PASO ROBLES, Calif. -- Firestone Walker Brewing Co. is celebrating a major milestone throughout 2021.
"This is our 25th anniversary," said co-founder Adam Firestone. "It's a big event, a celebration for us, and it celebrates our 25 years of being founded on the Central Coast, and all the challenges and celebrations that we've had along the way."
Founded in 1996, Firestone, along with his brother-in-law David Walker, started out quite humbly, inside a nondescript shed on the family's Santa Ynez Valley vineyard.
"It was a very small idea," said Firestone. "We made one beer. We thought we would distribute it, maybe from Los Olivos all the way to Solvang, maybe to Buellton if we got really excited."
The beer Firestone and Walker created was Double Barrel Ale, brewed uniquely inside American oak barrels.
In a short period of time, Double Barrel Ale, also known as DBA, quickly built a loyal local customer base.
"It was a modest project to start out with, and I'm not quite sure how it got out of control and grew, but at some point, it got a following, and that community momentum is what caused the expansion," said Firestone.
At the same time Firestone Walker was building its business, the craft beer revolution was also just beginning to take off.
"We came out of the wine business and we sort of rode the craft beer wave," said Nick Firestone, Firestone Walker Commercial Officer. "I like to say we rode the wave, but we sort of also I think we think we helped create some of it as well along the way."
By 2001, Firestone Walker was producing several other beers, and grew so much, it moved its headquarters into a large Paso Robles brewhouse, where it's still headquartered.
Over the past two decades in Paso Robles, the brewery has since become one of the biggest and most successful craft beer companies in the United States.
"We were a very small enterprise, and boy, roll the clocks forward, and now we're one of the best selling craft breweries," said brewmaster Matt Brynildson. "As brewers, we measure beer in barrels, that's 31 gallons per barrel. We produce in and around a half a million brewing barrels a year, which represents a lot of cases of 805, Double Barrel Ale and Union Jack."
For the brewery, a watershed moment came in 2012, when it officially unveiled the now iconic 805 brand.
Firestone Walker had already brewed a version of the California blond ale, but when it decided to rename it, a local cultural phenomenon began.
"805 is our ultimate expression of the Central Coast," said Adam Firestone. "It is enjoyed by the two types of people we consider to be native to the Central Coast, that's surfers and cowboys, and so we've always tried to carry their message, carry their interest groups, their lifestyle, express it through our marketing, and it's touched a nerve, no question. People remember it. It's an easy drinking beer. A lot of craft beer gets criticized for being a little unapproachable at times, and 805 is not. It is just as friendly and neighborly as we all think the Central Coast really is."
Buoyed by the success of 805, Firestone Walker has been able to expand its reach far beyond the area code for which the famous ale is named.
"We're in probably close to 30 states around the country," said Brynildson.
While consumers can now find Firestone Walker in much of the United States, it still remains something true to one of the company's earlier slogans, "it's what we drink around here."
"Our beer has spread, but that said, probably 90 percent is consumed within 300 miles of the brewery," said Adam Firestone. "That just reflects the fact that visitors to the Central Coast remember us and we've ended up distributing in their neighborhoods."
There's little doubt 805 has been a blockbuster, and at one point accounted for more than half of all sales for the company, but now, other popular brands are gaining in popularity.
"805 has been really a huge beer for us and we're really proud of it. It's a drinkable, delicious beer that's well recognized," said Nick Firestone. "But brands like Mind Haze, Luponic Distortion, and some of our other flagship brands have started to pick up and pull a bit more weight."
Not only is the company brewing a lot of beer at its Paso Robles headquarters, but also at its Buelleton-based Barrelworks, which is home of the company's acclaimed wild ale program. It also has gained a foothold in Southern California with a taproom located in Venice.
With three locations, the company has become one of the biggest employers on the Central Coast, boasting a staff of more than 500.
"We're tremendously proud of our team," said Nick Firestone. "The people that we work with here are truly some of the best in the world. They like to live here on the Central Coast."
Another point of emphasis for company is its multifaceted sustainability program. Earlier this year, Firestone Walker announced the completion of a 9.7 acre solar facility built adjacent to its Paso Robles campus.
"It's important for us to be stewards of our backyards and of the resources that we have," said Nick Firestone. "I think we place a large premium of being efficient and thinking through how we can be better stewards of our land and resources. We have a large solar array in our backyard here that we like to say that powers our brewery with California sunshine. We have a number of initiatives with water, hops, procurement, things like that just increase our efficiency here in our brewery."
A key element to the company has been constant innovation and an unwavering commitment to staying fresh and relevant on the ever evolving craft beer scene.
"Consumers are always looking for what's new, what's the new and upcoming style," said Brynildson. "Nowadays, we're making new beers all the time. We're constantly formulating new creations. We'll brew over 90 different styles or different types of beer this year and that's kind of norm, which keeps it really exciting."
Adam Firestone emphasized the brewery will always continue to evolve and adapt.
"As brewers, we believe that it's important for us to experiment a lot," said Firestone. "While 90 percent of our beer sales are confined to two or three beers, we experiment a lot, and there's no question, we always have, and so we push the envelope. We research. We sample. We experiment. Most of it is just temporary and it's a seasonal or occasional or one-off, and occasionally, something lands and we stick with it."
Even as the brewery remains headquartered in Paso Robles, it is now under majority ownership of another company thousands of miles away.
In 2015, Walker and Firestone sold majority control to Duvel Moortgat, a family-owned Belguim-based brewery.
"A few years ago, like all companies, we were looking at debt," said Adam Firestone. "We were looking at growth. We were looking at the cost of things, and we looked at what would the next chapter look like, and so we had interviewed bankers, and we interviewed others that might invest with us, and decided that the ultimate partner to have would be another brewery."
Firestone pointed out the highly regarded company has been an ideal fit.
"It's been brewing for 150 years," said Firestone. "Three brothers who run that. We fit along quite well from a sort of simpatico basis between us all. Private, family company like ours and it's been just a great partnership, and so that gave us a little boost of capital, a little bit more street muscle, which is important to survive. It's a tough market out there and it meant that we didn't have to hitch up to one of the big breweries, the big conglomerates."
Even with a European-based owner, Firestone Walker continues to be operated locally, with David Walker serving as Chief Executive Officer.
"They are the majority owners of the company, and we're the minority, although the family, our family is still 100 percent of the operations," said Adam Firestone. "We basically traded out all of our bank debt for equity investors in a form of a brewery."
After a quarter century in business, Firestone Walker is taking time this year to remember its humble beginnings and to acknowledge the many people who have helped it achieve its incredible success.
"I think single biggest reflection I have is how grateful I am," said Adam Firestone. "I'm grateful that I've worked with some wonderful folks that have joined us along the years. We started very modestly with one part timer and since then the family has grown, and so there's a huge sense of gratitude for our team. We're really lucky. The talent on the Central Coast has been phenomenal and we're grateful to our market and our customers who have basically grown along side of us. I'm not sure that would have happened with the same success if we would have been founded or based somewhere else. This is a rare piece of the world and I think we're grateful for it."
For more information on Firestone Walker Brewing Co., click here.
Learn more about Firestone Walker Brewing Co. during a special, behind-the-scenes story by reporter Dave Alley on NewsChannel 12 and 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.