Matt Brynildson Interview On Firestone Walker Moving All Barrel-Aged Beers To 12 OZ Bottles
It would be understatement to say Firestone Walker’s Brewmaster Matt Brynildson knows as much as almost any craft brewer when it comes to barrel aging beer. Actually, since 2004, when the Paso Robles brewery put Bravo Imperial Brown Ale into whiskey barrels, he was there to ensure the aler’s liquor-lined effort—and it goes further back...
His suds skills were honed between 1996 and 2000, when he was brewing it up for Chicago’s Goose Island. It was that golden pre-Anheuser acquisition era when the Chicago crafters trail blazed the aging aspect with liquor-lined barrels—the infamous Bourbon County Brandy Stout, which is the amazing ale that figuratively gave birth to infinitely many wanna-bes—as well as contemporaries like Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. This was also when Brynildson got his feet wet with the whiskey-barrel-aged beers—months and often years per batch! Because of his priceless experience, the world was introduced to Firestone Walker’s Parabola.
Now, Firestone Walker’s making more wake with a change with their barrel-aged beers. In addition to bottling Bravo for the first time ever—a 13-year-old in-house-only ale—Firestone’s blazing another trail: barrel-aged beers available in 12 oz. bottles! That’s right; like the year-round regulars including Union Jack IPA and Double Barrel Ale, Firestone Walker’s Vintage Reserve series will join the ranks of easily available suds elixers. As of 2017, even treasured releases like Parabola and Firestone Walker’s annual Anniversary Ale will be bottled in 12 ounces only—including Stickee Monkey, Velvet Merkin and Helldorado.
But curiosity wasn’t quite quelled. The California-based brewmaster’s thoughts are invaluable in terms of packaging changes, Bravo’s freedom after 13 years of craft-brewery confinement and the future of Firestone Walker’s barrel-aged program.
Out of sheer curiosity, how satisfied were you with the earliest spirit-barrel-aged beers at Firestone Walker? How was the first batch of Bravo, and after everything you’ve learned, is it much different 13 years later?
Matt Brynildson: It really is quite similar, actually. It was designed to be a very different beer than say, Bourbon County Stout was…much drier—much less rich. The thing is, at that time you could have accused us of making mostly “pedestrian” beer styles—low-alcohol beers. Our portfolio wasn’t very aggressive. But then the 10th anniversary was coming up on the horizon, and we got the go-ahead to make something big, gnarly and awesome.
The original Bravo, though, was sort of like a side project to put in a barrel—a single-batch brew that was created to be an element in the overall, anniversary beer. We had a happy circumstance there in the fact that we didn’t have any kind of warehouse to put the barrels in—just our cold room. That really ended up differentiating our process from other breweries, because they were putting the barrels in an ambient-temperature warehouse to kind of flux in temperature with the seasons. As a result, when we took the beer out of the barrel, it had this wonderful, bright, non-oxidized malt character—we realized we were on to something. It exceeded our expectations and convinced us to continue moving forward with our barrel-aging projects.
And Bravo has never gotten a proper release in all that time?
MB: This is the first time ever. It’s weird we have a beer this old that has never seen the light of day on its own. It [has] always been in the program—every single year. It may have been on tap in the taproom at some point, but this will honestly be the first time many people have ever tasted it outside of Anniversary Ale.
Did Sucaba not get brewed at all this year? Or did some get brewed, and it’s just being aged longer?
MB: It wasn’t brewed. It wasn’t that we didn’t like that beer; we honestly just only have enough room to do the six releases in the barrel program per year at our current capacity. If we want anything new to come in, one will have to go out. Last year, it was cutting Double DBA to release Helldorado. Obviously, it’s not an easy choice, but we also want to have a lot of variety on hand every year for our winemakers to choose from, in blending our anniversary beer.
Were you hearing a desire from consumers that they would prefer smaller volumes of your barrel-aged beers?
MB: We did hear that from some people; but just in my own experience as a beer consumer, I know there’s a ton of 22s and 750s waiting in my cellar that I don’t get around to opening, [as] I’m always waiting for the right time when I have people over. I’ve never liked the beer-industry standard of putting the biggest, highest ABV beers into the biggest containers. This just seemed like the best pure way to get as much barrel-aged beer as possible to the widest-possible group of our fans. It’s the same amount of beer but hopefully reaching more people. And honestly, I’ve always thought that with a 14-percent ABV barrel-aged beer, a 12 oz serving is perfect for two people to share.
With the Proprietor’s Reserve series (including Double Jack, Opal, Wookey Jack) being discontinued as well, will there be any remaining Firestone Walker beers in 22 oz bottles in 2017?
MB: I think that by the end of 2017, our plan is to be pretty much out of the 22-oz bottle game. One of the driving reasons is we’re really sensitive to shelf life, and you inherently have more problems with the bomber format than other types of packages—either can or bottle. We don’t want to see any more old bombers on store shelves.
And with the Proprietor’s Reserve series, that is being replaced by the new Leo vs. Ursus series. The first release is an 8.2-percent DIPA called Fortem that will be out soon.
Was there any consideration of using 12-oz cans instead of bottles? Or is that still seen as too risky—in the sense that the can doesn’t convey the “prestige” you need for consumers to know these are special beers?
MB: ...thing is, with Firestone in general, we’ve been pretty conservative in our march toward alternative packages. There was a time when Adam Firestone famously said we’d never put our beers in cans—period. Obviously, things change. It was a big leap of faith for us to get on board with our first canned beers, but the ball is rolling. It won’t happen now, but never say never.
Do you anticipate the move to 12-oz bottles would change the way you design barrel-aged beers in any way? Meaning, does a different volume demand new styles of barrel-aged beer?
MB: I don’t think so at all. My experience has been that there really isn’t a difference when it comes to bottle size in how well the beer ages, so I don’t see us making any changes.
You guys probably expected some criticism—whether from people who love the 22s or from people who have specific issues with the 12 oz bottles. On Facebook and Reddit, there were some interesting comments calling out the practicality of individually boxed 12-oz bottles, calling them wasteful. One guy on Reddit wrote, “I’d rather they ditch the boxes and drop the price.” Thoughts?
MB: I get the concern. We came out with the box early on, and we’ve liked them because it helps identify our program and gives you more space to write your story. They make things much more difficult for production, but we like the box; what can I say?
Are you aware of other breweries making the same type of downsizing on bottle size with their barrel-aged beers?
MB: Some of the people who inspired us to move in that direction were Russian River and Lost Abbey, who moved down from 750 ml bottles to 355 ml, cork-finished bottles. That cork definitely helps the consumer know it’s still a special beer. Boulevard also moved from 750s on their Smokestack Series to custom 12-oz bottles, which I thought was a clever way to differentiate their product line.
Any chance that Firestone could use the same bottle type more in the future?
MB: It’s tricky, because we don’t have that equipment at the brewery in Paso Robles. We’ve done it at our Barrelworks location; that’s really been our go-to bottle at Barrelworks. It’s certainly a possibility in the future, although it would be a substantial project to make that switch.