Crack open those pocketbooks, as the annual release of Firestone Walker’s XVIII Anniversary Ale is upon us. Trust me, you DO want to spend a few bucks to put some of these bottles into your cellar, as they have been among the best aging and complex sippers we here at The New School have experienced. Paso Robles, California-based Firestone Walker takes the annual opportunity to team up with the winemakers that also sit in the valley the brewery calls home. XVIII is a barrel-aged blend composed of nine distinct component beers, as determined by a friendly yet fiercely competitive blending session attended by 14 winemakers (see full list below). XVIII will be available in select markets across the United States starting in November.
The Anniversary Ale blending session has become an annual rite, with Brewmaster Matt Brynildson enlisting his closest friends in the local winemaking community to help create a beer that is greater than the sum of its parts.
“These winemakers are practicing experts in the art of blending, so it makes perfect sense to seek their counsel,” Brynildson said. “It’s like bringing in the ninjas.”
The winemakers are paired off and presented with numerous different component beers spanning an array of styles. The pairs are tasked with creating their own preferred blends from among the components. The preferred blends are then presented to the entire group and blind tasted. Individual votes are cast, and the blend with the most votes becomes the basis for the next Anniversary Ale. Russell From and Philip Muzzy of Herman Story Wines are credited with creating the winning blend that became XVIII, granting them possession of the coveted cardboard crown that is awarded to the winning team each year.
“It got pretty competitive this year,” Brynildson said. “There was a lot of smack talk leading up to the session. A few of the winemaker teams were caught stuffing the ballot by creating more than one blend, and there were accusations of performance enhancers leveled against the winners, but it didn’t result in any arrests or suspensions.”
Most of the component beers spent an average of a year maturing in retired bourbon, brandy and whiskey barrels, including two collaboration beers that Brynildson said “we probably won’t see again,” specifically: Ol’Leghorn, a blonde barleywine brewed with 3 Floyds and aged in new American oak barrels; and Hydra Cuvée, a hoppy hybrid dark ale brewed with Flying Dog and aged in bourbon barrels.
In the end, Brynildson noted that “we got back to a stout-dominated blend this year,” with Parabola and Velvet Merkin constituting more than 40 percent of the final blend. At the same time, several other components layer in a subtle hoppy quality that Brynildson described as “really integrated and balanced.”
Parabola / Aged in Bourbon Barrels / 38% of Final Blend
Helldorado / Aged in Bourbon and Brandy Barrels / 16% of Final Blend
-Blonde Barleywine Brewed with Buckwheat Honey
-Imperial Brown Ale
Stickee Monkee / Aged in Bourbon and Whiskey Barrels / 14% of Final Blend
-Central Coast Quad Brewed with Belgian Candi and Mexican Turbinado (brown) Sugar
Velvet Merkin / Aged in Bourbon Barrels / 5% of Final Blend
-Traditional Oatmeal Stout
Hydra Cuvée / Aged in Bourbon Barrels; collaboration with Flying Dog / 4% of Final Blend
-Hoppy Hybrid Dark Ale
-Black Rye India Pale Ale
Ol’Leghorn / Aged in new American oak barrels; collaboration with 3 Floyds / 2% of Final Blend
Double Jack / 100% Stainless Steel / 2% of Final Blend
-Double India Pale Ale
XVIII is the ninth release in Firestone Walker’s anniversary series, dating back to the release of the inaugural anniversary release called “Ten” in 2006. Over the ensuing years, Firestone Walker has developed one of the craft beer industry’s most extensive barrel aging programs, spanning upwards of 1,500 barrels. Brewing beer with oak barrels has been a pioneering focal point for the brewery since its founding in 1996.
XVIII will be available in select markets across the United States starting in November. The suggested retail price is $23.99 for an individually boxed 22-ounce bottle.
“As a finished beer, XVIII is a dark and complex brew full of malt and barrel derived flavors, with Parabola leading the brew into the rich darkness. The beer is unfiltered and unfined, so there will be a small amount of sediment in the bottom of the bottle. XVIII is best enjoyed poured carefully into a half filled brandy snifter or wine glass. Allow it to warm to 55F to fully enjoy the pleasing and complex aromas. As the beer sits and breathes in the glass, rich dark chocolate, toasted oak and dark fruit qualities are revealed, so take your time. If you wait to open your bottle later, store it in a cool dark place. I suspect that this beer will age well and change favorably for years to come.”
“These are my friends and brothers in fermentation science, and practicing experts in the art of blending.”–Brewmaster Matt Brynildson
· Neil Collins – Tablas Creek, Lone Madrone
· Chelsea Franchi – Tablas Creek
· Justin Smith– Saxum
· Mark Adams – Ledge
· Kevin Sass – Halter Ranch
· Molly Longborg – Halter Ranch
· Russell From – Herman Story
· Philip Muzzy – Herman Story
· Matt Trevisan – Linne Calodo
· Sherman Thacher – Thacher
· Terry Hoage – Terry Hoage Vineyards
· Steve Martell – Kaleidos
· Eric Jensen – Booker
· Brock Waterman – Brochelle
Also thanks to friends Arie Litman and Bobby Fox for lending their expertise to the blending session.