Feral Ones: The Unlikely Origins of Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks

Feature by | Mar 2017 | Issue #122
Photo by Jacqueline Pilar

Late in 2016, Jim Crooks, master blender at Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks, brought something wild to Liefmans in Belgium. Founded in 1697, the storied brewery in Oudenaarde is best known for Goudenband, the iconic Oud Bruin. In 2008, another Belgian brewing family, the Moortgats, makers of Duvel, had plucked Liefmans out of bankruptcy.

Crooks says that as he helped fine-tune the new program at the 300-year-old company, he stopped and thought: “Pinch me.” But maybe he should have expected the assignment. Crooks is connected to the brewers at Liefmans through his employer, the latest beneficiary of the Moortgat family’s investments in interesting breweries. His astonishment persisted, however, because he was helping Olav Blancquaert and Marc Coesens shape an experimental sour barrel project by drawing on knowledge gained from a covert program that had nearly ended his career five years earlier.

Starting early last summer, Crooks shipped two containers of barrels and specialized equipment from Barrelworks on the rural Central California Coast to the medieval city on the banks of the Schelde River. One hundred American- and French-oak California wine barrels were filled with vintage Liefmans beers, 100 bourbon barrels with a custom brew from Duvel. Something new was on the horizon: an experiment that brings innovative American wild beer techniques to Belgium, the very country that inspired their invention.

Crooks’ unlikely journey began with a quest to understand flavor by studying food science at California Polytechnic Institute in San Luis Obispo. A six-year stint as a cook after graduation knocked dreams of becoming a chef out of his system. While pondering his next move, he returned to San Luis Obispo in 1999 to meet a college professor friend at the SLO Brew pub on Garden Street. The brewery’s founder, Mike Hoffman, stopped at their table, and when the professor introduced his former student, Hoffman offered Crooks a job on the spot.

For his first assignment, Hoffman asked Crooks to identify sources of contamination at his production facility in nearby Paso Robles. Knowing little beyond how to identify yeast and Lactobacillus with a microscope, Crooks cold-called anyone he could find in his new industry with experience fending off microbiological outbreaks. With help from Portland Brewing, Loffler Chemical, Fisher Scientific, and Sierra Nevada Brewing he tracked down multiple contamination points in the brewery.

About six months later, a new brewmaster arrived. Matt Brynildson came from Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago, where, as head brewer, he’d written the standard operating procedures manual for micro quality. “Here’s your lab,” he said, handing the manual to his new colleague.

“Jim was like a wild animal,” Brynildson remembers fondly. “He was a skinny, wacky surf kid. If you got three beers in him, you couldn’t control him.” Crooks wasn’t a typical lab tech either, waiting for samples and writing reports. “He was harvesting the yeast and pitching tanks and watching fermentations. He was as much a brewer as he was a quality guy,” says Brynildson.

Then, one bright June Saturday in 2001, the brewmaster called Crooks at home with bad news. They were both out of jobs. Hoffman had fallen behind on his mortgage payments so the bank foreclosed on the production facility. Crooks was shocked, and at a loss for what to do next.

Brynildson was haunted by another shuttered brewery he’d visited, Butterfield’s in Fresno, Calif., where bacteria and fungus had taken off like a forest fire after it was abandoned. He marched into the bank himself to tell them they were making a mistake by stopping beer production cold. “They knew I still had the keys in my pocket. It was kind of a wink,” he recalls. Once the bank took ownership there was no longer a license for alcohol production. “But I knew if we shut the brewery down it was going to get scrapped out.”

Within a few days, Brynildson called Crooks back. Beer was in the tanks and the glycol was still running. What would he think of doing some micro? Crooks immediately agreed. He arrived to plate yeast and assess viability. He stayed to assist with production.

“We were thinking, we’ve got these raw ingredients,” Crooks says. “We own ’em!”

So the two men made and shipped beer to private label customers who had no idea a bank had seized the brewery. Working 14-hour days without promise of a paycheck, they even wrote up a business plan in hopes of enticing a buyer.

About eight weeks in, Adam Firestone and David Walker, owners of a small brewery in the next county, arrived unannounced to examine the facility. Expecting an empty building, the business partners were surprised to find activity. “I remember seeing Matt, dashing between the vessels, thinking the cops had shown up,” says Walker.

Firestone says the bank was motivated to sell. “They gave us this huge, long escrow so we were able to move in as tenants even though we didn’t own it,” he says. “[But] the biggest [thing was] just dumb luck—it turned out that Matt had kept a lot of beer in there.”

And selling that beer provided Firestone and Walker with the down payment to buy the brewery.

Six years earlier, Firestone, a winemaker, had the idea to bring the oak flavors he loved in Chardonnay to a beer. While his winemaking family was disinterested, Walker, his sister’s British husband, was game to start a new venture. “We were just looking for oak flavor, remembers Walker. “The way that French and American oak have an influence on wine, we thought they would have an influence on beer. It was that innocent.” Initial research proved discouraging, however. Anchor Brewing’s then-owner Fritz Maytag and brewing experts such as Dr. Michael Lewis of the University of California, Davis, told them explicitly not to ferment ale in a used wine vessel. Bacteria would spoil the beer.

One person kept an open mind about the idea, though. Listening to their oaked-beer proposal, brewing consultant Jeffers Richardson remembered a presentation about historical brewing methods he had attended while studying at UC Davis. In 19th century England, in the brewing center of Burton-on-Trent, breweries used interconnected barrels called Burton Unions or Union sets to ferment ales. Using new American oak barrels, Richardson started brewing Double Barrel Ale (DBA) in March 1996. He stayed on for two years.

The “Area 51” brewhouse | Photo courtesy of Firestone Walker

DBA was brewed at “Area 51,” a storage building hidden among the grapevines near some stray oil derricks on the dirt roads of Firestone Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley. It was a cramped rental on the winery’s land where no tasting room could be built. So, in 1999, the company began construction on a $1 million structure in nearby Buellton.

The Buellton project stalled in the summer of 2001. They’d finished building but they simply didn’t have the funds to equip a brewery. Then they heard about SLO Brewing Co.’s production brewery in Paso Robles, over an hour north. The facility—including 1,600 barrels of fermentation capacity—had been in receivership for two months. Firestone was wary, but he realized that with the right terms, it might cost less than finishing the Buellton brewery.

For about six months, Firestone Walker kept two breweries going. They hired both Brynildson and Crooks at Paso Robles and kept SLO Brew’s former contract customers. Then their brewmaster at Area 51 left. When Area 51 was finally dismantled and the Union barrels trucked up to Paso, Crooks protested that there was no way to ferment microbiologically clean beers in oak. But it was non-negotiable. He would brew with the Union set, or find work elsewhere. “They said the same thing to me,” Brynildson told him.

Immediately the duo dissected the Union to see where the barrels harbored microbes. They turned to local welder Tony Pratt to develop an all-stainless racking wand. And they tracked down specialized sample ports. Through relentless testing, Crooks learned how important it was to keep the area around the Union barrels—the floor, drains and hoses—clean.

In the early aughts, Firestone Walker steadily gained national recognition, particularly for its hoppy beers. Beginning in 2002, under Brynildson, the brewery began winning awards annually at the Great American Beer Festival, a streak that it hasn’t yet broken.

In 2005, Brynildson started a side project without consulting the owners. Walker recalls perplexing deliveries of second-hand bourbon barrels, utterly unsuited for the Union set. But the results spoke for themselves. In November 2006, to mark its 10th year of operations, Firestone Walker released Ten, an oak-aged Strong Ale blended from a number of different beers—with hints of bourbon. Bottles went quickly.

One day the following summer, Brynildson returned from speaking at a conference where Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing had handed out dime bags of wood chips soaked in his sour beers. Crooks says that Brynildson dropped a bag on his desk, saying, “don’t tell me what you do with them.”

Recognizing that they harbored microbes with “a serious amount of history and magic,” Crooks cultured the Brettanomyces and bacterial strains responsible for groundbreaking beers like Supplication. He slipped the inoculum into a Rufus bourbon barrel filled with Porter, setting in motion what was to become Reginald Brett. Nearly another year would go by before Crooks had his sour beermaking epiphany, which occurred at Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Co. in 2008. “These people had learned to harness the power of known beer-spoiling bacteria and manipulated them to produce something so beautiful and delicate and thought provoking,” he says.

Recognizing a movement in its infancy, he decided to launch a sour program. Back at work in Paso, he nonchalantly filled two barrels with fresh beer, inoculated one with the Russian River chips culture and the other with a New Belgium foeder culture, privately dubbing his secret project “Skunkworks.”

By the end of 2008, Crooks had eight barrels hidden under tarps. A year later there were 28. Brynildson, clued in from the beginning, started bringing other employees to sample from the stash. Years later, Crooks learned that his under-the-radar side project had been the highlight of insider tours.

As the brewery expanded, an adjoining storefront church became warehouse space. And in short order, the two brewing professionals who had dedicated their careers to eradicating microscopic opportunists in their beer were harboring invisible fugitives in a former church.

Throughout these years, Crooks oversaw allocations for one-off bourbon barrel-aged beers bound for festivals and special events. It wasn’t hard to send out wild beers disguised as other beers, despite his responsibility for regulatory compliance. Soured DBA became “Oak Aged DBA,” hand-written on the keg label. The sales team and the beer community were equally delighted.

The problem was that it was getting harder and harder for Crooks to keep the burgeoning project secret. “It was like, this is Jim’s deal, and it was like, don’t tell Adam,” Firestone sighs, recalling his brewers’ increasingly ridiculous attempts to keep him in the dark. “‘Guys, I can see the barrels! They’re dribbling all over the floor. They smell like hell!’”

One warm day in 2010, Brynildson found the Skunkworks barrels out by the dumpster and asked the forklift driver, Miguel Ibarra, what was going on. “He said that Adam told him to throw them out.” The brewer’s heart skipped a beat as he contemplated the thought of losing two years of Crooks’ time and effort.

Though Brynildson rescued the barrels, Crooks sensed his program had reached a tipping point. There was no longer space for his barrels. Still, he couldn’t give up hope. “So I’d just go back to my lab and be like, ‘After tasting these beers and hearing all the buzz, how could someone destroy this idea?’ No way,” Crooks says. “It [was] bigger than me.”

But the owners had repeatedly signaled their displeasure with the entire Skunkworks endeavor, despite the positive public reception. In fact, after a decade at the company, Crooks felt his own existence was in jeopardy, though Walker and Firestone deny that. “I was ready to be told [that] it’s over,” he says.

While traveling in May 2011, Walker and Brynildson (recently made a partner in the company), detoured to Belgium to visit Rodenbach and Cantillon, two highly esteemed guardians of the country’s brewing traditions. Inspired by the “artisanal religion” in evidence, and by the historic connection to English brewing traditions, Walker changed his tune. He was ready to make the Skunkworks program a legitimate part of Firestone Walker’s business. But, he says, “Matt came out of Cantillon saying he still had a lot of work to do, ‘I haven’t really focused on it enough.’”

Meanwhile, back in California, Firestone had other plans. He wanted to turn the Buellton building into a cathedral to barrels where people could smell, taste, and see the story of bourbon barrel-aged beers. Brynildson vetoed the idea, refusing to be 90 miles away from his spirit barrels program. It didn’t take long, however, for Brynildson to realize that Firestone’s barrel palace vision was the opportunity to make a permanent home for Crooks’ wild beer program.

It did take some persuading, but Firestone conceded that a sour barrel program could bring a pulse to the Buellton site. The former winemaker found it difficult to embrace the concept, though, even with Walker on board. “This is Jackson Pollock versus Leonardo da Vinci, as far as I’m concerned,” he says, comparing wild brews with clean ales.

The two brothers-in-law live up to their logo, a British lion boxing with a California bear. In Firestone’s opinion, Walker is easily diverted by shiny ideas he sees out on the road. And Walker says he debates almost everything with his brother-in-law, an ex-Marine captain with a law degree. But both agree their arguments make the company stronger.

After committing to legitimize Skunkworks, they realized that they needed someone to construct a coherent new program around the beers Crooks was making. And then they ran into their founding brewer. To Jeffers Richardson, the idea of directing a wild barrel program sounded fantastic.

The program started with little structure. “Jim and Jeffers can go at it, they make Adam and I look like amateurs,” says Walker, admiring their passion and knowledge. “They’re so bright. You want to sit in the bleachers and clap, ‘Great response!’”

As Richardson remembers, Walker wanted to “put us in a petri dish to see what would grow. And Barrelworks grew.” Early Barrelworks releases such as Sour Opal and Agrestic came from Skunkworks barrels. New creations such as Krieky Bones, Bretta Rosé, and Violet Underground express bright cherries, berries, and violet petals respectively. By 2016, there were over 1,000 wooden vessels on-site. The equivalent of 2,500 kegs were blended and sold that year.

“Adam’s nickname for us was the ‘feral ones’ so we took ownership of that,” says Richardson. “The first beer out of Barrelworks we called Feral One.”

The taproom at Barrelworks in Buellton. | Photo by Jacqueline Pilar

By 2014, Barrelworks was filling rows and rows of barrels with wort trucked down from Paso, and winning accolades. Crooks made friends with fruit growers and winemakers, delving into the acquisition of aromatic strawberries and the science of fine-tuning acidity. Feral One and Sour Opal both went on to win awards at the Great American Beer Festival in 2015.

That same year, Duvel Moortgat acquired Firestone Walker for an undisclosed sum. The company that had rescued struggling Belgian breweries had invested in another distinctive American brewer (after adding Ommegang and Boulevard to its portfolio). To keep up with demand for core beers, a $60 million expansion of the Paso brewery is now underway.

“I would argue that Michel Moortgat was essentially the only qualified partner for us because his is a family business,” says Walker, describing the first visit from the current owners. “He showed up here with two brothers and a cousin. He argues with his brothers, I argue with my brother-in-law.”

Barrelworks enchanted the Moortgat family members, despite its miniscule 3 percent contribution to Firestone Walker’s revenue. Yes, they would send Liefmans beers to age in Buellton, and would Crooks please create a barrel program in Belgium? He was greeted in Oudenaarde as an honored fermentation zookeeper and, most importantly, as one of their own. Today, Crooks looks forward to hosting Liefmans’ senior blenders—now his friends—in California to taste and blend when their beers finish refermenting in his wild barrels.

These days Crooks isn’t waiting for change, he’s instigating it. When he and Richardson told Walker they wanted to inoculate wort spontaneously in a trailer in a vineyard, Walker offered to build a barn by his home and put a coolship there. But Crooks wanted more. “Jeffers and I said, ‘And you’re going to rip out your vineyards and plant peaches—please,’” Crooks says. “[Walker]’s like, ‘What about raspberries?’ Raspberries? You got raspberries up the ying on both sides of us. Let them take care of raspberries, why don’t you do peaches?”