Firestone Walker Barrelworks’ SLOambic

Beer Reviews by | May 2017 | Issue #124

In issue #123 (April) of the magazine, we ran a piece on the unlikely origins of Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks. This month, I review one of the beers that started it all: SLOambic. As Jeffers Richardson, the director of Barrelworks, explains, “This was one of the original beers Jim Crooks created when the Barrelworks ‘program’ was clandestine and had no name. Jim’s determination and its popularity helped make Barrelworks a legitimate operation at Firestone Walker.”

A play on words, “SLO” is a nod to San Luis Obispo County, where Barrelworks (then called Skunkworks) first started, while “ambic” refers to the Lambic style—spontaneously fermented beers from the Pajottenland region of Belgium. It’s an apropos name given that SLOambic is an American Wild Ale fermented with two microfloras—Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus—found in traditional Lambics.

SLOambic begins with Sour Opal, another Barrelworks release, which is the base beer described by Firestone Walker as an American “Gueuze” (traditionally, a blend of young and old Lambics) that’s matured in French oak for two years. But then they add another layer, blackberries. The first batches were brewed with locally sourced olallieberries, a variety of blackberry from the West Coast, but the amounts required the following year (roughly 4,000 pounds in the latest batch) became difficult to find. So the brewery “began using marionberries and boysenberries—also varieties of blackberries. Fortunately for Barrelworks, we can source these locally,” adds Richardson. And once the fruit is added to the barrels, the beer undergoes another round of fermentation with microflora for roughly three months. This adds yet another layer to an already complex beer.

Richardson described the cumulative tasting experience as a “funky berry pie” because “its depth of aroma, flavor, and color [have] an irresistible allure that does not disappoint after tasting it. It’s bold, brooding, funky, and sour, and oh-so drinkable.”

I recently bought a bottle of Batch #3 (bottled on November 8, 2016) at The Propagator in Marina del Rey, Calif. It has a gorgeous hazy plum color with a striking, dark pink-stained creamy head and lacing that lasts until the end, which is impressive. Far too many so-called “sour” beers land flat and lifeless almost immediately after pouring. The first sip brings big, bright, bursting notes of blackberries to the palate with an underlying vinous quality and oakiness, some savory spice suggestions, and prickly carbonation. And the piquant sourness brings a tart character with lemon, raspberry, and a tannic edge. It’s not overbearing, though, and allows the fruit, farmhouse-y funk, and soft breadiness to come through. The finish is super dry, leaving the palate thirsting for more. SLOambic is an American Wild Ale done right and hands down one of the best that I’ve had in recent years.

Looking for SLOambic? Caged and corked 375-milliliter bottles are released once a year in extremely limited quantities—only 1,000 cases were packaged in 2016. They’re also available exclusively at Firestone Walker locations, so keep an eye out for Batch #4 later this year.

Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks | Buellton, CA
STYLE: American Wild Ale
ABV: 6.0%
Look: 5 | Smell: 4.5 | Taste: 4.75 | Feel: 4.75 | Overall: 4.75
Todd’s Score: 4.71/5