My husband, Steve, is a huge Firestone Walker beer fan. They are definitely his desert island brewery and his desert island beers (Double Jack and Parabola). So, one morning in March, he rolled over at 3:00AM to tell me he would be right back. After inquiring as to where he could possibly be going that early in the morning, he replied that he was going to get tickets for the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival (hereafter referred to as FWIBF) that went on sale at midnight. I, of course, rolled back over and went back to sleep.
When the sun had actually risen and my brain was able to function, I remembered that the FWIBF was a very special festival. Firestone Walker was tired of going to festivals where volunteers who weren’t knowledgeable about beer poured to customers who had questions that couldn’t be answered. At FWIBF, each brewery had to bring a brewer or the owner of the company to be on hand to pour beer and talk to the festival attendees. They also required each brewery to bring one session (typically under 5.0% alcohol) and one rare beer. The breweries in attendance were continually updated on the Firestone Walker website. Just looking at who was coming and not knowing what they were going to bring it certainly seemed like it was going to be an amazing festival. My only concern revolved around how smoothly it would run, since it was their first festival and there are often snags and bumps in the road at the first of anything.
Steve and I flew out to Los Angeles, and made the 4 hour drive in a rental Crown Victoria (which is an entirely different story) to Paso Robles. As the planner in the family, my engineer husband found the closest possible hotel to the fairgrounds in case we needed to crawl home, which we assumed might be a possibility based on the beer lists that were being tweeted by Firestone Walker a day before the event.
The line at the entrance began forming around 11:00, with the actual festival beginning at 1:00. Vans and buses had been making stops in different cities and at various hotels escorting passengers to the fairgrounds. At 12:00, they began letting people in the line into the park area. This was semi-deceiving. We thought that maybe they were going to begin the festival early, but instead they corralled us into a different holding station once inside the gates with our plates, festival booklet, and drink glasses in our hands. Those who had special passes were able to enter the festival at this point. Media personnel began taking pictures of us while we waited. This is perhaps the only time in my life where I understood how it felt to be a zoo animal. Standing in the sun in 90 degree weather behind a rope waiting and watching the “cool kids” take pictures of me and drink beer that I wanted to get my hands on was making the wait seem exorbitant.
At 1:00, the rope was removed. David Walker made a brief statement welcoming everyone to the festival while everyone waited patiently, which I was shocked to see occur. They security guards who were standing nearby asked everyone to walk and we were off. The good news is that everyone else headed quickly to the Three Floyds booth. Living in Cleveland, we have access to Three Floyds and had had the pleasure of enjoying a bottle of Dark Lord with Vanilla Beans that our good friend Bobbylikesbeer shared with us on St. Patrick’s Day. Due to 3,000 people going to one booth, we were able to hit 3 – 4 booths before it seemed there was a crowd.
The festival took place on a beautiful day. The sun was out and the temperature was around 90 degrees. Apparently, this was much cooler than the 100 degree weather that is normally present at this time of year. Everyone we met while standing in a line was friendly and gracious. The festival attendees were extremely knowledgeable and well-versed in beer. The people who were there from the restaurants really didn’t understand the amazing beer that they were sampling, but were personable, down-to-earth, and willing to give anything a try. This was probably the best crowd that I have ever had the pleasure to share a festival with. At 5:00, last call (the festival officially ended at 6:00) was announced and Three Floyds was announced as the People’s Choice winner.
I am not going to detail the entire festival, what I drank, how it rated, who I talked to, etc. Instead, I plan to list the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The Beer – As a whole the beer selection was amazing. The breweries were each requested to bring a Special Beer, so as opposed to other festivals, the beer at FWIBF was stellar and the quality was unique for a festival. Other than a few breweries who didn’t live up to the “rules,” each brewery had something that was unforgettable. My favorites:
- Alpine Bad Boy
- The Bruery Black Tuesday
- FiftyFifty Eclipse Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout,Elijah Craig 18 yr.
- Firestone Walker DDBA (my favorite of the entire festival)
- Firestone Walker Velvet Merkin
Kern River Dirty Hippie
- Triple Rock Barrel-Aged Keyser Soze
The Set-up – It was almost impossible to get drunk (says the girl who got drunk). There were 40 breweries represented and 21 local restaurants also brought food. The food booths were interspersed between beer booths, making it easy to get in a food line. The evo company provided water. At almost every corner (11 stations) there was a huge jug of water. Picture the office water cooler. The bands played on a stage in a separate portion of the fairground where there were bleachers in case anyone needed a break from beer or wanted to enjoy the music.
Behind the Beer Sessions – While I didn’t attend any of these, it was a great addition to a regular beer festival and a nice option if you were there to learn more about beer, brewing, or the breweries themselves. During the day, different brewers chatted about their breweries and answered questions from the audience in a relatively informal way.
The Booklet – As we entered, we were handed a booklet. The introduction page does a great job of summing up what Firestone Walker wanted to accomplish with this festival. “…a world-class festival featuring not only the best brewers in the world, but brewers whom we feel are leaders in the craft beer revolution…this is a day where we can all put down our sales and marketing pitches and simply commune and share our beers and stories with people who are truly interested in craft beer.” The booklet also included a description of each brewery, a list of the beers that were going to be distributed, and a map of the festival. There was a back section to take notes for those ambitious attendees and information about how to vote for the People’s Choice brewery.
The People – We met some great new people while waiting in line and while walking around the festival. The knowledge and friendliness of everyone who attended was amazing. Often times festivals can be overrun with people who don’t know about quality craft beer (which is fine because they are there and they are learning, but sometimes it makes it difficult to share your passion or recommendations with those people) or by people who want to tie one on. Or by those people who wear annoying pretzel necklaces. 3,000 of the best people in the world chose to attend FWIBF.
Honestly, not much. I was shocked and impressed with how smoothly this festival ran, being the first one of its kind. I am absolutely making the trip back out to Paso Robles next spring. Although they are considering changing the date to the first weekend in June, which will make it more difficult to work around my job.
The only real complaint I have, and it is miniscule, is about the plate,. napkin, and fork we were handed at the event’s entrance. Many of us that I was standing around threw our plates and forks away almost immediately. I understand the rationale and the cost savings that were incurred with the use of the plate, but it would have been almost impossible to carry around a booklet, a glass of beer, a plate, a fork, and a napkin for 4 hours. The restaurants were very understanding when guests arrived plateless.
Nothing. Except me. At one point, I felt absolutely certain that I wouldn’t be able to move from my current position and make it to either get more beer (which I clearly didn’t need) or to the hotel. Fortunately, my wonderful husband planned ahead with that close hotel.
Firestone Walker is an amazing brewery with a vision to not only provide quality beer from their own brewery, but to bring together the craft beer community as a whole in a fun way. If you didn’t make it out to the festival this year, be sure to get tickets for next year. This is by far the best beer festival that I have had the pleasure to attend. Firestone Walker is doing it right!
*Thank you to the Full Pint and @fw_lion for the pictures.