Monday, June 15, 2015

2015 Firestone Walker Invitational, Paso Robles, CA

My wife and I like beer... a lot.  If there was a beer Disneyland, we would get season passes.  But wait... there IS a beer Disneyland, albeit for just one day of the year!  We were fortunate enough to secure tickets to attend the 4th annual Firestone Walker Invitational, held at the fairgrounds in Paso Robles (the same town which is home to the eponymous brewery).  The event sold out in 30 seconds, according to reports, making us feel even luckier.  We had attended a less than stellar craft beer event in San Jose, but we felt that this one would be quite a bit better... and boy were we right.  For starters, the brewmasters were required to be present, rather than sending in some lackey to do the talking.  Considering that there were breweries from Europe and Oceania present, that's a pretty big deal.  Oh, and each brewery had to bring in super special beers (aka "white whales").  Here are some of the photos from the day (which was the Saturday after Memorial Day, by the way).

Our shuttle arrived about 45 minutes before the gates opened, and yet the line to get in was still a block long.  Note = try to stay at a hotel that gets visited by the shuttle.

The wifey, ready to get her drink on.

We could see Pizza Port through the fence (and the few people who paid over $100 extra to enter the gates an hour early).

One thing I didn't realize until I got into line was that food was included with the ticket.  All you could eat food from a variety of vendors!  SWEET.

No surprise to see Dogfish Head present (the brewery list was released in advance of the event).

Sun King came out from Indiana.

Time to head into the "holding area!"

Standard security / ID check.  Probably not wise to try and bring a fake ID.

Totally random - my friend Chris' brother Michael was a volunteer at the event!  We ran into him several times during the day.

What do we have here?

Tasting glasses for all!  The line on the side of the glass said 3 oz., but there was about an inch of space above the line (and some breweries were VERY generous with their pours).

We were given these trays to hold our food AND glasses.

We were still waiting to officially enter, as it was just before 12:00pm.

But not to worry, because we had our first pour of the day, courtesy of Firestone Walker.  This was their collaboration beer with Birrificio Italiano, called La Piccola.  Tasty sour style ale.  We would buy bottles of this the following day at the brewery itself, down the road.

Waiting in the shade with the masses (and please note that my wife is only holding my tray so I can take photos... she's my wife, not my beer wench!).

Almost time to enter... a countdown would eventually commence.

THREE, TWO, ONE... Wooooooo!!!

I had a plan of attack for the day, which involved going to Three Floyds, Founders, and Side Project, in that order, due to their proximity to each other.  However, the lines for each of those three immediately became more than I could handle, so I settled for a pretty good fallback plan = Garage Project, from New Zealand.  This is their 2 Pot Flat White, which consists of two beers designed to be mixed together to create a creamy stout.  Honestly, one of the two beers that was getting mixed in was as white as cream.  It was as tasty as it sounds, and was a great first beer of the day.

One question that I had in mind, and one that I heard others echo at the festival, was whether or not The Alchemist (from Vermont) would have a special unannounced pouring of their #1 listed beer in the world (on, Heady Topper.  It turns out that they DID bring Heady Topper to California, but only for the after party for the brewmasters et al.  Bummer.

The Alchemist did, however, provide the highly regarded Focal Banger for the masses (I braved the line twice to get some - the slowest line of the day).

As good as Focal Banger was, their relatively unknown (outside of Vermont) Petit Mutant was absolutely stellar.  One of the highlights of a highlight filled day.

Suz was having a blast.

Beer is a social beverage.  It can also lead to impaired judgment.  Case in point - everyone in the photo got shooed out of the carriage by the authorities for trespassing.  Whoops.

Beer also made me take this photo while I was midstream.  No, I did not eat the remnants.

We didn't catch much of the live music because we were too busy drinking beer, but what we heard was decent.

I didn't end up taking too many photos during the festival because of the difficulty of holding a glass AND a camera at the same time.  This photo was taken as we started exiting the festival around 4:30pm (it ended at 5pm, but the majority of the breweries started closing down at 4pm).

I definitely drank responsibly... I was responsible enough to try no fewer than 11 "white whales" (i.e. very rare, hard to find beers), including Founders' CBS (the single best stout I have EVER had - it was so good I almost cried), Three Floyds' Dark Lord, Side Project's Saison du Fermier, Cigar City's Hunahpu, Bell's Black Note, Boneyard's Notorious Triple IPA (which I bet could go toe to toe with Pliny the Younger in a blind taste test), and Kern River's Citra Double IPA.  One of the best beers of the day was not on my "white whale" list, though = it was the Pineapple Passion Fruit Grunion Pale Ale from Ballast Point.  

Dear Ballast Point, please bottle that beer.  Thanks for considering.

All good things must come to an end, but the good news is that this festival will be going on again next year!  We'll do our part to try and secure tickets.

A few pieces of advice should you be so lucky to attend this event:

1. Get your hotel early, ideally even before you get your tickets.  We did not, and we had to pay $300 for a room.
2. Stay at one of the hotels that is a shuttle spot (we stayed at La Quinta).
3. Enter the line well before 12pm.
4. Bring a hat and sunscreen (duh).
5. Drink lots of water in between glasses, and get food when you can (remember, it's included!).
6. Drunk people do stupid things.  We had people cut in line (at Three Floyds) by pretending to strike up a conversation about baseball, and even worse, we saw a guy get arrested for stealing someone's camera bag.  Don't let yourself be a victim, and if you become a victim, don't let it ruin your otherwise awesome Saturday.
7. The Firestone Walker Invitational app is an incredible app.  Definitely download it and use it.

The most important piece of advice I can give is this = 

8. Don't stress about breweries running out of their stuff.  Only 1 brewery that I saw ran out of something early on (Dogfish Head's 2011 120 Minute IPA), and only one other was tapped out by 3pm (Russian River's Beatification was a goner, but we secured it before it was done).  Three Floyds had MANY variations of Dark Lord, so unless you're very picky you'll be fine (the famous vanilla bean version was the last to be tapped, and was admittedly gone in 20 minutes).  Founders' CBS (one of the highest ranked beers in the world) was still available hours later, and I only had to wait behind 3 other people to get it.  Score!

See you in 2016?

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