Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker Brewing Co.

October 22, 2021
Firestone Walker is a California brewery founded by two brothers-in-law inside a shed on the back forty of a family vineyard. Converting their winemaking equipment for beer brewing purposes, David Walker and Adam Firestone cemented its legacy as one of the nation’s most adventurous and innovative breweries.
 
With bold, balanced beers created by their Brewmaster, Firestone Walker is one of only two top 15 craft brands growing in the off-premise. Though industry trade news often makes it seem as though only small, local breweries are thriving, consumers are still loyal to steadfast, established cornerstones of the craft beer industry, like Firestone Walker.
 
Ask David and Adam what sets them apart from other breweries and they’ll point to the Brewmaster in charge, Matt Brynildson. For 20 years Brynildson has been at the helm of Firestone Walker and has established himself as one of the world’s leading brewers. Heady Times was lucky enough to catch up with him to find out how Firestone Walker has remained so successful during this time of uncertainty and what he and his team have fermenting in Firestone’s legendary tanks. 
 
Heady Times (HT): During a time when many craft brands have struggled for stability, how has Firestone been able to sustain growth amidst so much uncertainty? 
 
Matt Brynildson (MB): We’ve continued to focus on quality. This year, we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary and we’ve been packaging our beers for the off-premise since the very beginning. We’ve remained diligent in building a better brewery and have been upgrading our production, laboratory and packaging equipment at every opportunity. I think another important part of our success is the energy we put toward innovation and launching new products in the market. For instance, we entered the hazy IPA world with Mind Haze, then fully engaged with a lineup of hazy extensions. There’s always a beehive of activity in the R&D and Innovations departments at Firestone.
 
HT: Launched in early 2019, your hazy IPA Mind Haze has quickly become one of your best-selling beers in retail and in the on-premise. It’s currently the #2 hazy IPA in California and #4 in total U.S. You’ve expanded Mind Haze with new line extensions very successfully, such as this year’s Double Mind Haze which has become Firestone’s fifth best-selling beer. Why do you think Mind Haze has been such a huge hit? 
 
MB: We took the hazy IPA challenge seriously and went all in with Mind Haze. It required adopting a new yeast strain and updating our brewhouse and cellar, which was originally tooled for bright beer (remember when beers were clear?). It also allowed us to bring in some amazing hops and explore the tropical side of that world. We’re in our third year with Mind Haze and we have the process dialed in. That’s allowed us to release a few extensions. We started earlier this year with the obvious move – Double Mind Haze. We’ve found that the hazy yeast strain we employ loves higher gravity and creates beautiful flavors at 8% ABV and beyond. I’m thrilled with Double Mind Haze, and we are brewing a lot of it. 
 
HT: How has Firestone Walker’s lineup changed over the years and why?
 
MB: Long gone are the days of building a single flagship beer and sailing toward double-digit growth. Rather than stand on the sidelines, we’ve decided to engage, but we do it the Firestone Walker way, infusing our DNA and brewing philosophy into whatever we are creating. We still keep focused on our core beers. Double Barrel Ale, Union Jack and Pivo are still alive and well with new packages and a lot of love. But we have some great seasonals like our fall offering, Oaktoberfest, and an upcoming winter beer that’s a new stout variant called Cinnamon Dolce Nitro Stout – all the while building the Mind Haze family and tending to that growth – four solid pillars that all need attention. 
 
HT: Your Crafted Thru Hops Mix Pack features a rotating hazy IPA from your Propagator series. How does including these one-off, mix pack exclusives elevate your variety packs? 
 
MB: These one-offs, which we like to call “treasure beers,” are a perfect step up from our R&D single hop trial work that we do in Venice and on our small R&D system in Paso. It’s a passion project for sure. It provides the “new” element for the mixed pack that’s fun for beer drinkers, but at the same time allows the brew team to work on some interesting hop exploration at the production level. 
 

HT: With your Double Barrel Ale recently celebrating its 25th anniversary, can you talk about the legacy of that beer? What did it mean to the landscape of craft beer when it was released 25 years ago?
 
MB: Adam [Firestone] and David [Walker] started the brewery with a novel concept taken out of a winemaker’s playbook: barrel-fermented ales. They were grape growers and winemakers, so using barrels in the process of making beer seemed very logical to them. They conceived what is now our beloved Firestone Union oak barrel brewing system, and the first beer to be run through those barrels was our flagship Double Barrel Ale. I’m not sure that most people fully grasped how cool that was back then, and I don’t know how to measure DBA’s influence on the beer world as a style or type of beer. I can say that no one had wood barrels in their breweries in 1996 other than maybe Goose Island. And today, you’re hard pressed to find a brewery that doesn’t have at least a couple of beers produced in wood. So I think it’s safe to that say Firestone Walker was the ultimate pioneer in this arena.
 
HT: Can you tell us about Firestone’s commitment to renewable energy and how it’s used to brew your beer?
 
MB: Every time we’ve expanded the brewery and brought new equipment on board, we’ve added some energy efficiencies. It comes with the best solution-based brewing equipment. Wherever we can, we conserve water because it’s good business and it’s good for the environment. More recently, we’ve invested in renewable energy through the installation of a 10-acre, on-site solar array that provides almost all of the brewery’s electrical power needs. We’ve made a commitment to reducing our carbon footprint, but at the same time, they’re just good, sustainable business practices that are very sensible.
 
HT: What’s on the horizon for Firestone for the rest of 2021 and beyond?
 
MB: Oaktoberfest is out there in bottles now. It was lagered in Napa Cab barrels and tastes great. We have our new Cinnamon Dolce Nitro Stout coming out for the winter months, three flavors of Cali-Squeeze are flowing from the brewery and maybe most importantly, we are releasing our Anniversary Ale, celebrating 25 years of brewing. So, there is a lot still happening this year. Just wait until you see what we have in store for next year. 2022 is going to be a good year for Firestone Walker fans!
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