After 25 years of brewing Firestone Walker refuses to rest on its laurels. And Sam Tierney who oversees The Propagator, Firestone’s Walker’s miniaturized hot-rod brewhouse in Venice, California is one of the reasons why.
Sam’s an interesting guy, a longtime FW brewing vet who brings a seasoned large-scale production perspective to exploring new beers, any one of which might become Firestone Walker’s ‘next big thing.’
Sam’s also a very busy man, so we appreciated him making some time for us, which happily took place in sunny LA along with some serious beer.
ACB: Sam, thanks so much for making time for us today. Can you tell us a little about your background? Was the brewing biz always in the cards for you?
I got into homebrewing and beer geekery in college. I studied abroad in Sweden for a semester in 2007 when I was 20 and got really interested in European beers. Trips to Amsterdam, Munich for Oktoberfest and Prague really turned me on to beer tradition and culture and I really fell for it.
When I got back to California, I started looking into breweries here and diving into making my own beer. By the time I graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2009, I knew I wanted to go to brewing school and be a brewer. I attended the Siebel and Doemens International Diploma program in 2010, which was a great learning experience and allowed me to go back and study in Germany.
ACB: You’ve been with Firestone Walker for a while now. How did you end up overseeing The Propagator? You’re not a surfer are you?
I spent eight years at the Paso Robles brewery before moving down here to the Propagator in 2019. I started in Paso as a shift brewer before moving into yeast management and barrel work, and then spent my last couple of years up there as cellar manager. My last big project was getting our new 1,500BBL fermentation tanks online, so coming down here to manage a 10BBL brewhouse with 20BBL tanks was quite a shock at first.
This will probably surprise people, but the surfing here in Venice doesn’t hold a candle to the great spots we have up on the Central Coast, so it’s been pretty absent in my life since moving down.
ACB: The Propagator is aptly named. It’s a state-of-the-art R&D brewhouse dedicated to developing new beers that might eventually transition to Firestone Walker’s brewery in Paso Robles and see much wider distribution. Mind Haze and Hopnosis were both honed and trialed in Venice before being perfected at the main brewery. So the concept is working… right?
Some new ideas take longer than others to arrive at their final form, but we have had good success so far. Sometimes we aren’t sure where a concept will take us, and it takes multiple batches of working an idea out until we figure out what the beer is even going to be. Citrus Cyclone is a good example of that kind of progression. We originally set out to make a witbier with our hazy IPA yeast and that evolved into a tangerine beer, which evolved into a hazy IPA with tangerine.
Sometimes you just need to let things evolve naturally as you play with ideas and ingredients. Mind Haze was more straightforward in that we knew we needed to develop a hazy IPA, but we weren’t really sure how we wanted to do it and needed to try a bunch of approaches out to figure out how to get to the flavor profile we were shooting for.
Hopnosis was pretty straightforward as far as new beers go—we really just needed to prove that we could brew a great West Coast IPA with a different yeast strain, and we pretty much nailed it out of the gate.
ACB: In addition to crafting notable one-offs, collaborations and neighborhood beers, The Propagator produces limited runs of cult classics like Wookey Jack and STiVO. Who decides what happens when?
Wookey gets so much demand that we always need to brew it, especially for competitions where it does well. Other projects like STiVO get planned out with Matt and we execute when able.
This year we are planning on making most of our can release collaborations, so I have been reaching out to partners that we have been wanting to work with and bringing them on board for each release. Otherwise, our R&D demands mostly fill out the schedule along with beers for festivals and events like Oktoberfest, and projects for Barrelworks and our Vintage spirit barrel program.
ACB: Los Angeles was later to the craft beer game than other California cities like San Diego. What’s your take on its current brewing scene and how does The Propagator fit in?
It’s definitely different here in that there aren’t a lot of older or larger players in the market. The real wave of breweries that got things going is only about a decade old, with a handful before that.
Most breweries in L.A. are pretty small so we fit right in in some way. But being part of a larger brewery does make us stand out somewhat. The Westside is especially sparse when it comes to breweries, with only a few of us here, but go south to Torrance and there are a ton of breweries.
We’ve tried to really become a Venice brewery and not just a Firestone location that happens to be located here, and I think that six years of success now attests to that.
ACB: The Propagator is getting set to celebrate its sixth anniversary coming up. Time flies when you’re brewing a good time. Will you be marking it with a something special?
Absolutely. We are going to have a party on April 30 and will be releasing cans of our 6th anniversary Double IPA, Gen 6, on April 15.
This year we asked El Segundo Brewing Company to come over and sprinkle some of their West Coast IPA magic dust in the kettle for us. I’m really excited for the beer we brewed with them and can’t wait to release it. We riffed on our house IPA Gen 1 but added Vista and HBC 1019, which are two new hop varieties that we are really excited to use.
ACB: We know it’s not fair to ask, but do you have a favorite Propagator beer? If so please give it up.
Summer Opal, a saison, was really special for me because it was my first original recipe to win a medal at GABF back in 2019. Among beers that we brew repeatedly, it would have to be our Schwarzbier—I just love a black lager and always look forward to bringing it back.
All image credits: Firestone Walker