The Lion comes to L.A.
Beer lovers, rejoice! Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s experimental Venice taproom is now open for business.
By Joe Piasecki
He calls it “The Propagator.”
Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s David Walker oversees production of 260,000 barrels of beer per year on California’s Central Coast, but it’s the thousand-or-so barrels he’ll soon have coming out of Venice that has the cofounder of the state’s fourth-largest brewery truly excited.
These will be beers made from new ideas.
After three years of planning and construction, Firestone Walker launches its long-anticipated taproom and gastropub near the busy corner of Washington and Lincoln boulevards on the evening of April 7, with lunch service to follow in May.
Done up in shiny metal and unfinished wood that adds a little Venice chic to the laid-back stylings of a traditional West Coast brewery taproom, the 8,000-square-foot dining area (supported by 69 parking spaces), adjacent barrel cellar and full-service kitchen will generate enough activity to employ more than 100 people.
But the beer is really the star of the show: 30 taps featuring Firestone favorites and guest beers, with three to five of those taps dedicated to unique batches of unfiltered “rustic ales” aged on site in oak barrels. And yes, there will be growler service.
The experience: “Beer culture. That’s it in two words,” says Walker, a native of England who’s represented by the lion in the brand’s familiar crest. “I want someone to come in here and start with British Pale Ale, maybe drink an IPA, try a Lambic-style kriek and finish with a barrel-aged Russian imperial stout — then call an Uber.”
Walker not only hopes to convert macro-brew holdouts to fresh-brewed craft beer, he has plans to host beer education seminars and collaborate with local brewers to create small batches. (The Culver City-based Pacific Gravity Home Brewers Club recently headed north to make beer at Firestone Walker’s main brewery in Paso Robles.)
“There’s a broad-based consumer revolution going on whereby people care deeply about what they eat, what they drink. It becomes part of what they believe. And craft brewing is right in the center of that little revolution,” Walker says.
“Draw a three- or four-mile radius around here and you have a lot of experimental individuals. They’re full of life, looking for interesting things, discovering, searching … happy to look at new things. Each of our locations has a special meaning for us, and this place is going to be the propagator of ideas.”
WAIT — WHAT’S RUSTIC ALE?
The beer that Firestone Walker makes in its main Paso Robles brewery is finished and filtered for kegs and cans — stalwarts of the California craft beer scene such as Double Barrel Ale (the brand’s flagship British pale ale), Union Jack IPA (an aggressively hopped West Coast India Pale Ale) and Pivo (a dry-hopped pilsner).
There’s also 805, a mildly hopped blond ale becoming so popular that Firestone Walker partnered with larger brewer Duvel Moortgat last year in order to fund a brewery expansion so they could make more of it.
The company’s Barrelworks facility in Buellton is “almost a complete departure from what we do in Paso,” says Firestone Walker head brewer Matt Brynildson — a “wild ales” program that uses unpredictable microorganisms and yeasts that would wreak havoc on quality control in Paso Robles to create a more acidic and slightly sour portfolio of beers aged in barrels like wine. Krieky Bones, a sour-cherry ale aged in French oak for two years (created to mark David Walker’s 50th birthday),
is one such beer.
The Venice operation will borrow from both traditions.
“I’m calling Venice a ‘rustic ales’ program because it’s very much down the center of the two. Rustic really just means there aren’t a lot of rules. It’s going to be more of a mad-scientist blending and alchemy project than what could be considered a classic brewing project,” says Brynildson.
“I can produce the wort [pronounced “wert,” liquid extracted from the mashing process that holds the sugars to be fermented by brewing yeast] in Paso Robles, send it down to Venice and put it in a barrel for maturing in alternative yeasts. And then we have the ability to do other steps like secondary fermentation and dry-hopping,” he says. “I’m known for loving hoppy beers, so inevitably there’ll be some kind of hop twist to it all.”
Because all the beer being made in Venice will be for growlers or onsite consumption, they won’t be filtered for transportation in cans or kegs.
“There’s no need to filter beer when you’re serving it straight over the bar,” says Brynildson, “so why not serve beer with all the flavor and texture of the original?
A DREAM DELAYED
Firestone Walker has had its eye on Venice for a long time — since 2013, in fact, when the company first announced plans for larger-scale onsite beer production with state-of-the-art Kaspar Schulz brewing equipment from Germany.
Three years and $9 million later — about $8 million to acquire and improve what was formerly a gym and a Sizzler restaurant, $1 million for the brewing equipment — Firestone Walker had an opening date in March.
And the permits for the brewhouse still hadn’t gone through.
That forced a decision open with the rustic ales program while continuing to seek clearance for operating the Kaspar Schulz brewhouse from multiple city departments, says Firestone Walker Brewing Co. cofounder Adam Firestone (the bear in the crest).
“We figured it was past time to put the horse in the ring and let it buck for a while,” Firestone says. “Maybe through adversity we’ll have a stronger outcome. In the tech world they’d call this an incubator lab.”
Firestone ran a winery before teaming with brother-in-law Walker to enter the nascent American craft beer industry 20 years ago.
The pair started off with a $24,000 brewhouse salvaged from a junkyard in Chatsworth “but realized quite quickly that we weren’t qualified to fly the thing,” says Walker. That prompted an odyssey involving a brewing course at Anchor Steam and recruiting barely-old-enough-to-drink fermentation program graduates from UC Davis. Now Firestone Walker beer is sold in 20 states, though 80% of total distribution remains in California.
‘THE SWEETEST BEER’
Brynildson says the brewhouse permit holdup has forced the company to go further outside the box — do something a little edgier and perhaps more artisanal than what they originally had in mind.
“We have spent 20 years adapting to adversity,” says Walker. “It’s all good.”
Firestone remains optimistic the permits will eventually go through. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin have been a huge help, he says, but the process has been very convoluted compared to the less-populous Central Coast: “It’s not malicious, but one department says A, another says B and then you get down to G and they say go back to A. You get through one hurdle only to find six more.”
Firestone, Walker and Brynildson each believe the Westside has the beginnings of a vibrant craft beer culture — at least when it comes to drinking it. But they aren’t as certain why discerning palates along the L.A. coastline have had to wait so long for a brick-and-mortar brewing operation to sprout up between Santa Monica and El Segundo.
Maybe because it’s so difficult to get one started, offers Firestone.
Maybe larger markets move slower, offers Brynildson.
Either way, says Walker, Los Angeles is catching up quickly to leading craft beer markets such as San Diego and the Pacific Northwest, but craft brewers need to build more breweries to keep that momentum going.
After all, he says, “The sweetest beer is the beer drank closest to the brewery.”
Firestone Walker Venice is at 3205 Washington Blvd. in the Oxford Triangle neighborhood of Venice. Call (310) 439-8264 or visit firestonebeer.com for more information.