There are certain concepts within the craft beer world that are still impossible to hate, even in the cesspit of 2021, and the collaborative aspect of Firestone Walker’s annual Anniversary Ale would have to be one of them. Now in its 15th year, and celebrating the 25th anniversary of the brewery itself, Anniversary Ale has a story that has been told countless times—each year, it’s a unique blend created by collaboration with Firestone Walker’s local Paso Robles winemaking community, in which guest wine blenders assemble to create a blend out of that year’s barrel-aged beers. But even within those confines, the blenders and the brewery always find new, little things to make any given year stand out, whether it’s occasionally letting a different beer take center stage, or incorporating new styles that have never been in the blend before. We expect nothing less from the brewery we ultimately chose as the #1 brewer of the 2010s.
This year, for “25,” there are a few new aspects to the process. Firstly, this was the first year in which a regular fan of the brewery—a member of the company’s Brewmaster’s Collective beer club—was invited to participate alongside the winemakers in the process, and the blend they created alongside representatives of Herman Story Wines and Booker Vineyard was ultimately chosen as the winning blend. Secondly, 2021 is the first time when the brewery has individually bottled each component beer that goes into the blend. It may be difficult for most drinkers to assemble a “complete set,” as it were, but FW is selling three-packs that combine a bottle of “25” with bottles of Parabola Autumn Edition and 2021 Stickee Monkee Quad, so many drinkers will get a chance to taste at least some of the components side by side.
In terms of composition, the final blend for 2021’s “25” breaks down as follows:
— Parabola Autumn Edition | 14% ABV – Russian Imperial Stout aged in Bourbon Barrels (41% of the final blend)
— Tequila Barrel Merkin | 7% ABV – Milk Stout aged in Tequila Barrels (28% of the final blend)
— Brandy Barrel Barley Wine | 13.8% ABV – Blonde Barley Wine aged in Brandy Barrels (13% of the final blend)
— Stickee Monkee | 12.3% ABV – Central Coastal Quad aged in Bourbon Barrels (10% of final blend)
— Whiskey Barrel Wheat Wine | 11.7% ABV – Strong Golden Wheat Wine aged in Bourbon Barrels (8% of the final blend)
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting!
On the nose, “25” displays a well-balanced array of fruit and caramelized sugar notes, hitting on black raspberry and black cherry along with hints of molasses, chocolate and subtle booziness. There’s a hint of “fudginess,” but not a lot that immediately makes this stand out to me as “exotic” on the nose by any means—if put in front of me blind, I would ID it as a very well-made, barrel-aged imperial stout. All in all, it smells wonderful, but fairly familiar.
On the palate, though, “25” differentiates itself a bit more. It’s surprisingly delicate and subtle at times in its delivery, round in texture but not super syrupy, at least by the modern conception of “syrupy” that has been warped considerably by the dominance of extremely saccharine pastry stouts. This, on the other hand, features well-integrated notes of chocolate and light barrel char, met by black cherry and subtly malty sweet tones. There’s also a light spiciness, somewhat peppery, which may be contributed by the Tequila Barrel Merkin, but it’s yet another subtle supporting player. Brewmaster Matt Brynildson tends to focus on the complexity of these barrel-aged blends when he speaks about them, and that’s what this possesses, in lieu of sheer power or bombast.
All in all, it’s the kind of sophisticated barrel-aged beer that we expect it to be on a yearly basis. Rarely does this brewery produce anything less.
Brewery: Firestone Walker Brewing Co.
City: Paso Robles, CA
Style: Blend of barrel-aged beers
Availability: Limited, 12 oz bottles
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.