by Angela Elson and Paul Deines
If there’s one brewer today that seems categorically incapable of making a bad beer, it’s Firestone Walker. The brainchild of tire scion Adam Firestone and his brother-in-law David Walker, this Paso Robles brewery opened shop in 1996 and quickly made its name with flavorful, quaffable brews like Union Jack, Double Barrel Ale and Velvet Merlin.
In 2006, Firestone Walker started bottling an annual anniversary ale. This high-alcohol blend of Firestone Walker’s best-loved beers, many barrel-aged, is different each year. Paying homage to California’s vibrant wine culture, area vintners are invited to prepare their preferred blend of Firestone Walker’s stock ales. The winning blend is bottled.
Owing to the success of these anniversary blends, Firestone Walker has begun distributing the component ales – long available in the Paso Robles taproom – in snazzy boxed bombers. These releases are known as the Proprietor’s Reserve Series. Some have been one-off bottlings; some have been discontinued; a few are so beloved there may be riots if Firestone Walker ever does away with them.
So over the next few weeks, a couple guest contributors and I will offer our opinions on five Proprietor’s Reserve beers and the 2014 Anniversary Ale (XVIII). So, let’s begin with that most widely-beloved Firestone Walker ale:
Parabola (Russian Imperial Stout, 14% ABV, 2014 vintage) Beer geeks love a barrel-aged stout, and Parabola may be the platonic ideal. No adjuncts, no gimmicks. It’s jet black and monolithic, redolent of woodsmoke, espresso, brownies and that somewhere-between-caramel-and-cordial creaminess that Firestone Walker always seems to get out of its barrels. Parabola tastes like flourless chocolate cake drenched in bourbon sauce. Sticky and milk-thick, it coats the mouth wonderfully, with only a slight burn. It’s rich and robust without being fussy. There are plenty of great bourbon stouts – some I like more than Parabola – but this is the prototype. It’d be a misrepresentation to call any of the Proprietor’s brews easy to find, but in a world of miniscule bottle counts and one-day brewery release events, it’s a bloody godsend that an opulent chocolate-bomb like this sees distribution.
While I recover from the obscene awesomeness that is Parabola, guest contributor Angela Elson will take the next Proprietor’s Reserve Series ale …
Velvet Merkin (Oatmeal Stout, 8.5% ABV, 2013 vintage) Since I’m a guest here on Imbibliography, you should know two things about me. First, I like my barrel-aged stouts to fall slightly short of alcoholic pancake syrup (think Bell’s Black Note and Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout). I like ’em rich, sticky, sweet, and hot enough to produce a fireball when sneezing across a lit candle. Second, I’m a sucker for a name. It should follow, then, that I was pretty stoked to try Velvet Merkin, a barrel-aged oatmeal stout named after a pubic wig. Parabola caused me to black out from ecstasy upon my first sip: I could barely wait to fill my mouth with Merkin with my beer-geek husband, Brady. The bad news: for a barrel-aged stout, an ABV of 8.5% just seems . . . uneventful. Parabola is 14%. By comparison, I feared 8.5% might be as exciting as idling a Ferrari through a school zone.
Undaunted, Brady and I poured glasses and stuck our big noses in to sniff. He called out notes of licorice and caramel. I sophisticatedly remarked that it smelled like candy. The espresso color of Velvet Merkin makes it look like it should feel like tar on the tongue, but the mouth-feel is surprisingly light. Brady mused that Velvet Merkin was roasty, woodsy, and slightly smoky, and while I can’t really put my finger on the flavors like he can, I can tell you what’s missing. It needs more bourbon. I’m sure there are many reasons to age a beer in a bourbon barrel—reasons probably too nuanced for me to understand—but the primary one, in my opinion, should be to make the beer taste like a bourbon barrel. For the record, we did taste the Proprietor’s Series alongside the base, Velvet Merlin, and the former’s barrel is more pronounced when you compare the two. Still, this isn’t a beer that knocks you out with a booze-sodden 2x4.
Which is fine! Velvet Merkin is still an incredibly tasty beer, but my problem (in retrospect) is that I got too excited about the name. You draw a parallel between your beer and a pubic wig, and people are going to expect something plush and naughty and hot and fun. But Velvet Merkin isn’t really any of these things. In fact, it’s more sophisticated than its vulgar namesake: well balanced in terms of bitterness and sweetness, neither gimmicky nor cloying, but smooth and restrained. It tastes more velvet than merkin. (A.E.)
(Editor’s note: perhaps preemptively responding to Angela’s critique, Firestone Walker has announced that the next bottled vintage of Velvet Merkin will be augmented with a milk stout. This presumably will give it a silkier, fuller consistency. Perhaps we’ll do a follow up review of the new Merkin)
Double DBA (English Bitter, 12% ABV, 2014 vintage) Before I start dissecting this sadly defunct ale, I think it’s worth discussing the notion of beer style. Firestone Walker’s packaging calls is an Imperial Special Bitter. Most drinkers consider it a Barleywine, but that’s a bit of a construct. The separation between Bitter and Barleywine is a matter of gravity and coloration. In that regard, Double DBA – with its booziness and opaque ruby-red appearance – is resolutely the latter. The months of bourbon-barrel aging have virtually negated any bitterness and brought the fruit and honey malt to the fore. The Double Barrel Ale, a traditional bitter, went into the barrel, but the Double DBA that came out is something else entirely.
So, style, like human sexuality, is fluid. And while Double DBA was evidently not the most popular of the Proprietor’s Reserve series, it remains a sentimental favorite of mine. Next week, we’ll discuss §ucaba, a genuinely huge barleywine of the Mother of All Storms ilk. That capital-B Barleywine can easily overshadow the well-balanced mélange of toffee, fig and spiced bread that is Double DBA. It’s playful, just a hint of smoke in the nose and some bourbon vanilla on the tongue. But the relative lightness of Double DBA allows sweet-luscious flavors to shine through: cinnamon, clove, honey and just a hint of hoppy lemon at the end. Double DBA is medium-bodied with a devilishly slight booziness. It’s tremendously drinkable.
Thanks to Angela for taking part in today’s entry. In the next Imbibliography article, we’ll be joined by Evan Hernandez to discuss two more Proprietor’s Reserve ales and last year’s Anniversary blend.
Angela Elson is a copywriter and stickler for good grammar living in Louisville, Kentucky, with her husband and daughter. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Spalding University. Visit her website at angelaelson.com.