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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

 


BURTON-ON-TRENT


In 2008, Matt traveled to Burton-on-Trent as one of four brewers from around the world invited to do a collaboration beer at Marston’s Brewery for the JD Wetherspoon chain’s annual International Beer Festival.

It was appropriate that Brynildson was tapped to brew at Marston’s, which was the sole British brewer still using a Burton Union System. Firestone Walker uses a modified Burton Union System known as the Firestone Union, which it developed and patented. Brynildson inherited the system from Firestone Walker’s first brewer, Jeffers Richardson, who tried to talk the founders out of using it. But they were adamant to use their winery’s chardonnay barrels after they were done holding wine. So Richardson took the Burton Union brewing method and adapted it for the California Central Coast.

Back in Paso Robles, Matt understandably believed that they would abandon brewing in used oak wine barrels and brew in stainless steel due to scale. But Firestone and Walker felt that process was part of the brewery’s identity and persuaded Matt to reconsider. A compromise was reached that ultimately benefited all of the beer Firestone Walker makes.

Firestone’s Union system now uses new, freshly toasted oak barrels. The beer is started in the stainless brewhouse, then transferred to the barrels for primary fermentation for six days, then moved back into stainless fermenters for a secondary yeast feast. The Double Barrel Ale that’s bottled contains 20 percent oak-fermented and 80 percent stainless steel-fermented beer, although at the brewery you can sample a 100 percent barrel-fermented version made on the Firestone Union system. It’s one of the most unique ways to make beer, a method thought to have been developed by monks in central England and put into large-scale practice by English brewers beginning in the 1830s.


BATMAN ARRIVES


The brewing community believes everybody should have a nickname, especially in California. It was once remarked that Matt “is the one who’s always dry-hopping in the dark.” From there, it didn’t take much of a leap off a tall building for him to be renamed for the Dark Knight, thus “Batman.”

The dry-hopping practice came about to avoid getting a mercaptan reaction, which gives beer a foul smell. “If light hits just hops, there’s no ill reaction, but if it hits iso-alpha acids in the presence of riboflavin — which is present in malt, it’s present on our skin, it’s present on a lot of organic matter — that will create a mercaptan reaction,” said Brynildson. “And in this brewery, we have a whole bunch of passive solar rays. I couldn’t tell you exactly how it happened, but we were up on top of a tank, and we had it open for too long, or something happened when we were dry-hopping, and the next thing you know we ended up skunking a whole batch of pale ale. So I made it a rule in the brewery that no one could dry-hop until the night shift.”

Around the brewery, there was another nickname that gained currency. Co-owner Firestone, who came up with the brewery’s bear and lion theme, began referring to Matt as “Merlin,” because of his wizard-like ability to make great beers.

Five years ago, Firestone and Walker gave Matt the first nickname that really mattered, which was “partner.” They made Brynildson a part owner of the business, giving him a small stake in the brewery. Matt refers to this as “golden handcuffs,” because it “gets someone fully vested in the future of the business.”


A TEAM SPORT


Matt insists that brewing is a team sport, and that all of his success can be attributed to picking and nurturing the right mix of talented people, starting with the owners. “I have to give a lot of credit to Adam and David because they’re just absolutely great owners to work for. They’re pretty hands-off when it comes to the creative side of things.”

As if everything he touches turns into, well, a good idea, Brynildson was instrumental in creating the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival. He invited breweries that he knew well and wanted to pour at the festival, many of them not normally even available in the state. He also asked each one to pour a session beer and one of their more rare beers, and insisted that the brewer be present. Now in its fourth year, the festival held each May sells out of its 2,500 tickets in a matter of minutes.

Like everything Matt does, it’s the attention to detail that really matters. Whether creating a beer recipe, a better brewing process, or a collaboration beer, Brynildson is a perfectionist. You may not think so at first glance: Matt wears an unkempt beard, prefers dressing casually and loves jam bands. But his attention to detail is something you can taste and is obvious in every glass of Firestone Walker beer. Being around Brynildson, one can’t help but be taken by his easy manner and joie de vivre. He makes it look easy. And as any brewer will tell you: it’s not. He’s just that good.

As science writer Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and so it is that beers made so well over and over again will likewise seem magical. Matt Brynildson as Merlin seems fitting, a brewer who makes magic in every batch he brews. Maybe it was his destiny all along.

 


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