Photos: Behind the Scenes Blending Firestone Walker XX
Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s annual winemaker blendings have been the basis of the brewery’s anniversary beer releases since X (aka “10”) was released for its 10th anniversary in fall of 2006. Our beer editor Ken Weaver headed to the brewery in Paso Robles, California, this August to participate in the blending of the latest anniversary release, XX, celebrating the brewery’s 20th year. The final blend of XX will be released to the public on Saturday.
These photos were taken by Ken Weaver.
Firestone Walker’s brewmaster Matt Brynildson talks through the individual beers available for creating potential blends of the 20th anniversary beer, XX, as the teams of winemakers look on. A key challenge this year: the heavy malt focus, with minimal hop-forward options to rely upon (requiring teams to use alcohol, roasted-malt bitterness, etc., to their benefit).
Seven different Firestone Walker base beers were presented as options for the 20th anniversary blend, with 14 to 120 barrels available of each. Given barrel limits and target, one couldn’t (for instance) have more than 50 percent contribution from Parabola or Velvet Merkin (with 120 barrels of each available for a final batch of 240-plus barrels), with far lower max-percentage contributions for the beers with fewer barrels available. (The 14 barrels of fruity weizen, for instance, couldn’t comprise more than about 5 percent of a viable blend.)
Last year’s winning blenders from Thacher Winery, wearing the cardboard crowns that have been passed between the winning teams over the years. Closer up, the crowns show evidence of past winning teams from Tablas Creek Vineyard, Saxum Vineyards (repeat winner in 2011 and 2012), and others buried underneath. The crown on the right (possibly both in practice) looked like it was dipped in bottling wax at one point. These crowns have seen some things.
Initial steps: tasting through the available options—thinking in terms of dominant notes and blending benefits. Some to lighten. Some to add lean, alcoholic warmth. The majority of the base options led with a clear focus: floral notes, tree fruit, middle malts. Teams (usually pairs) created potential blends before submitting a final one for group judging, working within the allowed parameters of barrels available and final barrels needed. (Go easy on that weizen.)
Where the magic happens. … Our team’s earliest blends were superior to our recordkeeping system. (We wrote in chicken-scratch to confound any potential cheating winemakers—of which there were zero.) The rightmost column was our fourth and final submitted blend.
Teams were provided with beakers, pipettes, graduated cylinders, delicious homemade bread (courtesy of my fearless teammate Arie) and plenty of pitchers of the blending components. A typical approach was to measure 100 mL total of the desired blend for tasting, with each 1 mL corresponding to 1 percent of the final blend (5 mL of this, 30 mL of that, etc.). Easy-peasy.
When all the teams had a final blend created, our Firestone Walker hosts departed to blend a pitcher of each for the whole group to try. Final competing blends were then judged blindly by the different teams, with each person voting for their top three (ideally including, if they were able to pick it out among the other often-rather-similar blends, their own).
The attending winemakers were able to effortlessly put blends together—a testament to how much tasting and component blending goes into their own work on a semi-regular basis. The winning blender this year (competing solo!) was Scott Hawley representing Torrin Vineyard. (Note the new, doubly crowned royalty at the group dinner following the blending session.)
Last shot before heading back to my nearby hotel for the night. The final blend info for this year’s XX was just announced, and is a 250-barrel blend consisting of five component beers: 40 percent Parabola (Russian-style imperial oatmeal stout), 20 percent Stickee Monkee (barrel-aged quad w/ Belgian candi & Mexican turbinado sugar), 17.5 percent Velvet Merkin (oatmeal stout), 12.5 percent Bravo (bourbon-barrel-aged imperial brown ale) and 10 percent Helldorado (bourbon-barrel-aged blonde barleywine). The beer debuts at the XX Anniversary Release party on Saturday.