Twenty years ago, brothers-in-law Adam Firestone and David Walker established in a converted shed on the back-forty of the Firestone family vineyard on California’s Central Coast what would become one of the most prestigious names in craft beer, Firestone Walker Brewing Company.
Ten years later, after moving up the road to Paso Robles, the brewery celebrated its first decade with X (or 10), a trailblazing barrel-aged anniversary ale blended with input from local winemakers, and offered for the then-audacious sum of $9.99 per 22-ounce bottle.
Now comes XX, which is both a celebration and a culmination, marking Firestone Walker’s 20th anniversary on California’s Central Coast. XX is a limited release that will be available via individually boxed 22-ounce bottles ($23.99) at select accounts across all Firestone Walker markets starting in November.
Firestone Walker’s Anniversary Ale program dates back to 2005, when Brewmaster Matt Brynildson took a random call from bourbon barrel broker Tom Griffin, whom Brynildson now calls “the Johnny Appleseed of barrel-aged beers.”
Said Brynildson, “Adam and David had approached me about making a special beer for the brewery’s 10th anniversary, and we were already doing test batches for it when Tom called me out of the blue. He knew I’d been at Goose Island during the early days of Bourbon County Stout, so he tracked me down and made me an offer. I wasn’t really thinking about barrel aging at the time, but when he called the light bulb went off, and I thought, ‘Holy s***, I need those barrels.”
After the different test batches were aged for nearly a year in 40 retired bourbon barrels provided by Griffin, Brynildson dialed up a handful of his local winemaker friends to help blend the final beer from what turned out to be a diverse range of component ales.
Ten, or X, was released in the fall of 2006. At the time, the $9.99 price tag raised eyebrows. “Back then $10 was a crazy price for a beer, and retired bourbon barrels were easy and inexpensive for brewers to obtain,” Brynildson said. “Times have changed.”
Ever since the release of X, the blending of the Anniversary Ale has become an annual late-summer rite at the brewery, revolving around a reliable team of friendly local winemakers who come for the challenge and the camaraderie.
This year, 17 winemakers convened in late August to help create the blend for XX. As always, they were tasked with creating their own preferred blends, with all of these initial blends later being blind tasted on the group. After votes were cast, the blend by Scott Hawley of Torrin Vineyard was deemed the winner and became the basis for XX.
“It’s always a friendly but competitive gathering,” Brynildson said. “Collectively, the winemakers’ input is invaluable, because they are practicing experts in the art of blending.”
With XX, this proven process yielded a beer for the ages. “There is just so much going on in this beer,” Brynildson said. “It’s big and complex, with all of these different facets from our barrel-aged program that are so seamlessly integrated. We wanted to produce something really special for our 20th anniversary, and I think we did it.”
“We blended together 250 oak barrels and five different beers creating something truly complex and exceptional.” – Brewmaster Matt Brynildson
Parabola / Aged in New Oak and Bourbon Barrels / 40% of Final Blend
-Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout
Stickee Monkee / Aged in Bourbon and Brandy Barrels / 20% of Final Blend
-Central Coast Quad Brewed with Belgian Candi and Mexican Turbinado (brown) Sugar
Velvet Merkin / Aged in Bourbon Barrels / 17.5% of Final Blend
-Traditional Oatmeal Stout
Bravo / Aged in Bourbon Barrels / 12.5% of Final Blend
-Imperial Brown Ale
Helldorado / Aged in Bourbon Barrels / 10% of Final Blend
“These are my friends and brothers in fermentation science.” – Brewmaster Matt Brynildson
Scott Hawley – Torrin (Winning Blend)
Special thanks to Arie Litman and Ken Weaver for lending their expertise to the blending session.
“As a finished blend, XX is a beautifully textured and complex brew, with layers that unfold as the beer opens up. At first there is a burst of brandy soaked cherries, then chocolate cake combined with distinct boozy new American oak notes. The flavor develops full of molasses rich brown sugar and fruitcake with a touch of caramel and cinnamon spice. Overall the beer is silky smooth, incredibly balanced and finishes with a touch of kirsch filled truffle – a perfect blend of everything we love about our vintage barrel program! This beer is unfiltered and unfined, so there will be a small amount of sediment in the bottom of the bottle. XX is best enjoyed poured carefully into a half filled brandy snifter or wine glass. Allow it to warm to 55F to fully enjoy the pleasing and complex aromas. As the beer sits and breathes in the glass the true complexity of this blend is revealed, so take your time. If you wait to open your bottle later, store it in a cool, dark place. I suspect, like our other Anniversary offerings, that this beer will age well and change favorably for years to come.”