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Matt Brynildson: Brewmaster of Firestone Walker

Firestone Walker's "Merlin" of brewing, Matt Brynildson
Firestone Walker's "Merlin" of brewing, Matt Brynildson

 


THE HITS JUST KEEP ON COMING


Brynildson has famously racked up a serious string of big awards for his beers since moving to California. The first came in 2001 at the Great American Beer Festival, when he won Small Brewpub Brewmaster of the Year for SLO Brewing, the honor coming ironically after the brewery had shut down. With Firestone Walker he has won the award for mid-size brewing company brewmaster four more times.

At the World Beer Cup, which hosts breweries from around the world every two years, Firestone Walker has won Champion Brewery and Brewmaster four of the six times the competition has been held.

In 2007, Matt was the recipient of the Brewers Association’s prestigious Russell Scherer Award for Innovation in Brewing.

The awards aren’t limited to the U.S. From 2012 to 2014, Firestone Walker won the gold medal in the Consumer’s Favorite category at the European Beer Star Awards in Munich, an honor chosen by attendees using a blind tasting.

When asked what he attributes this amazing success to, Brynildson laughs and doesn’t have a ready answer. For somebody so highly awarded and accomplished, he likes to avoid the limelight and doesn’t often dwell on his success. “Competition is definitely a combination of brewing really clean beers to style and making sure your beers are entered in the right style.” He’s also noticed that a lot of the early success came from the pale ale and more modestly hop-forward beers along with one or two other award-winning beers.

Firestone Walker did not introduce an IPA until ten years after the brewery had launched —  Union Jack in 2007. For most of the brewery’s life it focused on beers no one considered extreme. The Double Barrel Ale was selling so well in the local market that there was no animus to shake things up. In the end, it was about nailing those beers, Matt believes, though he remains uncertain about precisely why his beers win regularly. “We focused on laboratory stuff and trying to brew to specs and really challenging ourselves to keep things as tight as we possibly could all the time.”

Nowadays, Firestone Walker is known as much for its “passion for the pale” as for its IPAs and barrel-aged beers. That wasn’t the plan from the beginning. The founders had a definite idea that they should keep to their core mission of making good middleof-the-road beers. But Brynildson was itching to try some new things. He started playing around with more extreme beers, putting some into barrels for aging all without his bosses knowing about it. This led to him getting chewed out from time to time, and Adam Firestone even threatened his job a couple times. They were worried about him getting distracted and losing focus on the flagship beers. Matt’s underground beers kept garnering the brewery more and more attention and awards. Eventually the powers that be saw the light. When Firestone Walker’s 10th anniversary rolled around in 2006, they finally let Matt loose and he created the company’s first “official” barrel-aged beer, known as 10. It was composed of ten distinctive component lots including Abacus, Ruby, Bravo, Walker’s Reserve, Humboldt Hemp Ale, and a 100 percent oak barrel-fermented Double Barrel Ale. These beers were aged in six different barrel formats to create ten distinctive component lots that were then blended together and bottled as 10.

It was a runaway success, and finally everyone understood how such a program helped to build the reputation of the brewery. The barrel program has grown into Barrelworks, and another numbered anniversary beer has been brewed each year since then.

Between the barrel-aged beers and Union Jack as their first IPA, people outside of the Central Coast of California began to take notice of Firestone Walker’s beers, and the brewery began distributing further from home, keeping pace with the surge of interest in flavorful beer by adding additional states to its distribution territory.

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