We recently flew out to California, as guests of David Walker and the Firestone Walker crew, to attend this year’s Invitational Beer Fest up in Paso Robles. Needless to say, it was a total blast and a wonderful example of a beer festival done right.
And, oh yeah… It also might just be the best non-Brewers Association craft beer event in the country.
The Firestone Walker Invitational is one of California’s hottest tickets. It’s a legend on the West Coast, sells out almost immediately, and has garnered an enormous reputation in a relatively short time. Keep in mind that this event is just four years old and it’s fast becoming iconic.
And there are all kinds of reasons why …
First of all, Firestone Walker is an accomplished brewery that is helmed by a savvy crew. It was founded by Adam Firestone along with his brother-in-law, British transplant David Walker, who for many is the face of the organization. But if David’s this organization’s front man, then Brewmaster Matt Brynildson is Firestone Walker’s lead guitarist. He’s a brilliant brewer with an eye for talent – many of whom came from all around the world to be part of this amazing festival.
Where this event takes place is also a factor…Firestone Walker is based in Paso Robles, 35 miles inland from the Pacific, almost equidistant from San Francisco to the north and LA to the south. Paso (as the locals call it) is a beautiful city, rich in California heritage and it’s where 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.
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 smartly included a separate campground village for the visiting brewers – which also served as ground zero for the after-Invitational beer community to get a little wild – but we needn’t get into that.
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 onstage unless you’ve something special going on. The coolness of being invited to be 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 breweries invited to this year’s Invitational was rich and far ranging. Big-time craft beer players like Sierra Nevada, Stone, Founders, and New Belgium stood alongside California heavies like Russian River and The Bruery. Three Floyds was there, as was Cigar City. Surly was there and so was Jester King. The Garage Project came in from New Zealand and Logan Plant was in town fronting for his exciting London-based Beavertown Brewery. Birrificio Italiano came in from Italy and Denmark’s Mikkeller was also 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 again this year, with layers of support teams ensuring that everything went smoothly. Even at its peak, the beer lines were manageable and with 26 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 regular brewer discussions and sampling sessions, the other providing non-stop music throughout the day?
Again, it’s that kind of thinking and expert orchestration that has made the Firestone Walker Invitational something to aspire to.
The Firestone Walker Invitational may well be the finest brewery sponsored craft beer festival that we’ve ever attended – and it continues to set the standard for craft beer entertainment and production excellence.
This is a one-of-a-kind craft beer celebration that’s built for the industry and its fans – and, needless to say, we’re not missing it next year.