In 1873, the United States was home to over 4,000 breweries, but a little over a century (and one Prohibition) later, there were less than 50 different entities operating in the country, almost all of which were pumping out the kind of product best described as “Yup, that’s beer.”
The official low point was reached in 1983, just a few years after Jimmy Carter signed a piece of legislation that allowed Americans to brew their own beer at home for the first time since the passage of the 18th Amendment. It was a seemingly minor development but one that would have massive ramifications, as the bill marked the start of a movement that would dramatically alter the beer landscape to a point where it would become virtually unrecognizable.
It didn’t happen overnight, as what would turn out to be a brewing revolution spent decades brewing in the garages and sheds where beer lovers honed their skills and crafted the various creations that eventually began to be offered by the small operations that gradually started to pop up in the following decades.
One of those people was David Walker, who left his native England for California in the 1990s to pursue a career in the tech business while growing grapes on the side. He eventually crossed paths with Adam Firestone, the operator of a winery in Santa Ynez Valley that his family had been running for generations, and the two men quickly bonded over their love of the beverage they were truly passionate about: beer.
In 1996, the duo decided to pivot when they founded Firestone Walker, joining the ranks of Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada, and the other California breweries who would play a major role in putting craft beer on the map. I recently got the chance to talk with Walker, who was nice enough to share what he’s learned and observed over the course of his 25 years in an industry that looked decidedly different when he first took the plunge:
“The mid-90s was a tough time to start breweries. There wasn’t the expertise or the equipment or the route to market that is abundant nowadays, but our biggest hurdle was probably the indifference to the concept that beer could be anything more than a sort of refreshment.
We wanted to talk a little bit like winemakers; about provenance, recipes, raw materials, tradition, and the experience that comes with wrapping all of those things together.”
Their decision to figuratively defect from wine country was largely met with indifference by the vintners they were surrounded by, as Walker says, “They mostly shrugged. It was like, ‘OK, we make wine, you make beer.’ It wasn’t a big deal. It just seemed like a natural evolution.” The indifference of the typical American beer drinker was a much bigger issue, and in an attempt to address it, they took a page out of the wine-making playbook:
“Like the few hundred other craft breweries that were operating at the time, we tried focusing on connecting with our local community and telling our story.
The problem with the national scene at the time was the dysfunction. There were ‘craft’ brewers who were calling themselves craft brewers even though they were really contracting their beers to preexisting breweries. When new breweries started to get built, the theater—being able to touch the equipment, meet the brewers, walk through the facilities, taste the beers—made it more than just a label.
That was huge, and I think it was the magic that really got the industry rolling.”
In recent years, a brewery’s ability to constantly whip up new beers has become almost as important as the quality of the beer itself when it comes to standing out in an increasingly crowded pack. Firestone Walker is currently planning on releasing at least 90 unique brews over the course of 2021, including the one that started it all: Double Barrel Ale.
In the context of a marketplace dominated by beers that promise to hop-bomb your palate into submission, Double Barrel is a relatively tame beer, but there’s a reason it’s still going strong 25 years after its inception. It’s a crisp, straightforward ale clocking in at an incredibly drinkable 5% ABV, but its deceivingly simple nature is the product of a hybrid of traditions, including one that was all but lost for centuries prior to its arrival:
“Double Barrel was the first beer we brewed. It’s a style that’s very emblematic of that time.
We chose to brew it first mainly because of our roots in the wine business. We wanted to integrate wood and primary fermentation into the process. Wood had mostly been chased out of breweries hundreds of years before. We resurrected a process that was still being preserved in Britain by a couple of breweries in Burton-on-Trent, which was the double-barrel process.
We took a portion of the beer to go through primary fermentation in clean American oak. The other portion would go through fermentation in steel before we blended it back together. It was a nod to quaffable, drinkable English pale ales.”
He was never necessarily planning on resting on his laurels, but after whipping up the brew for the first time, Walker recalls thinking, “This is probably the only beer we’re ever going to make. We’re just going to spend the rest of our lives perfecting it.” However, as he notes, “the very nature of craft beer—and the reason we started a brewery—was innovation; a curiosity that couldn’t really be dampened,” and it didn’t take long for Pale 31 (“a dry-hopped pale ale”) and Firestone Reserve (“a really nice porter”) to be added to the lineup.
Before long, Firestone Walker had established itself as a brewery to keep an eye on, as they not only managed to succeed in their mission to attract the attention of the people in wine country but the judges at various competitions who were impressed by their pale ales to a point where “they were considered one of the gold standards in California, which really helped us get noticed.”
People had also started to take notice of the craft beer industry as a whole, and a little over a decade after Walker set out on this journey, there were a few key developments that resulted in the seismic shift that effectively served as the opening shots in the Craft Beer Revolution.
In 2008, the global brewing conglomerate InBev announced it was adding Anheuser-Busch to its portfolio in a bombshell acquisition that provided smaller operations with an incredible window of opportunity:
“Anheuser-Busch had basically run the beer industry in America—or at least set the pace—before being acquired. At that point, a lot of pressure disappeared from the market that had been keeping craft brewers down.
It put enough moisture into the room to let the green shoots really start sprouting, as wholesalers and retailers were suddenly much more receptive to other operations.”
This tipping point coincided with the rise of social media, which gave breweries an unprecedented way to market themselves and take advantage of the virtual word of mouth that helped raise their profile:
“It was the first time smaller breweries had an affordable platform to really start letting the world know who they were. It was the first time in a long time that a sort of crack had appeared in the American beer industry. It was a small one, but it was enough for craft breweries to really start to propagate.”
Firestone Walker joined the ranks of the many other craft breweries that suddenly materialized on shelves, many of whom were also able to take advantage of new laws that allowed them to skirt the three-tier distribution system by opening taprooms where they could pour their wares as soon as they came out of the vat and “start talking about their beer face-to-face with their customers.”
In 2010, there were over 1,800 breweries operating in the United States—a number that had grown to close to 5,000 by 2015. It was a stunning development that fundamentally changed how Americans viewed what beer could be, as producers engaged in a veritable arms race to capitalize on the newfound demand IPAs, which had come a long way since Walker first entered the game:
“When I showed up in America, an IPA was essentially Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. That was the classification of an IPA. It’s gone from there to dry-hopped to West Coast IPAs to Double IPAs to hazy IPAs and it just keeps going.
This is partially because beer consumers have a voracious appetite. They’re enraptured. People keep saying, ‘Oh, people are going to slow down or get tired.’ But they haven’t. It’s an extraordinary phenomenon.”
Firestone Walker was already producing a West Coast IPA called Union Jack, but as other breweries began to chase that trend and the other styles that began to catch on, Walker realized this newfound thirst presented the brewery with a new opportunity to experiment without abandoning its roots:
“I prefer to say I’m listening to trends as opposed to following them. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was constantly looking over my shoulder at what others are doing, but it’s not out of a desire to copy. It’s because there’s so much going on.
We’re obviously a craft brewery, but as that term becomes more and more meaningless, we have to further define ourselves. We’re a California brewery before we’re an American brewery. We like to think California played a role in the Great American Beer Revolution that ultimately changed the world of beer. It hasn’t just influence how people drink beer today; these changes will influence how people drink it 100 years from now.”
This eventually led to the creation of The Propagator, a pilot brewery Firestone Walker decided to construct in Los Angeles:
“We didn’t want it to be near our main brewhouse in Paso Robles. We kept having the same conversations there, so we decided to build in Venice. We have what we call a ‘Hooch,’ which is an apartment where our young brewers all go down and live for a spell and just riff on different ideas.
They can use the taproom to get immediate feedback from customers, which is great, because they’re serving beer to a totally different group of people than you find in California’s wine region. We’ve received a huge amount of useful feedback.”
The Propagator was responsible for the creation of Mind Haze, a hazy IPA that’s bursting with fruity flavors and pays tribute to its California heritage thanks to the slightly earthy undertones associated with the West Coast (which also serves as the basis for the souped-up Double Mind Haze.)
At the end of 2019, America boasted almost 8,400 breweries and the surge showed no signs of stopping until the sudden arrival of an existential threat in the form of the pandemic. It was a crippling blow to small craft brewers who largely rely on onsite sales to function, and while Firestone Walker is a comparatively large operation, it was by no means immune:
“It’s been really difficult. I’m so grateful for the people we have, because everybody knuckled under to keep things going. About 35% of the beer we make goes directly to bars to be served on tap and that world obviously just shut down. There’s been a shift to buying beer at stores, so that side of our business has been fine.
I’m very thankful we’re a 25-year-old brewery and had already managed to develop a retail presence. My heart goes out to the brewers that didn’t have that and were so popular on a local level who really felt the impact.”
Walker says they also found themselves sitting on a sizeable stockpile of limited-run beers they’d traditionally released at the brewery, which resulted in the creation of Brewmaster’s Reserve, a beer club that offered 1,000 California residents the opportunity to have special releases shipped directly to their door:
“We make a lot of small-batch beers. We’re very committed to working with traditional styles and barrel-aging and fermenting, so we have beers we might make 100 cases of (and sometimes even less.) When COVID hit, people started to call us up to see if we could ship them, so we tried to figure out the best way to allocate them for consumers.
We decided to create a sort of inner circle of people who love our beer and are really interested in some of the more eclectic flavors we’re pursuing. It’s a very small group, and we actually know a lot of them because they’ve been along for the ride.
There’s no huge financial incentive. It’s a way to keep brewing these small beers—which we love—and being able to plan how much we should make.”
Members of the club will be lucky enough to experience a few variations of Firestone Walker’s phenomenal Parabola, a barrel-aged stout which Walker says was originally produced for a company Christmas party before catching on with the general public to a point where “there were people flying over from Sweden to get their hands on it.”
While Firestone Walker has largely been able to weather the storm, there’s still plenty of concern over what the state of craft beer will be when the world returns to a relatively normal state. While there are some people who believe the bubble that grew over the past decade has burst, Walker disputes the assertion there was a bubble in the first place and says he’s optimistic the industry will only continue to grow:
“There are 11,000 wineries in this country and they’re constrained by climate. Breweries are not, and there are only around 8,000 breweries here.
There’s a model to starting a small brewery that’s been proven to work. It’s also a lot of fun. You’re creating, you’re doing something interesting, you get to serve the beer to people, and they pay you for it. You can be a self-proprietor and an owner.
Communities love local breweries because it’s the freshest beer you can get. I don’t see saturation. I think it will continue to be a healthy marketplace.”
Parts of this conversation were edited for clarity