- We chatted with Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson about the fascinating journey he took to get to where he is today
- The brewer has been immersed in the industry for close to three decades
- Read more about beer here
In 2005, Fort Minor frontman Mike Shinoda revealed his carefully calculated formula for ensuring your name will always be remembered, saying the key to securing a legacy is a combination of 10% luck, 20% skill, 15% concentrated power of will, 5% pleasure, and 50% pain on a track that served as the soundtrack to 98% of basketball mixtapes uploaded to YouTube in the two years following its release.
Those exact numbers may vary on a case-to-case basis, but they’re a pretty accurate summation of the typical path to success, which is more often than not a combination of having the requisite skills to pursue your dream while finding yourself in the right place at the right time.
There aren’t many people out there who can attest to that better than Matt Brynildson, a veteran of the craft beer industry who’s been leading the charge at Firestone Walker since the storied brewery set up shop in Paso Robles, California in 2001. After chatting with one of Firestone Walker’s co-founders earlier this year, I got the chance to cap off 2021 by talking with Brynildson about his 20-year career at the brewery as well as the journey that brought him there.
While he’s earned the nickname “Merlin” thanks to his ability to whip up some magical creations, he could also be described as “the Forrest Gump of craft beer” in the sense that he found himself with a front-row seat for and playing an instrumental role in a number of pivotal moments that shaped the art he’s mastered—and he was kind enough to share some of what he’s learned over the course of a fascinating conversation.
To kick things off, can you just provide some insight into your personal craft beer journey?
I was born and raised in the Midwest. I did my college years in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This is in the early ’90s, and Bell’s Brewing was alive and well already at that time. Within the first couple of years of college, I was introduced to Bell’s beer—in fact, I literally tasted the very first batch of Two Hearted, that’s how far back I go. They had a homebrew shop there, so I kinda fell in love with craft through that.
It was so infectious and so hard not to kinda fall in love with the whole thing. I graduated from Kalamazoo College. It’s a liberal arts school, but I focused on chemistry. Rather than going to graduate school, I ended up taking a job at Kalamazoo Spice Extraction Company. I started an internship while I was in school and they offered me full-time employment in their hops division.
They’re one of a handful of labs in the United States—or in the world for that matter—that focused on downstream hop products. Their claim to fame was the light-stable hop extract that people were using for products like Miller High Life.
I started my internship there before I got interested in home brewing. I was literally working in the brewing industry before I turned 21. At the lab, there was a Master Brewer who had graduated from Weihenstephan. So, I was drinking Larry Bell’s beer, geeking out on craft beer, and then I go to work and I hear the 101 of German brewing and chemistry.
Then, they sent me to Siebel Institute of Brewing Technology in Chicago so I could interface with our customers better and know brewing better. A lot of the instructors were retired industry veterans or at the end of their careers working for big brewers in Milwaukee. It was just this insane brain trust.
I started by just taking a short course there. I got introduced to all these people, and I just decided that I had to work in the beer industry after meeting all those folks. Then, Greg Hall hired me at Goose Island Beer Company in 1996.
What was that like?
I worked in the production facility and then spent five years as head brewer. We went from zero to 50,000 barrels in those years, which was quite a feat in craft brewing back then. Then, I got a job offer to come to the West Coast to work for SLO Brewing Company. When I got there, I realized the brewhouse and cellar was an exact replica of the Goose Island Brewery—I think the founder went to Goose Island, saw the system, and was like, “Yep, I’ll take that”—so I knew how to run it like the back of my hand.
One year later, Firestone Walker purchased their production facility. I always say I kind of came along with the deal. That year, Firestone Walker brewed 9,000 barrels of beer. This year we’ll brew something north of half a million barrels, so I’ve seen this incredible kind of development and metamorphosis of the full Firestone world.
Was there any major learning curve or drastic changes for you personally when you joined Firestone Walker?
I mean yes and no. What was really interesting is there are so many parallels between Firestone and Goose Island. At the time, Goose Island’s flagship was Honker’s Ale, which is a riff on an English Bitter. Firestone Walker’s flagship was Double Barrel Ale, which is a riff on an English Pale Ale—they actually both used Styrian Goldings Hops—so I felt like the base beers were very similar.
Of course, Firestone patented the Firestone Union Fermentation Program. The big difference between the two is DBA is fermented in new medium toast American oak. When I met with Adam and David, I was like, “Okay, I know that whole barrel fermenting thing is all smoke and mirrors, so we’re not really doing that, right?”
They said, “No, that’s a non-negotiable part of how we make DBA.” I’m like, “Yeah, but now we’re moving to this new brewery and we’re growing up, so we’re not gonna do that, right?” They didn’t budge.
I always felt like every time we’d hire a new brewer and tell them, “Okay, so now we’re going to put perfectly good wort into these oak barrels and ferment it,” they’d just look at you cross-eyed like, “Are you out of your mind?” That was long before barreling became as huge as it is now.
It was also a very local enterprise. The vast majority of our beer was being consumed on draft. Anything that was bottled was sold shortly after it left the brewery. So, the fact that probably that barrel fermenting process shortened our shelf life in some ways wasn’t really a big impact on our business, because the original business plan was not to grow very far outside of the Central Coast region.
Were there any other things you didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on?
For the first five years that I worked for them, they didn’t let me brew an IPA. I’d left Goose Island Beer Company, where I’d essentially designed Goose Island IPA, which became their best-selling beer. I also spent a ton of time focused on dry hopping and figuring out how to do that at a time when there weren’t a whole lot of dry hop IPAs in the market aside from Two Hearted or Sierra Nevada Celebration.
Now, I joined this company that doesn’t have an IPA in their portfolio, and every time I ask them if a new beer could be an IPA, they’re like, “No.” We didn’t release Union Jack until 2005 or 2006—and then it won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival two years in a row.
What did the craft beer scene look like at the time when you first joined Firestone Walker? Were there any particular producers or brewers you were drawing inspiration from?
I wouldn’t be a brewer today if it wasn’t for Larry Bell, but after living in Kalamazoo for seven years, I wasn’t going to work there. I really wanted to branch out and I saw Goose Island as kind of the next step.
When I came to California, it was all about what Ken Grossman was doing at Sierra Nevada. Ken could walk on water as far as I’m concerned. I was like, “If it’s good enough for Ken, that’s the way it needs to be done.” I was certainly a disciple of his, and still am today.
Could you estimate how many different beers you’ve made while at Firestone Walker?
It’d been easy if you asked me that question 10 years ago, because we’d formulate one or two unique beers a year. But now, with the Bear Legion program and the Propagator in Los Angeles—along with some other projects—it’s in the hundreds. But I couldn’t even try to pick an exact number.
I know this is like picking a favorite child, but if you had to pick your favorite beer that you’ve made or one that you’re particularly proud of, is there one that stands out?
There are two completely different directions that I go on that question. I think a lot of people will be surprised when I say the beer I’m probably the proudest of—in the sense of what it’s accomplished both for our company and just in terms of what craft beer can be—is 805. It’s turned so many would-be just American light lager drinkers into craft beer drinkers.
In terms of formulation, I would probably say Pivo Pilsner. I loved the process of formulating Union Jack and Double Jack and other hoppy beers, but Pivo Pilsner was really an international project that drew a lot of inspiration from Europe. It’s the beer I always go back to.
On the other side of the spectrum, are there any regrets or mistakes that may have been good in theory but just didn’t pan out as you’d hoped?
That’s tough. You kind of forget about your mistakes.
Well, we did make a beer called Rosalie. I’m very proud of the beer itself. We’ve probably never worked harder in our lives on a formulation.
It was a wine-beer hybrid that incorporated a kettle sour element. We had to go harvest grapes, press juice, stabilize the juice, and hold it in the brewery for a year while we were making the beer. Then, there was a blending element, a co-ferment element, and two fermenting microorganisms involved. Oh, and hibiscus.
It wasn’t a flop in that sense of formulation, but it was a flop in the marketplace. I take a big part of that blame as the brewer, because at the end of the day, you gotta create liquid that’s gonna somehow resonate with drinkers.
I want to turn the attention to the Brewmaster’s Collective program you launched in 2020. Can you sum up how it came to be in the first place?
We’re in the middle of wine country. We have over 300 wineries just in San Luis Obispo County. The vast majority of them are very small operations that sell the lion’s share of their product directly to their fans. I’ve always been so jealous of how that works. They have people who are buying their wines because they truly appreciate them; they probably visited the winery and continued to follow them.
They’re just the true hardcore fans, and so you’re literally hand-delivering your product directly to the people who want it and understand it the most. In our case, we make a beer at the brewery, and for the most part, we send it off to a distributor that then takes it to a retailer who ultimately sells it to a consumer. You kind of lose that intimate kind of direct relationship with the consumer—although we do get a little bit of that in our pubs and at the Propagator in Venice.
We’d always talked about it, but it’s kind of a tricky thing logistically. The one bright spot that came out of the pandemic was that we had a lot of talent in our event staff and others who were kind of benched, so it gave us the opportunity to take the energy that we would otherwise put into our annual Invitational Festival and other events and put it into developing this club.
Like anything Firestone does, we don’t do it half-ass. We went at it two barrels blazing and came up with this really crazy mix of beers that we were going to release along with the packaging and other touches, which was this little happy accident that happened because of COVID.
It immediately took root. We’re still trying to figure certain things out, but the first year was really successful. We essentially sold the club out to the number of folks that we wanted to have. We successfully got through the entire beer lineup that we wanted to. We did most of the tastings and other interactive pieces via Zoom, but now we’ve been able to have club members back at the brewery for our anniversary tastings.
What’s your process when it comes to curating the beers you send to members?
We have such a talented crew: there’s Jim Crooks at Barrelworks, Eric Ponce—who was in charge of Goose Island’s Barrel Program—heads up our Vintage Barrel Program, and Micaela Yeo is our Club Manager. Between the three of them and myself, we just kind of dream up all these crazy beers and then kind of challenge the rest of the brewing team to figure out a way of getting it done.
Eric also has so many connections to get us some really excellent barrels. He’s connected with so many good distillers. However, there are some cases where sometimes we can only get two or four barrels of a particular type, which usually doesn’t do you any good when you’re a big brewery.
Now, the club is giving us this opportunity to do all sorts of crazy stuff. A beer like Dreamworld is a perfect example. You don’t get many chances to double barrel-age a beer over the course of two years in two different vintages of Pappy Van Winkle barrels. That wouldn’t be possible unless it was just a super small-scale project.
I want to touch on what you said earlier about striking the balance between innovation while still having to be aware of and catering to consumer tastes and trends. How hard is it to toe that line?
It’s kind of a moving target. Again, if we were talking five or ten years ago, we’d have one big shot each year for a new release. We had to be really sure of ourselves and spent a ton of time hemming and hawing about what was right and what was wrong. Now, the consumer is just clamoring for innovation. They always want something new.
As a result, we’ve had to try to stay a little bit ahead of the game. That’s why we put the Propagator together. It gave us a chance to have an innovative brewery where we could make a lot of interesting beers and get them in front of people in the pubs and see how they really work. To touch back on the Rosalie story, if we’d had the Propagator back then—or had at least developed it as far as we tend to do today—we probably would have realized that we needed to make some changes to appeal to the folks that we were trying to serve.
We also have an even smaller innovation brewery in Paso Robles, so we can do single-barrel brews and single-barrel dry hop trials and all sorts of stuff like that. We have a full-time R&D brewer who’s working on that, so there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes on the innovation front.
By the time we get to the point of trying to make a decision on production scale stuff, we’ve already worked out most problems on a small scale and have a pretty good idea of what we want to do. I think that that’s been a part of the success anyway.
There’s also kind of a “rule book” that we still adhere to in regards to things that we do and don’t release under the Firestone Walker name.
Are you allowed to share some of those rules?
For example, we’ve certainly made fruited beers through Barrelworks, but if you look at Firestone Walker’s lineup, there’s never really been anything fruit-forward or spice-forward. We recently acquired the Cali-Squeeze brand, which gives us a new kind of outlet for fruity beers that aren’t necessarily linked to the main brewery.
You’ve obviously been on the frontlines and witnessed the massive craft beer explosion that’s occurred since you first entered the space. How have things changed since you first set out on this path?
The market is so much different today than it was then. I look at some of the smaller brewers out there and sometimes I’m a little bit jealous because there’s this trend towards breweries who never make the same beer twice. They always are innovating, they’re always putting something new out there, and that’s their model.
We’re a little bit more old school in that we have flagship beers and year-round beers and all that kind of stuff. So I think it’s maybe gotten a little more difficult as we scaled the brewery. With that said, our size comes with a lot of benefits. We have a few new outlets, including three restaurants. We have 805. We’re putting a lot of focus on Mind Haze, which allows us to do just about anything we want in the hazy and hoppy world.
Regardless, it’s been incredible to witness how far the industry has come. I’ve always felt like I’ve had really fortunate timing getting into it. It’s my first and only real career since getting out of college. Just watching it blossom has been amazing.
I’m really proud to have been a part of it, and if I’ve had any influence, I’m really proud of that as well. The other cool part about it is that after almost 25 years, I’ve gotten to know so many first-generation pioneer brewers; the Ken Grossmans and the Larry Bells of the brewing world. That’s been really cool too.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed at times because of just how big craft beer has gotten?
I mean, certainly. It’s a new playing field out there, and there’s a lot of players. There’s a lot of new beers. It is difficult to keep up with all the beer trends, but I would say that you shouldn’t really try to be a brewery that does it all. You can’t be all things to all people and you can’t do all things well. I think it’s always wise to pick your path,
However, as David frequently says, there are 9,000 breweries in the United States but there are still more wineries. It’s something like 11,000 or 12,000, and they’re all limited to geographic locations and need to be near vineyards. Beer doesn’t have those restrictions. There’s probably still a lot of room still to fill, and we continue to grow and find an ever-expanding fan base.
It’s certainly challenging, but I think it’s great.
Parts of this conversation were edited for clarity.