... and it was awesome.
I mean really, what else could you reasonably expect to follow “we drank a five-year vertical of Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale”? If you’ve ever had that beer, you know it’s not going to be ”... and it was an okay experience, I guess.”
2017 has been a pretty rough year for a lot of us. At times, it has felt like living in a world that is melting down, with the pace of destruction only accelerating over time. All too many mornings, we wake up wondering what horrible thing will happen in the world of politics or entertainment—and we cover those things for a living at Paste. This has been the kind of year that makes you afraid to even dip a toe into your own field.
But by god, some days you wake up and say “Nevermind all those terrible things probably happening at this moment. Today, we’re doing a five-year vertical of Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale!” And brother, those are the days that make all the other ones worthwhile.
Big props to our friend Greg Bowman at The Hoptimist, who managed to summon the patience to both acquire and sit on five years worth of these beers. What he assembled is the full range from 2013 onward, including the new 2017 Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale, the first in the series to be packaged in a 12 oz rather than 22 oz bottle, as the brewery moves all of their barrel-aged releases into smaller formats. If you’re curious about the philosophy behind the downsizing of these bottles, we interviewed Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matt Brynildson on the topic back in January.
If you’re not familiar with Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale, it’s among the more unique yearly releases celebrating a single brewery’s barrel-aging program. Each year, the brewery partners with local winemaker neighbors in Paso Robles, CA to make a beer that is blended from some or all of the annual FW barrel-aged releases. This includes everything from Parabola, the famed BA imperial stout, to the blonde barleywine Helldorado or the rarely seen imperial brown ale known as Bravo. As a result, no year of Anniversary Ale is the same, even though they may be blended from the same beers. The brewers of Firestone Walker don’t even control the outcome of the final product, either—they simply hand over the components they’ve crafted and let the sophisticated palettes of the local oenophiles produce some sort of unique synthesis.
Which made us wonder: How would the five years of Anniversary Ale stack up to one another? How will the four or five years of additional bottle conditioning impact things for a beer such as the 2013 or 2014 Anniversary Ales? A group of tasters approached each one, and here’s what we found.
Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale 17 (2013)
The oldest of these beers is led by 30% Bravo, the barrel-aged imperial brown ale, but it also contains a very high percentage (25%) of Stickee Monkee, the whiskey barrel-aged English barleywine, and that beer feels like its signature … which has likely only been enhanced by its five years of bottle aging. The result when drinking now, at the end of 2017, is a sweet and mellow profile that I immediately dubbed “whiskey maple”—imagine some homemade oatmeal with tons of brown sugar, maple syrup and a slug of bourbon, and you’re most of the way there. Caramel and toffee richness is here in a big way, along with some stone fruitiness and a ridiculously smooth booze character. Overall, this is perhaps the most velvety smooth of all of the beers—any rough edges that it may have once possessed have been completed sanded away. It’s a rich, very caramelized, fairly sweet beer that you might label as a barrel-aged English barleywine if tasting blind, and overall a decadently delicious experience to drink in 2017. Pretty much every taster agreed that this bottle was one of the best—a slightly more malt and caramel-driven take on the Anniversary Ale than a few of the bigger, boozier, barrel-accented ones to follow.
Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale 18 (2014)
The composition of the 2014 Anniversary Ale is radically different from the year before it, but it started a trend that continued for the next few years, wherein each Anniversary Ale blend was primarily driven by Firestone’s classic BBA stout, Parabola (this year is 38% Parabola). This year also sees the first entrance of Helldorado in the #2 spot (16%), and it makes its mark in a big way. This beer is darker and burlier, with more cocoa and nutty flavors, which correspondingly dials back some of the caramelization/candy/fruitiness/richness we were getting in the 2013. It’s also significantly boozier, as we suspect the brandy barrels of the Helldorado are making themselves felt here. In general, the barrels have become more assertive and the beer is a bit more abrasive as a result. Still very fun to drink in 2017, but pretty much every taster preferred the 2013 overall.
Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale 19 (2015)
This year’s Anniversary Ale cut things back a bit, in terms of the number of moving parts on display, going from a blend of nine different beers to only four—Parabola, Stickee Monkee, Bravo and Velvet Merkin. Parabola still leads off on the palate, but it doesn’t dominate it as much this time around. The profile is very smooth and roasty, replete with lots of cocoa, coffee, roasted nuts and toffee—notes of Tootsie Roll fudginess and dark fruit (black cherry, raspberry). You know there’s plenty of booze in this one as well, but it’s rounder and smoother—ridiculously smooth, really. 2015 seems to be a good balance of richness, sweetness, booze and dangerous (relative) drinkability. We have to assume that this one would be a crowd pleaser just about anywhere.
Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale 20 (2016)
This year brings the number of beers in the blend back up to five, adding a minority undercurrent of Helldorado while bringing Parabola to the forefront at 40% dominance—and it totally works, if what you want is a super decadent final product. There’s a whole lot of stout here, but absolutely no rough edges. It’s sweeter than the last two years, and very rich, but yet despite that we were all getting less overt booze harshness on the 2016 bottle; perhaps because it’s masked by the sweetness. Instead, you’re getting huge flavors of chocolate and toffee—a bit of “Werther’s Originals” caramels in there, I think—in a way that is wish fulfilling and very fun. There’s a reason why, of all the bottles, my notes say “I want a scoop of vanilla ice cream” with this particular Anniversary Ale. More than any of the other versions of Anniversary Ale we tasted, this one is unquestionably a “dessert beer,” but it’s also plain delicious. Of all the Parabola-driven years of this beer, 2016 ended up being the table’s unanimous favorite.
Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale 21 (2017)
This year’s newly released Anny Ale 21 is where we suddenly diverge from the recent path, in more ways than one. Not only is the beer now in 12 oz bottles, but the three-year run of Parabola dominance comes to an end as Velvet Merkin steps forward with a 42% share of the total, followed by Parabola at 18%. Also of interest is the difference in this year’s Helldorado, given that the beer is now being aged in rum rather than brandy or whiskey barrels. The result is a beer that is far more sophisticated and balanced than the decadence of 2016, with a nose that is lighter and more nuanced—nutty and lightly roasty, evoking toasted chestnuts or pecan. It’s much drier on the palate, while the booze character now seems to accentuate the fruitiness more—we’re getting a lot more red fruit from this one (probably the Stickee Monkee character, which is easier to pick up with less Parabola), with impressions of cherry and raspberry. We couldn’t help but discuss how the packaging works in tandem with the liquid—if you’re more likely to consume an entire bottle in a 12 oz format, perhaps it makes sense that the beer be less decadent to better fit a solo drinking experience? Either way, it’s a very intriguing capper on an amazing vertical tasting.
Wondering about some of these questions, I decided to take my queries directly to the source and ask Matt Brynildson. Here’s what he had to say about the 2017 version of Anniversary Ale.
Paste: In the last few years, Aniversary Ale has been driven by Parabola as its leading element. What spurred the transition to putting Velvet Merkin in the spotlight this time?
Brynildson: The blend was created by winemakers Jordan Fiorentini & Kyle Gingras of Epoch Estate Wines and Anthony Yount of Denner Vineyards. These are a couple of the absolute top tier producers in the Paso Robles area. It was the first time that these particular winemakers blended with us, so maybe it was a new perspective that moved the needle. We as brewers had no say in their decision—the transition was the winemakers simply making the best blend they could from the components they were presented—and Parabola was presented as a component.
Paste: Was the formulation of this year’s Aniversary Ale impacted by the fact that it’s the first to be in 12 oz bottles? We thought this year’s came off as more approachable and less decadent than 2016 in particular, and wondered if that might have been intentional because you might have been expecting more people to consume an entire 12 oz bottle, rather than sharing a 22 oz bottle.
Brynildson: Well, that’s a very interesting concept, but we didn’t think about it in those terms. Again—we allow the winemakers to create the blend, and this year a more elegant beer emerged from the process. I’m really happy that we ended up with something that is recognizably different and I’m really enjoying the beer. I can tell you that we have some of the most decadent and barrel-forward Parabola in the cellar as ever. That beer will go into 12oz bottles as well in 2018 and there is no plan to blend it down. If you taste the Scotch Parabola that we recently released, you will see that we are in no way taming the program to be more approachable. Next year’s Anniversary ale might be the biggest we have ever seen, or maybe we have crossed over to an era of more sensible and mellow blends. You would have to ask the winemakers that question ;)
So there you have it, straight from Merlin’s mouth. All we can say is that we’ll always be excited for the next time such an opportunity arises. And if you ever get a chance to put together a vertical like this one … don’t pass it up.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru, whose own cellar can’t compete with this kind of crazy vertical tasting. You can follow him on Twitter for much more beer writing.