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POINT OF BREW --- Michael J. Lewis

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Editor’s note: Lately, TASTE has been considering the issue of non-alcoholic beers. In chatting with our very learned columnist, Dr.  Michael Lewis, we discovered he has a background in this non-alcoholic business dating back to its very early days. Perhaps you will enjoy his column on the topic that he penned in November of 2016.

Visiting Old Memories Along the Central Coast

The week before Thanksgiving we departed Davis for southern California to spend a pre-Thanksgiving weekend with our son and his family who had other plans for the Thanksgiving holiday. Other events fell into place so that I was able to take up a long-standing invitation to visit the Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles. This meant we spent overnight en route to Newport Beach in a town with the unenviable name of Goleta, near Santa Barbara. On this deviation from our usual route, I was struck once again what an incredibly varied state California is, in this case the quite extraordinary Central Coast.

But I got to visit Firestone Walker Brewery and spent a rewarding afternoon with Head Brewer Matt Brynildson (photo).

I have quite a long history with this brewing company, or at least its precursor, going back to the 1980s; at that time the enterprise was known as Firestone and Fletcher Brewing Company. I remember the company logo was quite compelling: firestone obviously, but a fletcher is an arrow-maker (particularly the flight part).

Here is that story: Brooks Firestone, grandson of the founder of the Firestone tire company, originally contacted me to talk about the craft brewing industry. Mr. Firestone, at the time, owned the Firestone vineyards and winery in Los Olivos, California, and he wished to explore the possibility of adding a brewery to that enterprise. To cut a fairly long story quite short, he eventually decided that the best opportunity, in the speciality craft beer segment, was non-alcoholic beer (less than 0.5% alcohol). This would not have been my analysis of opportunities at that time in the history of the industry, but given the extraordinary knowledge and skill of Mr. Firestone in business and sales and marketing (after all, selling wine is not easy) and since it was his money, I did my usual trick of giving my honest advice three times and then, if ignored, I assisted as best I could.   

So, against my better judgment, I developed a formulation and process for a non-alcoholic craft beer. Now, there is no way one can win this game because the process of fermentation of malt extract to make alcohol in regular beer is absolutely intrinsically essential to the flavor of real beer. One cannot create a product with the same flavor without the alcohol. But one can fake it, and the style of craft beers (e.g. more bitter, darker in color) gave me some formulation opportunities and wiggle room. So I came up with a product and process.

It was described in the LA Times, some time later, as the best non-alcoholic beer ever made.

Nevertheless, drinkers of regular beer who explore non-alcoholic beers (for example, to give their livers a rest), find them to be distasteful bordering on poisonous; taste scores are well below 2 on a 5 point scale; on the other hand those accustomed to these products enjoy them and typically award 4 out of 5 taste points.

At the time I also owned a small manufacturing company to make equipment for craft brewers; we were commissioned to design and build a brewhouse for the newly incorporated Firestone and Fletcher Brewing Company. Looking back I might have made some different design choices because the plant was, shall I say, unconventional, though suitable to the needs of this rather odd product.

The whole enterprise worked well and the brewery packaged and sold many case of non-alcoholic beer over several years.

Mr. Firestone called me one day to advise that a major brewery was visiting him and that they were interested in buying the brand and the technology (I had a small financial interest in both). Verrry Interrresting!

Well it so happened that shortly after this visit both major US brewers, Anheuser-Busch and Miller, came out with non-alcoholic beers, respectively O’Douls and Sharps; Sharps was really close in style to the Firestone product. These beers were also significantly cheaper and it was soon impossible for a small-scale operation to compete. The Firestone and Fletcher enterprise ceased operation in 1992, much to the chagrin of a devoted following.

In 1992 Dan Berger of the L.A.Times documented this story in a piece entitled “The Case of the Disappearing Near Beer”; one can still find that article through Google.

Matt Brynildson 1 PicmonkeyMatt Brynildson, Brewmaster at Firestne Walker

For all these reasons I was delighted when Adam Firestone (son of Brooks) with his friend and brother-in-law David Walker took up the challenge of making beer, although I have had no further association with the business. The brewery eventually bought an existing brewery in Paso Robles to house the Bear&Lion (family logos) and have since then been busy expanding facilities and production from quite modest beginnings to a substantial enterprise. The brewery was closed to other visitors during my tour because of a major expansion of the brewhouse that will help take production to 500,000 barrels and beyond. The campus includes a large and charming restaurant/tavern and the brewery and labs have excellent equipment and quality engineering throughout; there is an extensive barrel room for aging some beers. It’s plainly a well-financed and successful brewing operation.

Typical of a craft brewery, Firestone Walker brew many different beers, with a wide range of alcohol content, bitterness and color/flavor intensity; many are readily available in Davis. The biggest seller is called 805 and is an easy drinking light ale that is worth seeking out. Check out the web site!

I departed the brewery with an ample supply of excellent beers, courtesy of Matt, that lubricated our pre-Thanksgiving holiday and added zest to our splendid roast beef dinner with family and guests.

 

Michael J. Lewis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis, and the academic director and lead instructor of UC Davis Extension’s Professional Brewing Programs. Lewis has been honored with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas’ Award of Merit and the Brewers Association’s Recognition Award. He is an elected fellow of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He is also a recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award.  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.   

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