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Session #59: With a little help from his winemaking friends

The SessionFor The Session #59, host Mario Rubio provides these marching orders: “Let’s talk about what we drink when not drinking beer.” Alan doesn’t approve, and — to be honest — I’m feeling challenged.

We do drink other stuff in our house. We had Tom & Jerry’s when we decorated our tree, enjoyed homemade eggnog on Christmas, chatted at length over a wonderful bottle of Italian wine a few nights ago. But those aren’t things I’m keen on writing about.

When The Session began nearly five years ago the premise was pretty basic. Pick a theme, write about it, maybe focus on a specific beer. Not sure how to do that with eggnog.

Matt BrynildsonSo let’s talk beer, pretending this one qualifies because winemakers played a major role in creating it. Firestone Walker XV. Which — like for X, XI, XII, XIII and XIV — a bunch of otherwise grape-oriented guys help blend. I wrote about X for Imbibe magazine, and a some of the others here. Most notably XI, with more fawning here.

Now that I’ve stocked up on XV I’ll fess up. It might be as good as XI. Of course, this is totally my palate talking. You might not agree at all. I’ll let you know how the two compare in a couple of years, assuming I can actually stand open that last bottle of XI. Looking at the blend for XV — 76% barley wines, no dominant anchor, Double Jack (fueled by dry hop aromas that are bound to fade) — I wasn’t all that optimistic. But there’s already deep dark character beyond the rich fruitiness that’s downright beguiling. And hints there’ll be something different next year, then something altogether different the next.

Fifteen Paso Robles area winemakers showed up this year to contribute their opinions about the blend — or perhaps simply to drink beer — and Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson set them off in groups of two and three. Each group came up with a favorite mixture, brewery workers replicated the blends and the winemakers voted to determine their favorite.

Brynildson now has 600 barrels to draw from, and emptied almost 200 for XV. I’m pretty sure that means there’s going to be a XVI and that plenty of winemakers will show up to help.

Firestone 11 and a ‘Tale of Two Matts’

Firestone 11I’ve already ragged on Firestone Walker for the Plane Jane names attached to spectacular anniversary beers. So to be constructive I should suggest a sexy alternative to “Firestone 11,” the beer they’ll be lining up to buy today at the Firestone Walker taproom in Paso Robles, Calif.

With apologies to Dickens let’s call it a “Tale of Two Matts.” And quote a bit from the opening of his similarly named novel: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

The Matts are Matt Brynildson and Matt Trevisan, the brewmaster at Firestone and winemaker at Linne Calodo Winery respectively. The former had everything to do with brewing, aging and assembling the beer. The latter sat in on sessions that determined the blends for “10” and “11.” As important to me is how generous Trevisan was with his time in a long conversation that helped me understand what makes this beer different.

The foolishness? The labor and time involved compared to what income the sale of 500 cases will bring. The wisdom? It’s in the glass.

Coconut. Vanilla. Oak tannins. Texture. Bourbon. Brown. Chocolate. Dark cherries. Smoke. Earthy/herbal.

That’s how my notes begin. Then, Do we really need to deconstruct this beer?

My thoughts turned to a conversation with Trevisan about blending “10.” “I told them they didn’t have to sit there and pick it apart to find the best one,” he said. “You didn’t necessarily want the one you had the most to say about. Ultimately it’s a beverage to enjoy.”

So Daria and I were pretty much done chatting about our impressions of the beer, even if they did keep coming. For instance, when I poured out the last of the 22-ounce bottle and kicked up the head anew a sudden whiff of rose perfume appeared, recalling Rochefort’s beers. Where the hell did that come from?

We enjoyed the beer but we talked about how much we like the Christmas tree we cut Friday, how many days we should appropriate for the Canadian Rockies next summer, and more stuff you don’t give a hoot about.

Instead, you’re here to find out what makes this beer different, perhaps special. Could there be a one word tasting note?

OK. Texture. It’s rich and velvety on the tongue, but finishes with enough leathery coarseness that it doesn’t leave a sweet impression. I suspect that’s one of the reasons such a wide array of flavors come together so well.

Class dismissed.

The rest of a “Tale of Two Matts” is optional reading.

Matt BrynildsonFirestone 11 is a compelling beer with a captivating back story. I wrote about the blending of Firestone 10 in the current Imbibe magazine.

Also, check out Sean Paxton’s recently posted Blending Firestone Walker 11 with Matt Brynildson for photos far more illustrative than my words. Don’t miss the “Bourbon Dot.”

Before we get to the nitty gritty geeky details comparing “10” and “11” let’s back up a bit. When Brynildson hit upon having area winemakers help with the blend, Trevisan — who stocks up on a variety of Firestone Walker beers to serve winery workers during harvest — was one of of the first he called. Wine Spectator has characterized him as one of the “Young Turks” of the Central Coast.

Handed a glass of Abacus, a barley wine, that was a composite taken from several barrels Trevisan asked instead for samples from individual barrels. A conversation with him about wood makes the reason why obvious.

French Oak versus American Oak is just the beginning, because he’ll tell you about different forests around the world. He described two oak trees, each one on a slightly different part of his property, each developing differently in its own microclimate.

“It starts with how the cooper chooses his trees,” he says. Where the wood is dried (think Oregon Coast versus Mojave Desert) and otherwise how the cooper treats it make as much difference as variables that are more easily quoted, like the level of “toast” (when a partially assembled barrel is placed over a fire and charred). For instance, when a winemaker or brewer buys a new barrel it will be described along these lines: American Oak, Medium Aroma Toast, 24 months (the time spent seasoning).

Trevisan says too many winemakers want barrels with the same specs to produce the same flavors. “That takes the human element out of it,” he says. “If I have two barrels I like the idea of the left one and the right one tasting different.”

Assembling those flavors, of course, is why Matt consulted with Matt. “I always work off what I call liquidity. What’s the weight in the mouth? How to you want the wine perceived?” Trevisan says. He returns often to the word “viscosity,” and the importance of flavor at mid-palate.

That may mean something a little different in wine than beer but relates directly to the impressive texture of Firestone 11. A fair complaint about some high alcohol “extreme beers” is that they start with an intense blast of aromas and flavors, but there’s little depth by mid-palate. That’s not the case here.

Make no mistake, Firestone 10 and Firestone 11 taste quite different. We’re not talking about the difference between the 2006 and 2007 vintages of Pinot Noir from a winery. We’re talking the difference between a barley wine and a really big brown ale. The geeky details:

Firestone 11
– 82% Bravo (an Imperial Brown Ale brewed in August 2006)
– 16 bourbon barrels, 5 brandy barrels, 2 retired Firestone Union barrels (new American oak)
7% Rufus (a Continental Styles Imperial Amber brewed August 2007)
– 1 bourbon barrel, 1 rye barrel
7% Velvet Merkin (a regular strength Oatmeal Stout brewed October 2007)
– 2 bourbon barrels
3.5% Parabola (Russian Imperial Stout brewed February 2006)
– 1 bourbon barrel

Firestone 10
– Abacus (Barley Wine) 46%
– Bravo 16%
– Parabola 11%
– Ruby (Double IPA) 8%
– Walker’s Reserve (Oak fermented Robust Porter) 6%
– Hemp Ale (American Brown) 6%
– Double Barrel Ale (oak fermented English Pale) 6%

A 22-ounce of Firestone 10 sold for $9.99 when it was released last year. The suggested retail price on “11” is $16.99.

Is your brewer an artist?

It starts with a quote from Louis Nizer, the famous trial lawyer and author. He said:

“A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.”

Don Russell paraphrased Nizer to begin a column about making a case for extreme beer. Along the way he wrote:

Beerwise, the most inspired brewers are not just craftsmen, they are artists.

If there is an avant-garde movement among these brewers, then it is extreme beer.

And later, “Session beers, I’m afraid, are Norman Rockwells.” This led to a flurry of discussion at Seen Through a Glass about *xtr*m* beers and session beers, but only a little about brewers as artists.

Brewer at workSo what about that? And who to ask? How about brewers? I printed out part of Russell’s column and took it to the recent Craft Brewers Conference in Austin. I showed it to a dozen brewers along with another old saying that farmers make wine and engineers make beer.

I asked them to choose one of four words to describe themselves: artist, artisan, engineer or farmer.

Eight chose artisan, four chose artist. Most also said it depends on how you read the definitions.

“Since artisan essentially takes in artist, then artisan is appropriate,” said Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery.

Matt Van Wyk of Flossmoor Station Brewing, a school teacher before he was a brewery, suggested a fifth choice. “Some brewers are just producing a product for profit,” he said. “I lean toward artisan.”

Steve Parkes, the brewer for Otter Creek and Wolaver’s Organic Ales, picked artist, “By this definition.” Parkes is also the owner and lead instructor of the American Brewers Guild. Does that mean he’s in the business of training artists?

“No, artisans. The artistic component needs to come from them,” he said. “I can’t train that. I can give them the tools, but I can’t teach inspiration.”

Tony Simmons (call him an artisan) of Pagosa Springs Brewing told an interesting story. He was in a class at Siebel Institute with a woman who worked at Miller Brewing. Out of curiosity, not intent, he asked her what it would take for him to get a job brewing at Miller.

“You couldn’t,” she told him. “We hire engineers and train them to brew our way.”

John Graham of Church Key Brewing was part of the conversation. “On tours I tell people it is half heart, half science. You have to follow the rules,” he said. “I’m definitely not an engineer.”

We decided we might have to track down a German brewer to find an engineer. But that’s wouldn’t be Eric Toft, a native of Wyoming who now brews at Private Landbrauerei Schönram in Bavaria.

“I got into this because I thought it was artisinal and connected to agriculture,” he said. “You still need to be an engineer to run a brewery.”

Matt Brynildson of Firestone-Walker Brewing made it clear he envies Toft. “I would call myself an artisan, but I totally wish it could be more farmer,” he said nodding toward Toft. “Or to be as connected as he is.”

Toft regularly visits farms where his hops are grown and others that produce barley for his malt. All are less than 200 kilometers from the brewery. He uses a single barley variety – Barke – without regard to yield or how easy it is to grow (always a consideration for malt companies), paying farmers more if necessary to get what he wants (flavor).

Toft was in Austin helping the Association of German Hop-Growers and the Halltertau Hop-Growers Association. They advertise hops as the “spirit of beer,” but I’ve also seen hops referred to as the heart of beer or the soul of beer. Others call malt the soul of beer.

Does your beer even have a soul? Do you care? The answers could be no, and no. That’s fine. But I suspect if you said yes the fact it is brewed by artists or artisans might be as important as the ingredients used.

Win one for the mom

One more story (for now) from the Great American Beer Festival.

Russian River Brewing Co. won three medals, one for a beer called Aud Blonde. The beer was named for Russian River brewer Vinnie Cilurzo’s mother, Audrey.

And she was there to see him claim the bronze medal.

You don’t usually think of GABF as a place that you bring your folks, but Vincenzo and Audrey Cilurzo were around all weekend.

On Friday evening, Cilurzo squeezed to the front of a crowd at the Firestone Walker booth and handed head brewer Matt Brynildson two glasses.

Cilurzo: “Give me a beer for my mom.”

Brynildson: “Hoppy or drinkable?”

Cilurzo: “Drinkable.”

Firestone Walker’s ’10’

Will the project Firestone Walker Brewing has going now earn the Paso Robles, Calif., brewery more respect at the beer ratings sites?

The brewery won Champion Mid-Size Brewing Company (encompassing all breweries producing between 15,000 and 2 million barrels) in both the 2004 and 2006 World Beer Cup – but few of its beers reach the 90th percentile at Rate Beer and Beer Advocate.

The brewery plans to release a beer called “10” in October to help mark its 10th anniversary. The beer will come from a blend of 10 individual ales made over the preceding 10 months. Firestone Walker uses its own unique Firestone Union system (somewhat like Burton Union at Marstons) for fermentation. The 10 beers that will make up “10” are then aged in oak bourbon barrels.

Components in the final beer will include an imperial oatmeal stout and barley wine. Brewer Matt Brynildson sent samples of both to the National Homebrew Conference last month for a presentation Todd Ashman gave about the use of wood in brewing. Both beers are intense, already delightfully complex – showing differing effects from time in wood – and would surely get high marks at the beer rating sites.

The individual components of “10” are also periodically available for sampling at Firestone Walker’s taprooms in Paso Robles and Buellton on the Central Coast.

“The beer is being brewed in pieces, which will be put together like a puzzle to make the final blend,” Brynildson said. “It is similar to a winemaker’s job of blending different lots of wine. In the end, the beer will resemble a Port wine in complexity, alcohol and sipping pleasure.”

The brewery is in the heart of one of America’s hottest wine regions and winemakers often drop in at the tasting room. Brynildson plans to invite some of them to help determine the final blend.

We already know it will be a “10.”

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