Business is brewing: Firestone Walker climbs in craft beer rankings
Firestone Walker Brewing Co. has big plans on tap, including another expansion at its Paso Robles campus, a new beer and the opening of a pilot brewery in the Los Angeles area.
The brewery, which christened its 14,000-square-foot kegging hall last week, intends to further expand production space in Paso Robles with a 25,800-square-foot addition for bottling. In late 2014, the company plans to open a pilot brew house, craft beer hub and restaurant in Venice. On the brew side, Firestone will release its first sour beer next month and introduce its first canned beer in May.
“We’ve had a good run the last couple years,” co-founder Adam Firestone told the Business Times, adding that the Paso Robles locale has “given us a good runway for growth.”
The new “Keg Shed,” adjacent to the brewing facility, houses a keg line that has tripled the brewery’s per-hour keg output. It is the fourth keg line since the company was founded in 1996, at which time the brewery used a single-head, manual model. Firestone said the company started out with one employee and one product, producing three or four kegs an hour. “We had lemonade stands that were larger than us,” he said. Now, the microbrewery is producing about 240 kegs per hour.
And at 151,000 barrels last year, the brewery was ranked 15th among U.S. craft brewing companies based on sales volume, a jump from 20th in 2012. “That side of it has been really encouraging — to be able to hold up with our peers,” Firestone said.
The recent expansion in Paso is part of a master plan that was taken to the city some time ago. The first development was increasing the brewing side of the operation, which was completed last year. Now work is being done on the packaging side, which includes canning, kegging and bottling lines. Construction on the new bottling facility is expected to begin at the end of March.
Firestone Walker’s first canned beer, the 805 honey blonde ale, is slated to enter the market around Memorial Day. Next month, the brewery is launching its Feral One sour beer at a March 8 release party in Buellton. The limited-production beer, not available outside the brewery, is part of the company’s research and development efforts. “We want to participate, at some level, in all aspects” of the craft brew industry, said Firestone, who noted that there is some demand for sour beers.
In what might be a more ambitious venture, Firestone Walker is “attempting to be the first brewery west of the 405 [Freeway],” said Firestone, who hopes to see the facility open by year’s end. The pilot brewery in Venice will include a small-scale brew house for R&D beers and special one-off brews, a Taproom restaurant, retail space and offices for marketing staff. The location will also include a training room for hop seminars and blending sessions, providing an avenue to connect with craft beer enthusiasts — from home-brewers to professionals.
Back in Paso Robles, Firestone said, “we’ve tried to make the campus a destination much like many of the wineries on the Central Coast.” In addition to the tasting room and restaurant, visitors can take guided tours of the brew house and cellar, a chance to “peer into each phase of the operation,” he said.
He has seen steady growth at the brewery, which he attributes in part to the thriving wine industry. “Certainly, we’ve provided some diversity for the traditional wine visitors,” he said. Central Coast tourism officials agree, calling Firestone a “tremendous gem to have in our backyard.”
“The growing beer scene truly supports the comprehensive selection of offerings found in Paso Robles,” Amanda Diefenderfer, destination manager at Travel Paso Robles Alliance, said in an email. “Just as the appeal of the wine industry is the approachable and friendly personalities found at the wineries, the same holds true for beer lovers visiting our breweries.”
But the beer-wine relationship works both ways, said Christopher Taranto, communications director at Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. “There is a saying among winemakers — it takes a lot of really good beer to make great wine,” he said in an email. “Just about every winery around here has a keg of beer squirreled away in a corner for those hot days during harvest or as a palate cleanser after blending trials.”
Winemakers are just a portion of those indulging. Firestone said, “The craft industry is going through the same revolution winemaking was going through in the 80s” — transitioning from cheap jugs of wine to more expensive bottles. Even though only 15 percent of the U.S. beer market is craft, he said tastes are changing and young beer drinkers are paying more attention to microbrews. “Once you switch out a Wonder Bread in favor of a French baguette, you never go back,” he said.
At the end of 2013, there were 2,722 breweries in the United States, up about 17 percent from a year earlier, and 98 percent of them were small and independent craft breweries, according to the Brewers Association. An additional 1,744 breweries were in the planning stages at the end of December.
“The industry is pretty frothy right now,” said Firestone, whose brewery is benefiting from the outpouring.