Feral One: An Interview with Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks Barrelmeister, Jeffers Richardson

March 8th is going to be a big day for Firestone Walker. In fact, you may just say that the “wild chicken has come home to roost!”

Barrelworks, Firestone’s dedicated wild yeast facility that launched in 2013, is unleashing its very first wild beer into the public. Aptly titled Feral One, this sour is a blend of a number of Firestone’s wild concoctions all aged in American and French oak barrels. The man behind this release is Jeffers Richardson, a beer industry veteran who started 18 years ago as Firestone’s first brewmaster, and who subsequently spent a number of years at various other gigs (including a six-year stint at Sierra Nevada), but has now returned to head up this very exciting project.

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“18 years ago, we offered two beers—both pale ales,” said Richardson about the changes that have taken place between his early days with Firestone, and his recent return. “The craft beer segment has expanded from 2% of beer consumption to roughly 8%. Firestone Walker has a portfolio of beers we offer now that covers a wide spectrum. I am thrilled by that! In the early days—Firestone’s “Barbary Coast” days—we struggled with a jalopy brew house, a shoe-string budget, some quality control issues, and an inability to distribute effectively outside of the Central Coast (of California).”

“Now we have a state-of-the-art brewhouse, top-notch quality control program, the most talented brewmaster I know—Matt Brynildson—and distribution in 8 states (75% of our beer, I might add, is sold within a 5 hour radius of our brewery). It didn’t happen overnight—it’s been incremental, hard work, and a lesson in endurance, but our dedication and passion for making the best beer possible has never changed. In fact, It has gotten better.”

This quest for the best possible beer, one might presume, has been the reason that Firestone has been able to expand into a new 7,000 square foot facility and pursue a program entirely devoted to wild/sour beer. This, even despite the fact that the market for sours is still really small.

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Photo contributed by Firestone Walker

“We do this because we like it!” says Richardson. “We cut our teeth on a barrel program—the Firestone Union—when we opened our doors, and continued to introduce more barrel programs because of our love of what happens in the barrel—the influence of time and oak—whether that’s fermenting, aging, or introducing wild yeast and other microflora to the barrels. It’s a very creative and satisfying art.”

Interestingly, the 7,000 square foot Barrelworks facility isn’t located at (or even near) the main brewery in Paso Robles. It’s 86 miles away in a town called Buellton – which, as Jeffers pointed out – was the original home of Firestone back in the day. “It made sense to come full circle and locate Barrelworks in the area where we began 18 years ago. Ironically, we were feverishly avoiding the making of wild beers in Buellton at that point, and with our return, we focus on it. This ‘wild’ chicken has come home to roost!”

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Photo contributed

So, how has everything been shaking out so far for Jeffers and the Barrelworks team? And what should we expect in the months/years to come?

“Last year was a lesson in patience,” says Richardson. “We spent more time filling barrels than we did emptying them. This was to be expected as we grew our program, but it takes time to go through a secondary fermentation and maturation period with our wild beers. Often, the barrels tell us when the beer is ready, and fortunately, we have a very creative and talented “barrel whisperer” in Jim Crooks, our Barrelworks Master Blender.”

“This year, some of our patience—and Jim’s “whispering” will pay off! We plan at least six releases of both bottles and kegs for 2014. I’m very excited about our first release—a cuvee or blend celebrating our first year in existence—called Feral One. It’s a blend of four different Barrelworks beers aged between 18-32 months in French and American oak barrels. We only produced 500 cases.”

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Photo contributed by Firestone Walker

The other releases (that Jeffers didn’t mention in detail) will follow in subsequent months. But all of Barrelworks releases will be extremely limited. At least for the foreseeable future, all bottles will be sold only at Firestone’s facilities, including their future planned campus in Venice Beach, CA. “As we literally had to fill, cork and cage these offerings by hand, we have a very limited supply,” says Richardson. “But we will keg these beers as well, and they will trickle out into the market for beer events, festivals, etc. Paramount to us is making extraordinary beer, not just a lot of beer. We are very happy with the beers that we have lined up for this year, so if our customers enjoy them, we will probably ratchet up the supply a little.”

I asked Jeffers if we might be seeing any of Barrelworks releases in Massachusetts in the near future, and to my pleasant surprise, he confirmed that the first opportunity to taste his creations will be at Beer Advocate’s upcoming Extreme Beer Fest. “I lived in Boston for three years,” said Richardson. “You have no idea how thrilled I am that I can visit Beantown and get a fresh Firestone Walker beer. It makes me feel at home. Better yet, will be the day I enjoy one of our Barrelworks beers in Massachusetts. Soon.”

And to that I say, I can’t wait! Knowing the capabilities of Firestone Walker, and Jeffers Richardson, I have a feeling these Barrelworks beers are going to be very special.

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A big thanks to Jeffers for taking time from his busy travel schedule to answer a few questions.

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