Weeks like this, when spring seems just on the cusp of appearing, it's easy to get the travel itch. You could slip away down south and hope for a warm Saturday afternoon at one of San Diego's pristine beaches. You could head inland to turn up the heat and lay by a Palm Springs pool, or try to catch the last little bit of snow, melting away near Yosemite. But if you're truly hearing the call of the wild, head north on the 101 to Firestone Walker's Barrelworks location in Buellton.
Tucked off to the side of the Firestone Walker taphouse in Buellton sits a small bar, duskily lit, with little more than a handwritten chalkboard to order from and a few panels along the walls that toss around serious terms like Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces. Those mouth-numbing names refer to specific strains of bacteria, which is at the heart of the Buellton Barrelworks project, and the reason the facility is producing some of the most interesting and dynamic beers within a day's drive of Los Angeles.
For years, bacteria and beer making have been at odds with each other, with the former cropping up and threatening the complete livelihood of the latter. Just ask the Los Angeles Ale Works guys, who were set back more than six months from debuting their beers after a tainted batch of brew had to be drained. It's a tricky issue, bacteria, and one that can infect and cripple even the most stringent production lines if not carefully contained. But in the case of Barrelworks, these same bacterias are uncaged and left to roam freely inside of old oak barrels filled with Firestone Walker's core line beers. The results are exactly as stated: wild.
The 7,000 square foot temperature controlled barrel aging cellar acts as a staging area and store room for the constantly fermenting strong brews. Individual barrels can be pulled off and tapped for the Barrelworks bar in the other room, which means anyone stumbling in from the main taproom can find themselves sipping one a one-off sour ale that clocks in at around 12% alcohol. Tweaking your tastebuds with different variations on the "barrel type + date of aging + bacteria strain + foundation beer" math is the best part of enjoying a glass or two at Barrelworks, since no two barrels will ever be quite the same.
That's just fine with Barrelworks overseer Jim Crooks, aka Sour Jim. The master blender who now helms the wild ales program for Firestone Walker is fairly obsessed with creating one-off blends of different ales from different barrels, and using the continually changing wild ale landscape to create brews that will be approachable to more inexperienced drinkers, but nerdy enough for the hardcore beer buffs. Within a few years, the plan is to exponentially grow the aging facility in Buellton and expand into bottling of the most dynamic blends Crooks is able to create. For now, these signature sours are left relatively untouched inside the Barrelworks facility, waiting to be sipped at the bar, stored for later or blended in small amounts to help create Firestone Walker's limited anniversary beers.
Not only is Barrelworks helping to shape the landscape of craft beer throughout California and beyond, the gorgeous facility and scenic drive to Buellton should be enough to entice a more beer-wary audience from Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles and beyond. And as their aging program continues to grow and experiment under Jim Crooks, head Firestone Walker brewer Matt Brynildson and the rest of the Firestone Walker team, Barrelworks has a wild future ahead.
Firestone Walker Barrelworks
620 McMurray Rd., Buellton, CA 93427 (map)
Open Friday - Sunday, 11am to 6pm only.