meanwhile, unrestrained in their investigation, experimentation and innovation, brewers from Main Street to Manhattan Beach and Seattle to St. Petersburg have generated what is nothing short of a liquid Big Bang, resulting in a rapidly expanding universe of endlessly varied, wildly idiosyncratic, incredibly interesting and gosh-darn good beers.
The brewmasters on this new frontier will try almost anything to move forward, and sometimes that leads them back to the Old World, where it all began.
Take the guys making beer at Firestone Walker Brewery. They turn out an array of excellent, well-received, widely distributed craft beers from the original brewery in San Luis Obispo. Then quality-control manager Jim Crooks began experimenting with Lambic-style “sour” ales, which originated about six hundred years ago near Brussels, Belgium.
The beers were made with wild yeast and aged in retired wine and spirits barrels crammed into corners of the brewery. They were produced in very small batches and shared sparingly, but word inevitably got out and, when it did, craft beer bars all over the West Coast began trying to secure some. The nearly accidental soon became the inexorable. “Sour” Jim needed space for his burgeoning hobby.
It came in the form of Firestone Walker Barrelworks in Buellton, which opened in 2013, with Crooks as brewmaster and Jeffers Richardson, the original brewmaster at Firestone Walker, as director.
The Taproom offers excellent pub faire and a dozen or so Firestone craft beers on tap. But for a touch of the exotic, step into the adjacent room and pull up a stool at the small bar for a beer tasting you won’t soon forget.
The format is simple and unchanging: three-ounce tastes of some of the most diverse, interesting and intriguing small-batch beers you’ll ever taste. About ten of the rotating beers on tap are wild ales in the Lambic style. The rest of the menu is “strong ales.” Everything poured there is only available there.
The “wild ales” are fermented slowly using wild yeast strains, then aged for up to 48 months in oak wine barrels.
Some have a wine-like essence with almost no effervescence. Others are Champagne-like, pink and flavored with raspberries. Among the “strong ales,” don’t miss “Velvet Merkin,” with its robust flavors of coffee and chocolate. As they say at the brewery, the beer with the scandalous name will make you “wig out.”
Firestone Walker Barrelworks is located at 620 McMurray Rd. Buellton, firestonebeer.com/visit/buellton.php.
Originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.