Few brewer’s command the kind the kind of respect that Firestone Walker’s Matt Brynildson does.
When Firestone Walker co-founders Adam Firestone and David Walker moved their brewing operations to Paso Robles in 2001, they also landed “the perfect brewmaster at the perfect time” and Brynildson’s been guiding the brewery’s brewing directions ever since.
American Craft Beer recently had the opportunity to sit down with Matt, one of craft beer’s leading brewmasters, and get his get his thoughts on “all things brewing” including the Hazy IPA phenomenon that is sweeping the nation.
ACB: Thanks for taking time with us today Matt, we know you’re a busy guy. Can we start with a little history? How’d you get into brewing and make your way to Firestone Walker?
I spent my college years in Kalamazoo MI, home of Bell’s Brewery, which was my first exposure to craft beer. I was initially planning on going into medicine, but I also got into homebrewing in college, and now you know how that ended up.
I studied chemistry and did an internship at KALSEC (Kalamazoo Spice Extraction Company) fortuitously being placed in their hops lab. I was mostly a lab rat, but I was exposed to real brewing science. I later joined the company fulltime after graduation working as a Hop Chemist, which started a lifelong love affair with hops. I was still homebrewing and voraciously consumed any and all information I could get my hands on related to beer making.
A couple of years later, I attended the Siebel Institute in Chicago and went to work for Goose Island, which was an incredible proving ground. In 2000 I moved to California to become the brewmaster at the then SLO Brewing Company in Paso Robles, on California’s Central Coast. It wasn’t the smartest move because within a year, that brewery went under, however, Adam Firestone and David Walker acquired the brewing facility in 2001, as they were outgrowing their own original brewery. I was still lurking around the brewhouse, trying to keep the bankers’ hands off my beer. David and Adam not only got a new brewery—they inherited a brewmaster! The rest is history.
ACB: As Brewmaster you oversee a lot at Firestone Walker including new beer projects…How does a new beer come about and how does it make it into the brewery’s lineup?
There are a lot of factors. First and foremost, it has to come from a place of inspiration. For example, Easy Jack was inspired by my travels to family hop farms in Bavaria—I came across these hops that I thought would be perfect for a session IPA. Trying an Italian hoppy pilsner called Tipopils is what got me excited to create a beer like Pivo. Working at Goose Island and being a part of their Bourbon County Stout program, which gave me the experience to launch our own barrel aging program.
I recently went on a brewing sabbatical to Belgium, and came home with a lot of ideas, some of which helped me formulate beers like Fly Jack and most recently Double Mind Haze. If you remain curious, there’s always going to be something that gets you excited about brewing something new.
We don’t follow trends, but we do keep an eye on them, and I’d be lying if I said that we never listen to what our sales team is asking for. You can bet that our sales team was getting impatient for a hazy IPA before we brewed Mind Haze. We aren’t always the first to do something, but whatever we do, we like to do it the Firestone way.
ACB: Which brings us to Firestone Walker’s newest release, Double Mind Haze, a beer that ups the ante considerably on Mind Haze which the brewery introduced in 2019. At 8.3% ABV this is a big beer. What can you tell us about this IPA’s development?
In a lot of ways, I feel like this beer could have come before Mind Haze—because I feel like the double IPA format is really the pinnacle of the hazy style. But I’m glad we started with Mind Haze, because we did R&D for a year to perfect that beer, and now we’ve taken everything we’ve learned from that and pumped it into Double Mind Haze, which has a lot of similarities, but also some key differences.
For me, the amazing thing is the mouthfeel and flavors that come with the increased gravity and ABV of Double Mind Haze. When done correctly, double hazy IPAs transform into massive flavor machines with a creamy mouthfeel and saturated, mind-bending hop flavors. That’s what I love about this beer.
ACB: Before you became a brewer you were a hop chemist and you’ve traveled the world in search of new hop varietals and exploring different hopping techniques. Tell us a little about your hop choices and the brewing approach that went into the creation of Double Mind Haze?
With Double Mind Haze, in addition to traditional post-fermentation dry hopping, we’re employing “mid-ferm” hopping, which allows the yeast to liberate free aroma compounds to amplify the juicy, integrated hop character.
We’ve also incorporated some new hops into the dry-hopping regimen, such as Sabro, which has a unique coconut aroma; and Strata, which has a lot of pungent fruit. Some of these hops might stick out in a lighter hazy like Mind Haze, but in this stronger beer they find a balancing point.
As with the original Mind Haze, we’re not relying on residual yeasts or starches for turbidity. The haziness and mouthfeel of Mind Haze are created by using 40 percent wheat and oats in the grain bill while fine-tuning the timing and interplay of our hop additions.
ACB: Double Mind Haze is obviously an extension of Firestone Walker’s first Hazy IPA. What do think it shares with Mind Haze and how do you see it as different?
The similarities to Mind Haze include the use of pale malt, toasted wheat and oats. The hot side hopping approach is also similar—it’s all about generating a soft malt mouthfeel with a juicy, fruity hop character. Most importantly, the yeast strain is the same and is specific to our hazy beers.
Things are different on the dry hop side. Some hops carried over, such as Azacca, Cashmere, Idaho 7 and Mosaic. But we’ve now added Strata, Sabro, Idaho Gem and Motueka.
So I would say that Double Mind Haze is really the big brother of Mind Haze. It has a lot in common, but it’s also bigger and bolder with its own distinct hop profile.
ACB: What are your thoughts on Hazy IPA as an overall style? It’s uber-hot right now and in some ways more popular now than the once dominant West-Coast style IPA. How do you see its future?
Will hazy IPAs be as hot in three years as they are now? It’s hard to say. Beer culture moves swiftly. But hazy IPAs are here to stay, no doubt. At their best, they are an amazing platform for hop aromas and flavors. How can you not love that?
There’s a brewery in Titting, Germany called Gutmann, and they brew a bench mark Weizenbock. It’s this beautiful 7.2% ABV hazy beer with a creamy mouthfeel and a tropical-banana aroma that fits right in with the hazy IPAs of today—and yet they’ve been making it for more than 50 years. So I think there will always be a place for beers like this.
ACB: There’s a lot of great Hazy IPAs out there. Do you have any non- Firestone favorites you’re willing to share with us? We wouldn’t want you to piss off your friends.
There are a massive number of brewers who are taking Hazy IPA to another level and I certainly have not tasted them all. I tend to like the beers that show the best hop integration and balance. I’m not a fan of hop burn or vegetative character. Some of my recent favorites have been beers from Trillium and Weldwerks, both of which we don’t often get here in California.
While I was in Europe I found FrauGruber, a German brewery that is absolutely killing it with their Hazy IPAs and putting a lot of care and thought into both the malts and the hops they employ. You will be hearing a lot more about these guys for sure.
Here in California I continue to be a big fan of Cellarmaker and Alvarado Street to our north and Green Cheek to our south. I’ve been fortunate to be getting a steady stream of these beers during the pandemic.
All of these guys keep me honest and working to improve our haze game.