When visiting an area, it’s good to try what they do best. Ideally, you eat and drink locally, favoring their specialties vs. going with something you already know and are comfortable having. That’s one of the great things about traveling; you’re getting to experience new things. Consequently, when Alice and I recently went to Buellton, in the Santa Ynez Valley, we were thinking beer. Beer? In wine country? You bet! Though, if I’m fair, when we’re talking about the Firestone-Walker Barrelworks, we’re not just talking about your every day run of the mill beers, no sir, we’re talking interesting, unique and independently bold.
What is Barrelworks? It’s a place where they take beer to an ethereal level. That, however, isn’t really much of an answer. Let’s dive a little more into that, shall we?
What they are doing is inquiring about the nature of beer — they’re exploring every aspect of it, furthering their knowledge through experimentation and investigation.
What happens when we use wild yeasts? What happens if we age this beer in old wine barrels? How about bourbon barrels? What happens when we mix beer and wine together? If we leave this beer in a barrel for 48 months, what kinds of flavors are going to develop?
Then, the key question: with all of our uniquely flavored beers that we’ve used wild yeast and bacteria strains developing, how can we blend them to create something both unique and, most importantly, tasty?
To pull out the old trope, when it comes time for the all-important blending, it really is a small part science and large part art.
They look for ways to describe and catalogue the sourness (which is a defining characteristic of many of their barrel aged, wild yeasted beers), while discovering the individual flavors they’ve developed. Then, they work to determine how everything can work together, to blend them artfully and to create the most complimentary final product.
During our visit, Jeffers, the Barrelworks Director showed us around and we even had a chance to chat with Jim, the master blender. I asked them about how what they’re doing at Barrelworks differed from standard beer production.
As they explained, with a standard brewing, like at Firestone-Walker Brewery, the aim is to make the same consistently great beer all the time. When you get their ever-popular 805 or DBA, you want it to taste the same whether it’s today, tomorrow or three years from now.
However, with Barrelworks, they’re celebrating the individuality of the beers. As the seasons, ingredients, time spent in barrels and many things change, they want to find ways to expressing that uniqueness through their beers.
This is quite a bit like how wineries have annual releases — you know a 2012 Syrah is going to be different from a 2013 Syrah. They practice that same annual release mentality at Barrelworks.
Naturally, it comes with some education on their part for the public. When you visit them, they’re happy to both pour you a beer and talk you through everything that went into making it. When it comes right down to it, each beer really is a unique expression of what went into it, which is as fleeting and ephemeral as it sounds.
For them, it’s not just about making good beers (which they do), it’s about expanding their understanding about what exactly is beer. They want to experience new flavors. They’re driven to experiment, to challenge themselves.
The best part of our visit to Barrelworks? It wasn’t just tasting many great and new beers (which is always awesome). It was furthering our education about beers and gaining some insight into what makes beers, what flavors can work and challenging our understanding of “beer.”
Really, that’s what Barrelworks is all about: celebrating the uniqueness of beer.
When you go, you’re going to taste some amazing things you’ve never tried before and, given just a small chance, you’ll learn about the art of blending, the science of sour and what makes an exceptional beer exceptional.