Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 37
Award-winning drink: Two Central Coast breweries shine on the national beer scene
BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
Not every region has its own multiple award-winning brewery, and good luck finding an area that can boast more than one.
Good luck, that is, if you’re not a Central Coast beer drinker. For local brew fans, it’s a great year, because just inland from the Pacific Ocean’s shores, there are two such facilities tucked between the rolling hills of wine country.
Both breweries brought home several medals from the Great American Beer Festival in Denver this October. And both breweries have brought home medals in the past, from the Great American Beer Festival and beyond.
Firestone Walker Brewing Company, with large-scale brewing operations in Paso Robles and fun-size brewing operations in Buellton, celebrated its 17th year by bringing home five medals from the October competition: four for beer and one for best mid-size brewing company of the year.
In just its third year of operation, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company, with a founding location in Buellton and a newly opened experimental brews-house in Santa Barbara, snagged five beer medals in Denver.
To hear the brew masters and owners tell it, beer awards are a within-the-industry kind of thing, more for brewers than consumers. An award equals recognition from like-minded crafters for the quality of the beer and the hard work brewers put into their final product.
While winning awards doesn’t necessarily equate to more beer pouring out of the tap, the growth of Fig Mountain and Firestone sales over the last few years does signify that consumers enjoy the breweries’ respective fleets.
Firestone has experienced an average of 15 to 20 percent growth over the last few years and officials project that growth will hold into the future. Considering the brewery has put money into installing an automated brewing system and inserting several gigantic steel fermenters, and is planning to add on a canning line, the estimated 150,000 barrels of beer the company kicked out the door this year are just a starting point for its future sales chart.
Three years into its lifetime of producing, Fig Mountain will roll out about 10,000 barrels of beer to consumers this year—and that’s just in regional sales.
Local growth mimics the rising trend of the industry, which levels off at 15 percent for 2012, according to statistics on the Brewers Association website. For some perspective: American craft brewers sold about 13,235,917 barrels of beer in 2012. A barrel of beer is 31 gallons of liquid. A keg holds half that.
People like beer. And more and more, they like their beer fresh with a local twist, but any craft beer consumer worth his or her barley also wants the suds to taste good, consistently.
That’s the hard part. How do brewers do it?
It’s all about chemistry, and the Central Coast’s award-winning breweries both have chemists running the taste and quality showcase.
Firestone Walker co-founder David Walker said their brew master Matt Brynildson has a personal relationship with beer. Fig Mountain co-owner Jaime Dietenhofer calls their brew master A.J. Stoll a “mad scientist.” Each attributes much of the success of his brewery to the relationship he has with the beer maestro in charge of just about everything on that side of things: recipes, operations management and design, brewing, and the list trickles on from there.
Keeping beer alive at Firestone
Brynildson likes to compare working at a brewery to being in a rock band—one that has to keep producing good albums while continuing to play the same old successful songs. He considers himself to be not the star of Firestone’s rock band, but the drummer.
“I’m just laying down the beat,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep everything moving.”
The way things are moving for the Firestone crew makes it hard to keep up. The brewery landed in Paso Robles around 2001, after outgrowing its Buellton winery origins. Soon after, the facility that Firestone took over started sprouting fermenters visible from the highway. Now, the buildings that skirt the east side of Highway 101 are packed with tanks, pipes, and production lines—and plans for more additions are in the works.
Incidentally, the move to Paso is also how the brewery picked up Brynildson. The facility was first home to San Luis Obispo Brewing Company, where Brynildson was the brewer in charge, before the company filed for bankruptcy. Walker said the building sat vacant for months before he and his partner Adam Firestone signed the ownership papers.
“It was essentially an orphan at the time,” Walker said.
When the doors closed on SLO Brewing’s Paso operations, beer was left in the tanks. Rather than let the beer go, Brynildson would sneak in and make sure it stayed in good shape.
“He wasn’t being paid … he just sort of felt that the beer was his,” Walker said. “That sort of sums up who he is to me. He has a sort of personal relationship with the beer.”
When Firestone Walker moved into the building, they asked Brynildson to stay, and eventually made him a partner. Firestone’s “Merlin”—that’s his nickname—now heads up a brew team that’s won World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival awards multiple years in a row. And for the second year running, Firestone took home from Denver the blue ribbon for best mid-size brewing company.
Brynildson is quick to give credit for the company’s success where it’s deserved. He said Firestone and Walker aren’t afraid to put money into the right kind of equipment, people, and marketing strategies. Without the atmosphere that Firestone Walker has created for brewers and the rest of the team, Brynildson said the company wouldn’t be where it is.
“Brewing is a team sport, period,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a lone brewer.”
Before he started team building for Firestone, or even came to the Central Coast to work for SLO Brewing, he was a Midwestern boy. He attended Kalamazoo College in Michigan, where he started home brewing with a little help from craft beer pioneer Larry Bell, who opened Bell’s Brewery in 1985.
Brynildson was at a party when he tried the beer that turned him into a craft beer fiend. It was a Bell’s porter. After that taste, he couldn’t get enough craft beer. Soon, he was buying yeast and bags of grain from the brewery and taking it home to brew his own concoctions.
“I was supposed to go into medicine,” Brynildson said with a gigantic smile. “I guess beer kind of derailed me.”
Rather than just brewing for himself, though, he started peddling his brews to fraternities.
“It wasn’t a profitable enterprise,” he admitted. “It just paid to support my home brewing habit.”
Eventually, someone blew the whistle on his racket and he got notice from what’s now the Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol, Firearms, and Explosives to take care of his lack of legal paperwork for selling alcohol.
“I thought I’d better start doing this professionally,” Brynildson said.
At the time, he was working for a spice extraction company, which was also where he’d get the hop extractions for his home brews. The company sent him to the Siebel Brewing Institute in Chicago so he could network with customers. As the institute came to a close, Goose Island Beer Company, which was just starting to ramp up commercial operations, offered him a job. He left spices for beer in 1995.
The beer he’s most proud of having a hand in at Goose Island was the IPA. And as far as concocting goes, he hasn’t stopped. One of Firestone’s newest products, Pivo Pilsner, is less than a year old and already has a Denver gold medal to its name.
Formulating new beers is something Brynildson said comes naturally to him. At Firestone, it’s a group process; everyone has a hand in coming up with the final product.
The next Brynildson-branded brew will be mixed in collaboration with the brewery that helped push him into beer. Bell invited him out to Michigan to help make Bell’s Brewery’s annual anniversary brew, Eccentric Ale.
Brynildson will bring an ingredient that’s indigenous to the Central Coast and something a little crazy to put into the brew. Once completed, the beer will stew for a year, and be imbibed at next year’s Eccentric Ale party.
That kind of collaborative attitude is something that makes the craft beer industry unique. In Brynildson’s mind, it’s also why things in the industry continue to grow.
“As long as that open attitude continues, we’ll all be successful together,” Brynildson said.
Perfecting brewskis at Fig Mountain
The Dietenhofer family interviewed 140 brewers before settling on Stoll to be Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company’s brew-man. It’s a decision they haven’t regretted.
“He’s more than an employee to us, and he’s kind of become a part of the family,” owner Jaime Dietenhofer said. “It’s fun to dream with him.”
Those dreams are being realized faster than originally penciled out. This year, the company will at least double the 4,500 barrels produced during 2012, the second year of its life. In April, the Buellton brewery gained its Santa Barbara sister. And, of course, bringing five medals home in October doesn’t hurt the company’s forward momentum.
“I think the reason for our success is that we’ve planned this for so long,” said Dietenhofer, who’s wanted to start a brewery since 1995.
He dreamed about starting a brewery for more than a decade, and said his relationship with brewmaster Stoll is what’s taken the company to where it stands in such a short time.
“He stresses out all the time, and I love employees who stress out because it means they’re taking care of things I don’t have to worry about,” Dietenhofer said. “I’ll be the idea guy, and he’ll be the guy that brings it to life.”
Stoll has been running in high gear since the second location opened in April. He carries a black planner around with him and splits his time between Buellton and Santa Barbara.
Although he runs between two places—and manages the production side of things, from malt to quality control—Stoll makes sure he still gets a brew in at least once a week.
“If I ever have to stop brewing, I’ll probably quit,” he said.
His gateway beer was Stone Brewing Company’s Arrogant Bastard.
“I drank it, and it was like a light bulb,” Stoll said.
He started home brewing before he turned 21 because you don’t need to be of age to buy barley and hops. At the time, he attended UC Santa Cruz, was headed for pharmacology, and brewed 40 gallons of beer a week—which he gave away to friends.
Stoll started working in pharmacology after he graduated, messing with white powders and clear liquids in a little glass-and-steel lab.
“I just got sick of it,” Stoll said. “The lack of color and stimulation … it’s boring.”
So he quit.
He got a job at Seabright Brewing Company in Santa Cruz, scrubbing floors and tanks, and learned the commercial side of brewing. He read every book he could find about it. He volunteered at a home brewing store and moonlighted at two other Santa Cruz breweries to watch and learn as much as he could, all the while bartending and waiting tables.
After two years at Seabright, Stoll created and brewed his first commercial recipe: Milestone Porter. And before signing on at Figueroa Mountain, Stoll was at the Ukiah Brewing Company, where he rebuilt brewing operations.
“It was one of those great hands-on lessons,” he said. “I think one of the best ways to learn how to do something is to break it down and rebuild it.”
In the case of Fig Mountain, Stoll didn’t have to break anything down, but he did help build. All the beer recipes, which have been tweaked over the last three years, are Stoll’s. The company has entered competitions around the states and overseas. So far, the brewery has won about 60 awards. Stoll said when he gets judges’ notes back from an event like the Great American Beer Festival, he pays attention.
“Even if they rip it to shreds and tell you there’s 100 things wrong with it, at least you can grow from there,” Stoll said. “But at the same time, I hope they don’t find 100 things wrong with our beers; that would suck.”
Judges don’t seem to find many things wrong with Figueroa Mountain’s beers. In fact, according to Firestone’s Brynildson, awards from the Great American Beer Festival mean Stoll and his crews are forging a quality-driven path.
“When a new brewery like Fig takes home five medals, you’re doing something right,” Brynildson said.
Paying attention to details like the nuances found in judges’ notes is what separated Stoll from the brewing pack he broke away from during job interviews for the Fig Mountain job. And in his boss’s opinion, it’s what will help drive the company forward into success.
“That’s something you have to have—that attention to detail—or you’re just like everything else,” Dietenhofer said. “[Stoll] creates great things.”
Staff Writer Camillia Lanham drinks great things. Send comments to email@example.com.
Gold medal tasting
Winners at the Great American Beer Festival are chosen by panels of judges whose taste buds are well accustomed and finely tuned to decipher the myriad flavors—both tasty and not—that make up the beers entered into each category.
At the Sun, we figured we needed to taste the Central Coast’s gold medal winners, you know, just to make sure those beers were indeed gold medal worthy (for a full list of winners visit greatamericanbeerfestival.com). The editorial consensus between Managing Editor Amy Asman, Staff Writer Kristina Sewell, and myself? Our palates were not worthy.
We rated beers based on our own personal flavor preferences, which vary widely, and then gave them a score. For instance, Kristina is not a big hop fan, so bitter beers are out for her. Amy likes hops, but not too much, and I—unfortunately for my decision-making skills in the grocery store beer aisle—like it all.