Not many beers have their own website. Firestone Walker’s 805 does, not because it’s a California icon of the American blonde style (though it is), but because it exists as something particularly unique from the rest of the Paso Robles brewery’s oeuvre. It’s an imprint of—and an ode to—the postcard-perfect Central Coast. The fruited plains laid across the land between Cambria and Oxnard and the rustling waves lacing its western edges are the manifestation of the sun-dazed dream of California.
Its inhabitants, even the temporary ones, extol motifs of its character: saltwater-lapping summer sand, farmers market haggling, rodeo stadiums and tractor pulls, hills beckoning skateboard bombs, pizzicato guitar pluckings, rows of vineyards, cows browsing pastures, bass emanating from college parties (and subsequent noise tickets issued), and surf wetsuits on brisk mornings. The 805—that is, the expanse that subscribes to the area code—is singular in its complexity.
Anything representing it needs to be singular as well.
In 2012, David Walker, co-owner of Firestone Walker Brewing Company, had observed that the patrons of local bars in Paso Robles took to their easy-drinking Blonde Ale, then officially called Honey Blonde.
“It was so tasty, some local pubs served it and named it what they wished,” he says. “Things ultimately became confusing as folks would seek the beer out, so to make it easier we named it after the home we loved, and the rest is history. It was truly never our intention to sell the beer other than locally.”
There’s another reason it’s called 805, though. Back in mid-2011, Anheuser-Busch InBev began trademarking area codes after buying Goose Island in Chicago. However, the massive brewing conglomerate didn’t set their sights on Central California and attempt to claim it, so David Walker and Adam Firestone did.
“One of the large brewers moved through the West trademarking area codes, [so] naturally we were curious and noticing they overlooked ours decided to follow suit,” Walker says. “In the final analysis though the area code gave us a platform to talk about the place, our place, whereas the large brewers simply wanted to contrive brands that could seek loyalty; like a football team. We had different visions.”
Unlike ABI, Firestone-Walker’s vision for the beer was rooted firmly in its Central Coast home as “more a shift beer for brewers to finish the day with,” as Walker adds. “Style was not the driver—a beer that refreshed but had dimension was the intention. Blonde Ales tick this box, which I suppose is why we ended up where we are.”
But good things don’t remain obscure. The beer was never meant to be shipped out of the Central Coast, but demand spread to other parts of the state with homebrewers attempting to clone the recipe. Eventually, interest spread throughout the Western United States.
“We made a beer for the 805,” Walker says. “We didn’t make a West Coast IPA, you know what I mean? It was all about telling our story of where we’re from. That’s why we thought we’d give it a totally different identity.”
This is where Troy Powell comes in. Powell is a third-generation Central Coast native, and in 2014 he was hired specifically to spread the story of the beer. But more importantly, as Walker says, its “provenance.”
“It was a really natural brand story for me,” Powell says. “Authentic. I’ve worked on other brands in the past, and they’re conjuring up the story a certain way or making it appeal to a certain audience, but we really just wanted to appeal to our hometown audience.”
As he tells it, when he was growing up, the Central Coast was native to scrappy doers, free-thinking artisans, all-purpose fixers, and recreational athletes—people who worked with and enjoyed what they were given by the land. To describe the manifold population, Powell recalls a story to which he says he “keeps going back.”
“We used to go surfing at the beach and this guy would always show up, all dusty, in chaps, full cowboy boots and spurs,” he says. “We’d be like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’ And he’d go, ‘I surf too. I work on a ranch and I teach rodeo at Cal Poly [State University, in nearby San Luis Obispo].’ You get to be good friends, and you realize there’s this connection with a guy you maybe never would have hung out with. You’re cut from the same cloth [even though] you do different stuff.”
Powell’s father restored vintage tractors and built violins for extra cash, and that was not unusual. Because Paso Robles and its surrounding areas were somewhat rural, people needed to make their own fortunes. The way of life there became a constant negotiation of labor and active leisure.
Powell aims to epitomize that in the brand’s Authenticos campaign, which focuses on people—surfers, musicians, artists, craftsmen, athletes, and professional racers—who “are free spirited and rooted in rugged individualism,” and who, perhaps most of all, embody that Central Coast hustle.
“Our lifestyle is laid back but we’re pressing forward,” Powell says. “We’ll work hard, play hard... We’re living the life, going to work, and at the end of the day, we want to crush a couple cold ones. The 805 makes it that way.”
When the beer was first brewed in 2012, it was made to service Firestone Walker’s core market. The 4.7%, “not-too-complex” Blonde Ale made with 2-row barley malt, white wheat, honey malt, and hopped with Tradition, is described as having “subtle malt sweetness...balanced by a touch of hops.”
Due to the regional market success, Firestone Walker decided to expand the beer’s distribution in 2016. It was sent to Arizona, Nevada, and Texas in January of that year, billed as a “session beer.”
At the time, Walker said that the decision to move into those markets largely came as a result of finding out where people were taking it or trying to brew it themselves.
“When 805 was available only on the Central Coast, people bootlegged it down to Los Angeles,” he said. “Now that we’re in Los Angeles, people are bootlegging it to Nevada and Arizona. The beer is telling us where it wants to go.”
Hawaii followed later that year, and then in January 2018, Oregon and Washington came next by way of Columbia Distribution. Again, the brewery cited that locals in those states had been “bootlegging” the beer, with Powell stating in a press release that “there is still no containing it.”
In May, 805 hit its most recent and furthest market, Chicago.
“We moved to Chicago because we were curious to see if 805 resonated outside the Western United States,” Walker says from Firestone’s barrel room in June. He cites similarities in the markets of the Midwest and Arizona, noting there’s a strong sports-watching contingency that like the beer, as well as a large Hispanic demographic that has historically favored the beer.
“It came along quickly,” Powell says. “[The fans] rushed us into some of those places. It had to be done.”
But Powell hesitates, wanting to make it clear that there’s no goal of synonymizing the brand with the culture of any other market to sell beer. “We’re not holding ourselves up to be a Chicago brand in Chicago. We’re a laid-back California brand going into Chicago. Same as Hawaii. You won’t see us posting photos of canoes from a California-based brand. 805 is going to be 805 in Hawaii.”
To head into the new market, the company hired Sophie Helens-Hart as its midwest sales director. She had been with Firestone Walker for a couple years, based in Los Angeles, and because of her family’s Minnesota roots, she was “excited” to usher the brand into the midwest.
“We are doing as well as can be hoped for [here],” she says, one day in early August. “We had 21 billboards go up yesterday. I went to a grocery store the other day and was building a display and this lady came up and said, ‘What is this? I see this everywhere now,’ and I said, ‘Yes!’ That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”
Helens-Hart echoes Powell’s sentiment in not wanting to “push the California lifestyle onto the midwest,” instead invoking the idea that 805 isn’t a beer brand, it’s a lifestyle brand, and one that “celebrates what you’re doing.”
“It’s about the communities and the lifestyle we have in common and share and aspire to,” she adds. “The lowrider cars, the motorcycles, the surfing, skateboarding, the irreverent lifestyle that exists all over the country—it’s tying those things together through the things we have in common rather than, ‘Here’s what we do in California, here’s what Chicago should be doing.’”
But there are challenges to focusing on the idea of beer as a motif of a given lifestyle. Some people associate 805 with beers like Pabst or Modelo or Corona, “big beer or imports,” and it’s been tough to educate consumers on the reasons why this Blonde Ale is different.
One way Firestone Walker tries to stand apart is with its intentionally striking branding: A simple, white-text “805” features prominently in the center of a black label, accompanied exclusively by the necessary ABV and size information and, at the top, and (purposefully?) ambiguous instructions to the buyer to “Properly chill.”
“Right now, I think [the label] cuts through all the noise in beer,” Powell says. “You can see it from afar, it’s a logo-based beer brand. The logo is very clear and pointed.”
It’s working for Firestone Walker’s bottom line. The most recent data from IRI Worldwide, a Chicago-based market research firm, found that from January to May 2018, 805’s sales have grown by 20.8% over the previous year, and that over the last 52 weeks to date, the company has sold $48.5 million worth of that particular beer in stores. That makes sense, considering Walker’s claim that 805 constitutes around 60% of Firestone Walker’s total annual output. And if growth in new markets is successful, those numbers could become even bigger.
Outside of the Central Coast, the beer appears as a love letter from its point of origin, waiting to be consumed. People identify with that, Powell believes, not just because it’s an inviting diorama depicting “where the mountain falls into the sea,” but because it’s easy to identify with the simple premise of drinking an easy brew at the end of a long day.
“That’s what I grew up around,” Powell says. “These people [in the 805] just embodied that spirit. The people I work with at the brewery embody that spirit. The Authenticos—there’s some [of that] in all of us.”