In what's become a late-autumn tradition, co-founder of Firestone Walker Brewery David Walker clamored on top of the bar alongside Blue Palms Brewhouse owner Brian Lenzo to introduce the brewery's blended anniversary beer to a thirsty, adoring crowd, and he also spilled a few details about the upcoming Venice Beach expansion.
Walker, a British expat who began making beers in a Central Coast winery back before craft beer was called craft beer, is as charismatic and charming as anyone in the beer industry, and it was hard to tell if the crowd that filled the Los Angeles pub Wednesday night had braved the rain for a taste of the rare Firestone brews on draught or for a chance to get a picture with "The Lion," as he's affectionately known to beer geeks.
The biggest draw on the tap list was the potent Anniversary XVIII, a blend of nine different barrel aged brews, including the fan favorite Parabola Imperial Stout, Helldorado blonde barleywine, and a pair of collaboration brews with Indiana's Three Floyds and Maryland's Flying Dog.
To create the yearly blend, Firestone Walker's brewmaster, the incomparable Matt Brynildson, holds an intensive blending session that pits teams of winemaking friends from the Central Coast in a competition to create the most delicious blend (or "cuvee" in brewer-speak).
"Brewers don't like blending stuff," Walker said as he described the process, "They tend to be very Teutonic, very German: 'These things are done this way, and I want the beer to taste this way.' With winemakers, they're infected with the fruit and the way it ferments. They're different. They really bring an artisanal sort of element to our process."
The resulting cuvee is unique each year, though they're all similarly intense and almost unbelievably flavorful.
Anniversary XVIII, blended by the team from Paso Robles' Herman Story Wines, is the most drinkable and balanced of recent years, and the brew's rich, deep flavors somehow hide the potent 13% alcohol. Toasted marshmallows and bitter chocolate are at the forefront of the flavor assault, melding into sticky fruits and toasted oak as the viscous liquor lingers on the palate.
"All these blends have blended together," Walker said, explaining his difficulty with choosing a favorite of the release. "They're all the same to me — they've all become fascinating children in a family of beers that we make."
As Walker wrapped up his bar-top oration, he revealed a few details about the brewery's Westside Taproom and restaurant that was announced a year ago.
"We got a bloody permit for Venice!" he proclaimed to a raucous cheer.
The Venice Beach location will be called the Propagator, because, he said, "we're going to propagate a lot of different beers and different ideas. It's going to be cool. We're swinging hammers and picking paint colors. We've got a beautiful pilot brewhouse sitting in Bavaria, that will arrive here in about six months."
Keep your eyes out for Firestone Walker Anniversary XVIII, as the $24 bottles are getting harder to find, but they are well worth the trouble. The brewery hopes to have the Propagator open and pouring beer (if not yet brewing on site) by spring.