It had been a couple years since my last visit to Paso Robles for the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival, a festival so popular that the tickets sell out practically as soon as the online sale starts.
The rarity of the beer is one draw. The event is a whale hunters paradise, but to me seeing breweries that don’t distribute here in SoCal is the bigger draw. Beavertown Brewing from England, Half Acre from Chicago, and Boneyard from Bend, Oregon, were three that caught my eye.
Here are my notes (and favorite beers) from the day in the very hot Central Coast.
Tickets may be expensive, but they sell out extremely fast every year and the cost is worth it. You could skip all the beer and just hit the food stands and get your money’s worth. The FWIBF is just very well run from top-to-bottom. Water stands abound, the layout maximizes the space so that even on a hot day you don’t feel packed in like sardines. Maps are available to help navigate in both physical form but also on their app.
Since this is a beer column, though, the main win for FWIBF is that there are really no bad beers. You could blindly pick your way through the booths and be assured that you were getting a really great beer but also one that you probably don’t get at all where you live. This is a festival where the snobbiest of beer snobs would not be able to troll.
Getting the most general admission crowd love were the projects. Side Project from Missouri and Garage Project from New Zealand. Wicked Weed and Kern River had some lengthy lines as well, but the three best beers that I had were in the International Pavilion. Tipopils from Birrificio Italiano is a lovely sweet pils with a nice pop to it. Perfect for the 90-degree weather. Yuzilla Phantom from England’s Beavertown Brewery was a dry, citric Gose that blended yuzu and lime to great effect. The weirdest beer that I had was from the aforementioned Garage Project, a maize based beer with not only habanero, but watermelon and rosewater added as well.
From the States, the gin barrel aged Pony Pilsner from Half Acre in Chicago was nice and refreshing, but with that hard edge from the spirit propping it up. Tropicalia IPA from Creature Comforts of Georgia was one of the few IPAs I drank, but it was a serious tropical fruit bomb. Lastly, I had my first tastes of sours from The Rare Barrel and was mightily impressed. The hype surrounding their beers is well justified. They poured a mint-cucumber sour that was amazing.
I can’t recommend this festival enough. Drive up Friday, visit the Paso breweries and use Sunday to taste wine, but mostly walk through the gates to the magic beer kingdom.
Both Firestone Walker and Russian River Brewing include a pils in their beer line-up. Oft overlooked for hoppier or blendier options, Pivo Pils and STS Pils are fine examples of California hoppy pilsners. Now the duo have combined forces and the result is the Beer of the Week: STiVO, an “arranged marriage of the STS and Pivo recipes.” That splits the hops between the Saphir from Pivo and the Aramis hops from STS. This beer debuted at the tiny little festival mentioned above and will be in limited release.
Your Homework is to prep a hot weather safety pack for summer’s craft beer festivals. A ready-to-grab at a moment’s notice Go-Bag. Both times that I have been to the Invitational, it has been a scorcher of a day and without the proper equipment, your enjoyment of the beers can be dulled. Here is what to put into the bag: suntan lotion (you will need to re-apply throughout the day), water bottle (either empty and fill on-site or full), hat (no one wants a sunburn on the top of their head), sunglasses (no explanation needed), and lastly something that can’t physically be added to a pack: awareness of how much you can safely drink in the heat (the most important aspect of them all). You may see a Double Rye DBA, but you may want to think twice before partaking of that 15% ABV beer and look for a STiVO instead.
Find more of Sean Inman’s writing on his blog, Beer Search Party.