PASO ROBLES — At 11:55 a.m. last Saturday, David Walker, co-owner and founder of Firestone Walker jumped up on a stone wall in front of thousands of festers waiting eagerly to enter the Paso Robles Fairgrounds for the 7th Annual Firestone-Walker Invitational. After a short speech expressing his gratitude and with less than one minute left Walker and the entire crowd decided it was “go time.” So after a 10 second countdown the gates were opened and what appeared to be all 3,500 ticket holders at once streamed onto the festival grounds where 55 domestic and international breweries and 29 local restaurants braced themselves for the tidal wave of hot and hungry festers.
“When we started this we had no idea, the response to the Invitational has been overwhelming,” Walker said. “We had to cut off the number of ticket sales at 3,500 and this year, as soon as they went online they were sold out in two minutes.”
When asked how long the group up front had been waiting to get in, somebody responded, “an hour and a half,” but Dan Robbins from Southern California chimed in, “An hour and a half? Heck, I’ve been waiting all year for this.”
In world wide craft beer culture, Firestone-Walker is considered the king and its principal players are likened to rock stars.
“We release new beers all the time,” Walker said. “We make, at any one point, 40 to 50 beers. You usually only expose about half a dozen of them but we make a range specialty beers, barrel aged beers, wild fermented beers, all sorts of different IPAs. I mean, we’re sort of hooked on beer culture so we’re brewing beers all the time.”
The feeling is mutual. A very well informed expert confided that David Walker is fondly referred to as the “Hugh Grant of beer” by a lot of the brewers and as a joke they even take paparazzi style pics with their cell phones and text them to each other as sort of a “man crush sighting.”
But Walker wasn’t the only star at the event, there were informative panels by rockstar brewers such as Julian Shrago of Beachwood Brewery, John Buford from Arizona Wilderness and Firestone’s very own brewmaster Matt Brynildson. Yet even the superstars themselves were overwhelmed when they received the official invitation from Firestone to participate.
“When you get that letter with the Firestone Walker return address, you just have to walk around the room for a minute before you open it,” said John Buford of Arizona Wilderness.
“This is the kind of thing you put in your calendar, wake up early, get your coffee and sit at the computer and just keep hitting refresh until the tickets go on sale,” said Sarah Bennet, a craft beer writer/expert from Southern California. “This is a really big deal.”
So much of a big deal that there were breweries from all over the world and the lines, all put together, appeared that they could wrap around it. Lara and Chris Mason from San Francisco were waiting in a line the length of half a football field for a taste of Swedish cult favorite Omnipello. When asked if it was worth it and why they were willing to wait that long, Lara said, “Definitely, we’re true beer fans, and we read about these guys in an article somewhere, they’re supposed to be amazing.”
Local restaurants found themselves doling out delicious samples to lengthy lines as well. Pier 46 went through 1,000 pounds of raw tuna and the line for Negranti’s blackberry and rosemary ice cream was easily a couple hundred feet long.
But despite the long lines and the heat, revellers seemed to be more than satisfied as if they were going to leave the event with a badge of honor just for attending. Even Walker’s daughter Tamsyn Walker was in on the excitement. Having just turned 21 a couple of months ago and according to father David Walker, Tamsyn “has been jonesing to come to this since she was fifteen, since it first started.” Tamsyn proudly said, “My eldest sister Ella was here one year but my middle sister hasn’t made it yet, so I beat her.”
Bennet, who is based out of Long Beach and believes that the majority of people attending are from the Los Angeles area as well, explains the significance of the event.
“Firestone-Walker is so greatly admired and respected by the craft beer culture as a whole, and this invitational is a way for everyone to come experience the Firestone culture in particular,” he said. “Actually being here, in Paso Robles, gives you a whole new perspective of what Firestone is all about. With the whole Central California vibe and here in the fairgrounds which is like a rodeo, heck I woke up to cows mooing this morning.”
Indeed, Firestone Walker has called Paso Robles home for the past 17 years and with their new $15 million addition, obviously has no intention of going anywhere anytime soon. Even this event was an impressive community effort. Working hand in hand with the city and the Pioneer Day Committee, Firestone Walker intends to donate all of the proceeds to the iconic Annual Pioneer Day Parade that happens every October.
You may contact reporter Madeline Vail at [email protected]