Three thousand tickets for the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest sold out in minutes this year. The equivalent of a small town’s population signed up to party in an instant.
The annual June event’s featured breweries are meticulously selected by veteran Firestone brewmaster Matt Brynildson. With his curation and the execution of a now-seasoned team, these fairgrounds see ascendant new brewers pouring alongside paragons of the industry. For guests, this festival is a whale-hunter’s paradise. For brewers, it’s America’s best networking party.
Or, as put bluntly by one Monkish employee, it’s Beerchella.
“I never thought we’d pull off something like this,” Brynildson says when we finally catch each other on that torrid Saturday, as he thinks back seven years ago to when he was first approached about hosting a festival. Thomas Madden, one of Paso Robles’ “city fathers,” wanted to tap Firestone Walker for a fundraising beer event. Brynildson gave the idea a quick and hard pass, but Madden persisted. What, he asked, do you need to make this happen?
“I was extreme,” Brynildson recalls. “I said every beer needs to be poured by the person who made it. It needs to be educational, it needs to be interactive, and most importantly, it needs to have a place where brewers can commune and network.”
These days, that premise is a rather effective lure, and not just for the brewers who come for the supplemental activities Firestone plans for them. Ticket holders, too, forge bonds at auxiliary beer shares, in line for barrel-aged rarities, and while carbo loading at breakfast before the gates open. But entertaining the fans has never really been the point.
“I think more about the [culture for brewers] than the festival,” he says. “We just honestly feel like, if we can keep that energy, and keep the brewers coming, and make this really special event for them, the rest of it will fall into place.”
Veronica Kral’s name tag reads “Boss Bitch.” We’ve just met on the balmy Friday night before tomorrow’s festival, but already I’m following Kral, Firestone Walker’s events director, onto a golf cart. In the two minutes following a handshake, she puts out no fewer than three proverbial fires on the walk to the vehicle.
It’s the first time they’ve opened up this portion of the weekend—the pre-event concert at the Paso Robles Event Center—to more than just the brewers, sponsors, and media, so there’s a lot to be done before the ticketed masses arrive.
For instance, Jester King’s people and Jack’s Abby’s beer haven’t yet arrived. A nine-year Firestone veteran, Kral is unruffled. “Five out of seven years, we probably had one brewery whose beer was almost not here or didn’t show up at all,” she says.
A Central coast native, Kral got her start in the wine industry, but jokes that she “was always cheating on wine with beer.” Brynildson calls her “so good,” and credits her time working events in the wine world as a big reason the Firestone Invitational runs so smoothly now. Kral’s headed this festival since its first run in 2011, directing traffic—sometimes literally—with Firestone event coordinator Ali Bowman so thousands get to taste beer from some of the best breweries in the world.
As Brynildson said over email a few days earlier, the two “perform miracles as far as I can tell” during the three-and-a-half months of planning leading up to the event, culminating tonight with Kral delivering wristbands from one gate to another and ferrying the head brewer (who happens to be her husband, Dustin Kral) to the picnic tables before the barbecue supply is depleted.
The golf cart contains a couple drink holders, but they’re occupied by half a dozen water balloons, she says, just in case I’d like to throw them at anyone.
“We try to make everything fun,” she explains, adding that, earlier in the day, they bought out a water park so “brewers [can] play at it like children for four hours all by themselves.” The spoils continue when Firestone Walker pours them Pivo and Luponic Distortion and stuffs them with barbecue before staging a free rock concert for them.
That’s just the welcome party. That delights Kral.
“The brewers themselves and the reps fight over the tickets they get and that makes me happy,” she says.
We pull into the campground, where Firestone staffers and visiting brewers lodge for the weekend. This year, for the first time, RVs, tents, and yurts are set up in the rodeo arena of the event center, with surrounding bleachers topped with banners promoting Budweiser and Miller-Coors. At some point earlier, it appears that someone from Orange County’s Green Cheek Beer Co. climbed 30 or so rows to tape their own banner over one advertising Bud Light. On one side is a huge tent over a couple long rows of picnic tables.
“Camping in here was my idea,” Kral says, braking. “I felt like there was a disconnect from the area where everyone was mingling [after the fest] and where the campground was. I want everyone to come and have a spot before the event—and during the event—to hang out and relax and not be pitching things, trying to sell their beer. These guys are friends, and by separating them, we destroyed it.”
After picking up the brewmaster, we blitz to the picnic area to grab food before the concert. Bruery Terreux’s Jeremy Grinkey, who I met at this festival two years ago, is in line ahead of me. He wipes sweat from his forehead. “Hey!” he says, picking up a plate. “You want to sit with us?”
My belly’s full, but I’ve resolved to hating myself in line for miniature doughnuts from a local bakery called Sugar Lips. (Reader, it was worth it.)
My friends from San Francisco just arrived, and we’re standing in a circle debating what beer to try next of a few event-special options: 3 Floyds, Highland Park, Boneyard, Russian River, Garage Project, Funkwerks. Central Coast country act Nikki Lane, this year’s concert headliner, will start performing soon, so I rush the knoll in front of the stage.
I look around, knowing that tomorrow this area will offer a different visual. This bowl will be packed with fest-goers staving off sunstroke while waiting for David Walker to personally pour them samplings of Firestone’s Coconut Parabola, 2014 Sucaba, and the XIX Anniversary Ale.
Post-concert, brewers and journalists usher each other to camp. When we arrive, there’s a varied spread of 30 pizzas from Woodstock’s (the San Luis Obispo slice house where I flipped dough in college) under the tent Kral showed me earlier. Suddenly-ravenous campers raid boxes illuminated by twinkling string lights while others take turns hucking bean bags through cornholes.
Every year, one of a few breweries “hosts” campers near their RV. This year, it seems that fell to The Rare Barrel, so Jay Goodwin and a cadre of California brewers have huddled together more of their 750s than I’ve ever seen before next to a pony keg of Raging Waters, a blend of golden sours they’ve circulated through watermelons. It seems like Jay’s not sure he loves it just yet. I suppose we’re the jury.
This area’s getting cramped now that Highland Park has opened treasure chests offering cans of Lagers and IPAs, so I grab one and make my way back to the big tent. Grinkey and a few fading Terreux disciples are sprawled across couches, reminiscing about their earlier trip through wine country.
Crowds thin, with folks retreating to their sleeping bags before tomorrow’s early start. I decide to head back to the Adelaide Inn—it’s time to hydrate and sleep.
While brewers are noshing on their morning meals over at camp, I stop at the front of the attendee line at the event center. The group at the front of the queue, hundreds deep, has been here since 7:30am to be first inside with general admission at noon. Some of them are from the Bay Area and Los Angeles, equidistant from here, but others flew out from as far as Nashville. They’re all grinning.
Forty-five minutes ago, early entry for VIP and media began. It’s the slow beginning of the onslaught of attendees, so brewers use the time to explore the fest, catch up with friends, and meet new ones. Or, if you’re Mark Taylor from Creature Comforts, you set up a drone to record the attendees as they barrel in.
It’s Sante Adairius’ first time here from Capitola. Their booth is next to Jackie O’s, where Adair Paterno’s fiancé is pouring. There’s already a growing line for both.
Paterno was the one who received the invite, Sante co-founder Tim Clifford explains, and he is very excited to be here.
“I think somewhere I heard 3,500 people were coming,” he says, looking toward the entrance. “It’s unbelievable. This has got to be the premiere big beer festival. Big sometimes has problems with quality in general, but these guys know how to do it. They know how to do it right.”
A few yards away from Sante’s booth, I find Alvarado Street founder J.C. Hill pouring beer from a jet ski with spouts. He laughs when I ask about it.
“Our spirit animal is Party Wave Dave at the brewery. He’s kind of our sales guy. He’s actually right over there with the ugly blades.” Hill points to a crowd, and it’s clear that Party Wave Dave is the one sporting prismatic sunglasses, a bright Hawaiian shirt, and a flourishing red beard. “We have a lot of Dave-themed beer, for better or for worse, so we made this Wave Jammer beer and we searched Craigslist to see if there were any old used jet skis.”
There was one, and they snapped it up for $100 and a case of beer before restoring it and installing a draft system inside for their anniversary last month. It’s goofy, but it’s also an extremely characteristic set-up for them. And with it, they’re making an impression their first year here.
“I hope we don’t run out of beer super fast,” he says, suddenly more serious about the influx of people. “We have a half barrel back at camp of Mai Tai, which is our most popular beer, so we’ll wheel that over if we get low.”
“Look, we’re boot twins!”
Jemma Wilson, Firestone’s media manager, broke her foot misstepping into a gopher hole while working out in early April near her house on a vineyard. In the heat and through the discomfort, she maintains her affability as she jokes with an attendee over their shared injury. Wilson is relentlessly upbeat (it’s a hallmark of her character), but she’s a little uneasy with how smoothly everything’s running.
“I don’t want to jinx it,” she says. “Dare I say we have our shit together? But we have the same crew, so we know what we’re doing.”
Wilson is headed to the Firestone booth to make sure growlers of Mother’s Milk, their Imperial Milk Stout collaboration with Creature Comforts, are already poured for a panel featuring brewers from both companies.
“It’s eight growlers, stored in the back,” she directs the volunteers at the booth. “They know to pull it out around 1:20. Everything’s already staged.”
She turns back to me. “We know how to improve every year. Every year we have a recap meeting. This week, we’ll meet, take notes on what went wrong, what we need extra volunteers for, what needs to get moved where, and we compile it into one document. The next year we read it like, ‘Did we revisit these things? And make sure they’re improved?’”
Still, there are always inevitable mishaps. Kral was on the phone all morning, Wilson explains, with a truck driving company after they were told the beer from Jack’s Abby wouldn’t arrive in Paso Robles from Los Angeles until Monday. Whatever Kral said over the phone was effective. The beer arrived at the fairgrounds 45 minutes before it began, meaning all 58 breweries—the most that have ever attended this festival—were able to pour.
“This might be a first, actually,” Wilson concludes.
Just then, someone walks by, fitted in a complete astronaut suit. It’s well over 90 degrees now at this particularly arid section of the fairgrounds. I turn to Wilson, “Is he with you guys?”
“Uh, nope,” she says. “No idea what that’s about. But did you see the Lager cart?”
I pass Kral a few minutes later, pacing through the main thoroughfare, and I ask her about the fest so far. “Yeah, it’s just been...going,” she laughs. “I remember the year it was 114 degrees. So glad that didn’t happen.”
“Sun is not my friend,” says a flushed, formerly lily white Cory King, sweat condensating on his brow under the tent for his brewery, St. Louis’ Side Project. The heat spares no one in line for their beers either, but the 75 or so people waiting for a small sampling won’t be deterred.
Two years ago, King says, “no one knew who we were. We poured, it was chill.” Now, it’s by far the biggest line at the fest. “I always feel bad people are waiting in line when there’s so much good beer here, like, let’s spread this out.”
King closed Side Project for the weekend and brought five of his 11 employees—“a company field trip, almost”—so that while they’re here they visit wineries for “palate education” and give employees an opportunity to bond with others in the industry. “They need to experience that,” he says, “to try everyone else’s beers, meet people, understand we’re all in this together too.”
Every year the festival asks guests to vote on the best brewery here through the fest app. Side Project won the last two, but this year, a few minutes ago, New Zealand’s Garage Project took the prize. The Bruery, for the third year in a row, took second.
Matt Brynildson is wearing a straw hat and a goofy smile. We’re sitting in a volunteer break room in the fairgrounds’ mock Wild West town, an indoor respite from the raging temperatures outside as the crowds begin to dissipate.
“I think we’ve accomplished almost everything we had in mind, down to, first and foremost, bringing in some of the world's best brewers.”
He gives heavy credit to the staff, in particular Kral and Bowman, well aware that, at first, he wasn’t keen on the idea of this happening at all.
“Beer festivals had kind of evolved into this…” he pauses. “The good ones had gotten too big, and a lot of times the brewers stopped coming and pouring the beer, so you had distributors like, ‘Here’s my portfolio.’ And then you get this different element of people just coming to party.”
When he was able to design his own dream festival, after being inspired by the hospitality of both a Paso Robles wine festival called Hospice du Rhône and the Mikkeller Beer Celebration, the invitation inadvertently became exclusive. Now, some brewers await a call, an email, or in some cases, a text, asking them to pour at the festival. That’s something of a problem, since Brynildson has a lot of friends:
“If I invited everyone I know and love, we’d have 400 breweries.”
But of those who do come, some are his best friends. The Cilurzos, of Russian River Brewing, stay at his house every year in what he calls “the Natalie and Vinnie suite.” The Rare Barrel rolls in with “a whole party wagon.” He has a “total bro crush” on Alvarado Street, and he’s “absolutely fascinated” by eccentric international breweries like Omnipollo and Garage Project.
Are there too many breweries to manage? Not yet, he says. They could probably handle a few more, as long as the “bookend” activities he and David Walker keep pushing for don’t overwhelm the Firestone team. On those days they plan to help foster relationships between otherwise competitive brewers by sending them tasting around wine country, floating down lazy rivers, and chowing on local fare. These events are “always the focal point, [while] serving beer to the ticket holders is more the byproduct.”
In fact, there’s not much Brynildson would suggest to drastically modify the fest’s offerings. But, humbly, he does have one request: “I wanted Wilco to play and they were like, ‘Wilco is going to cost $100,000.’”
There’s a guffaw. “I’m like, wouldn’t that be rad?”
After a quick swim at the Adelaide Inn, I wearily wander back to the brewers’ campground as daylight wanes. I sit down with a dinner plate next to Wilson, who's elevating her injured foot on a chair. Creature Comforts’ Blake Tyers—a GBH contributor—sits down next to me, and Side Project’s Shae Smith grabs a chair, too. Behind Smith, King and Garage Project’s Jos Ruffell are deep in conversation.
“I feel like I have nothing to say,” Wilson says. “[Nikki Lane] was fucking awesome. Who doesn’t like bluegrass? I was pretty stoked Garage Project won, because for all the years they’ve come, it was time. No offense, Side Project.” Smith laughs.
I get up for a beer, and instead find myself quickly out of depth in a conversation with Hill and Green Cheek’s Evan Price about the properties of amyloglucosidase in Brut IPAs. I excuse myself and sit down, just as Tyers cracks a Subtle Alchemy.
Brewers flutter around the cart near the campground entrance. There are eight taplines inside, still pouring beers from Side Project, Central Coast, Weldwerks, and of course, Firestone. Jack’s Abby and Birrifico Del Ducato bottles are chilling in adjacent tubs, too.
Tyers supplies some Gushers—as he did last year—while a few yards over, some campers and staffers from the Brewing Network are attempting to goad Goodwin into a dance-off with himself. (They’re ultimately sort of successful.) Excitement, however, is winding down.
I abscond into darkness toward the exit, recalling something David Walker sent to me in an email before the festival:
“Brewers are famous for world class hospitality,” he wrote. “We love nothing better than an excuse to [put] down tools and toast how lucky we are.”