Last weekend, we flew out to California as guests of David Walker and the Firestone Walker crew and attended our first Invitational up in Paso Robles. Needless to say, it was a total blast but it was also a wonderful example of a craft beer festival done perfectly.
The Firestone Walker Invitational is one of California’s hottest craft beer tickets. It’s legend on the West Coast, sells out almost immediately, and has garnered an enormous reputation in a relatively short time. This event is just three years old and it’s already iconic, and there are all kinds of reasons why it is…
First of all, Firestone Walker is an awesome and accomplished brewery that is helmed by a savvy crew. It was founded by Adam Firestone along with his brother-in-law and British transplant David Walker, who for many is the face of the organization. You gotta admit that it doesn’t get much better than a charismatic Brit fronting for a brewery that bleeds California – and he is just one of the many faces, like Brewmaster Matt Brynildson, who image Firestone Walker so wonderfully.
Where this event takes place is also a factor…Firestone Walker is based in Paso Robles, an almost four-hour drive north from Los Angeles. Paso (as the locals call it) is a beautiful city, rich in California heritage and the brewery hosts this annual event in partnership with the Paso Robles Pioneer Day Committee. In addition to being the home of Firestone Walker, the city is known for its abundance of wineries, its production of olive oil, its almond orchards, as well as being the number one skateboarding community nationwide. Nestled along the Salinas River in San Luis Obispo County, Paso Robles is uniquely Californian and that sense of place colors this festival in undeniable and unmistakable ways.
Conceptually the Invitational is brilliant. All the brewers attending are friends of Firestone Walker and being invited to the event serves as an unspoken endorsement of what they’re all doing…It’s like Coachella for craft brewers – you don’t get invited onstage if you don’t have something special going on. The coolness of being part of the Firestone Walker Invitational is undeniable. For some, it’s a career marker yet it fosters a feeling of craft beer community at the same time.
The mix of fifty breweries invited to this year’s Invitational was rich and far-ranging. Big-time craft beer players such as Sierra Nevada, Stone, Founders, and Boulevard stood alongside California heavies like Russian River and the almost reclusive Alpine. Three Floyds was there, as was Cigar City. Surly was there and so was Jester King. 8 Wired and Garage Project came in from New Zealand and Logan Plant was serving up Quelle Saison from his exciting London-based Beavertown Brewery. Birrificio Italiano came in from Italy and Denmark’s Mikkeller was there to represent. It’s not often that you see so many accomplished brewers side by side. It was a mind-blowing ensemble and Firestone Walker was the reason they all came.
The Invitational’s production was seamless. Everything was thought out and there were layers of support teams available to ensure that all went smoothly. The festival itself took place at the Paso Robles Event Center – a spacious, tree-filled, open-air venue with multiple picnic grounds, western-themed streets, and all kinds of staging facilities. The venue also included a separate campground for the visiting brewers and that served as ground zero for the after-Invitational beer community to get a little wild – but we needn’t get into that.
Even at its peak, the beer lines were manageable and never overbearing, and with 24 regional restaurant stations punctuating the grounds, food was readily available. Who thinks to have tented misting stations to combat the bright California heat? They did. Who plans to run two separate stages at the same time – one presenting hourly Q&A and sampling sessions with visiting brewers, the other providing non-stop music throughout the day? Again, it’s that kind of thinking and expert orchestration that made this year’s Firestone Walker Invitational something to aspire to.
The bottom line is that the 2014 Firestone Walker Invitational may well be the finest, brewery-sponsored craft beer festival that we’ve ever attended. It was brilliantly conceived and deftly handled on almost every level, and it sets a new standard in craft beer entertainment and excellence.
And needless to say…we’re not missing it next year.