The 15 Best Beers We Tried at the 2022 Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival
These are the stand-outs from the most beloved craft beer festival in America
Since 2012, Firestone Walker has assembled the best breweries in the world for its annual invitational in Paso Robles, California. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a two-year hiatus, but on Saturday, the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival (FWIBF) made its triumphant return, bringing together an unbeatable lineup of more than 55 breweries from around the globe — all selected and invited by Matt Brynildson, Firestone Walker’s brewmaster — and a sold-out crowd of 2,500 craft beer enthusiasts looking to sample their world-class offerings.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another craft beer festival that offers a better bang for your buck. A $90 general admission ticket includes an FWIBF snifter glass and a full five hours of unlimited beer and food samples, as well as live music and brewer panel discussions. The food in particular, which is provided courtesy of 20 or so local restaurants, is especially clutch — what’s better than unlimited free grub when you’re spending your afternoon drinking under the warm California sun?
But the booze is the star of the show, and it’s difficult to overstate just how good the beer lineup at this festival is. Any craft beer aficionado walking around the Paso Robles Event Center and scoping out the impressive list of names hanging from each booth will certainly feel like a kid in a candy store. We were fortunate enough to make the trip out to Paso Robles for this year’s invitational, and while it’d be physically impossible to sample every beer offered at the fest, we tried our damnedest to taste as many as we could without dying of alcohol poisoning. (It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.) There truly wasn’t a single bad beer in the bunch, but these 15 left the most lasting impressions.
3 Floyds Foeder Fiend
Style: Wild Ale
This new strawberry sour from Indiana’s beloved 3 Floyds technically won’t be released for another couple of weeks, but attendees at the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest got an early taste, and it did not disappoint. Named for the foeders — or large wooden barrels, typically made from oak — it was aged in and brewed with both fresh strawberries and strawberry juice, Foeder Fiend is crisp, tart and perfect for summertime drinking.
Bagby Zippy Trip
Style: Imperial Porter
When you’re spending hours drinking in the sun at an outdoor beer fest, you sometimes have to force yourself to pick up the occasional dark beer. Saisons, goses, pilsners — these are what I tend to gravitate towards when I’m sweaty and trying to pace myself. When I found myself at the booth for Oceanside, California’s Bagby Beer Co., I had just finished sampling several light, low-ABV brews and was looking to change it up a bit. Their Zippy Trip caught my eye — and I’m glad it did. It’s an excellent imperial porter brewed with coffee, and in addition to some chocolatey notes, that coffee flavor comes through loud and clear. Despite being one of the heaviest beers I tried all day, it perked me up, and it paired perfectly with the mac-and-cheese from a nearby food vendor that I inhaled with it.
Beavertown Mother of the Woods
Style: Wild Ale
This U.K. brewery’s Mother of the Woods wasn’t something I specifically sought out. Instead, it was desperately, quickly poured into my glass during the festival’s final minute as hordes of attendees ran from booth to booth desperate to get their hands on one last pour. In the chaos, I scurried up to Beavertown’s booth and wordlessly stuck out my tasting glass with zero expectations. By pure chance, I wound up closing out my 2022 Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest experience with an incredibly interesting beer; it’s a wild ale that truly leans into the “wild” component by incorporating foraged juniper and hibiscus flowers to add some unique botanical flavors. It was earthier than I expected it to be based on its bright pink color — tasting it blind, I was guessing it’d be a more traditional fruited sour — and it wound up being the perfect pleasant surprise to close out the fest.
Brauerei Schönram Schönramer Hell
The first thing you’ll notice about this German helles is that it pours a gorgeous bright gold color. It looks exactly like the image of an ice cold beer you’d dream up when you’re fantasizing about tossing a few back on a hot day. Fortunately, it tastes as good as it looks. It’s got a light, sweet maltiness to it with a nice, clean finish that makes it extremely drinkable. It’s an excellent example of the style, but even if you’re not interested in splitting hairs over what exactly constitutes a helles, you’ll find it’s simply an extremely solid beer.
Crooked Stave Maple Peach Short Stack
Style: Fruited Sour
On paper, maple and peach aren’t two flavors I’d necessarily think would go together, but if you let the “Short Stack” name that Colorado’s Crooked Stave selected for this brew guide your imagination a bit, it tastes exactly like pancakes topped with syrup and peaches. Aged in peach maple brandy barrels and brewed with Palisade peaches, this one was surprisingly well-balanced; the tartness of the fruit cuts the sweetness of the maple, allowing the two flavors to coexist peacefully instead of overpowering each other.
Firestone Walker California pFriemin’
As the host brewery, Firestone Walker had more beers on tap than any other, which made walking up to their booth and trying to decide which one to go for first a little intimidating. Once I saw California pFriemin’, a collaborative saison brewed in conjunction with pFriem Family Brewers in Hood River, Oregon, listed on the board, however, the decision was easy. What could be better than two craft brewing titans teaming up for a mixed fermentation saison, dry-hopped post-fermentation with New Zealand Nelson and German Blanc hops to add some subtle hints of tropical fruit on the nose?
It’s easy to get preoccupied with all the limited releases or ambitious brews that utilize unique ingredients at a festival like this, but sometimes the real showstopper turns out to be a simple, no-frills beer like FrauGruber’s Pils. This German pilsner blew me away in a way I wasn’t expecting it to; I’m pretty confident that it’s the best example of the style I’ve ever had. Who needs fancy gimmicks when you can just quietly be better than everyone else?
Garage Project Yuzu Rising Sun
New Zealand’s Garage Project have been one of the more popular breweries to appear at the Firestone Walker Invitational in recent years. Their booth always has a massive line of fans eager to sample beers from the other side of the world, and this year was no different. They took home the People’s Choice award for Best Brewery this year, and while all of their offerings were delicious, their Yuzu Rising Sun was next-level. It’s actually technically two beers in one glass — a yuzu sour and a raspberry sour served on top of each other to create that red-and-yellow “rising sun” visual effect. It looks cool, but more importantly, it tastes delicious.
Half Acre Riwaka Double Daisy Cutter
Style: Double IPA
I’m a big fan of Half Acre’s classic Daisy Cutter pale ale, but I’d inexplicably never tried this variant of it until popping by the Chicago brewery’s booth on Saturday. As you might guess from its name, it adds the Riwaka hop to the formula, resulting in a dank, earthy IPA. If you like your beers grassy and resinous, this one’s a must-try.
Humble Sea Kookumber
I’m a sucker for a good cucumber gose — especially when I’m spending hours in the sun on a hot summer day — but Humble Sea’s Kookumber is the first great cucumber gose I’ve had in quite some time. It’s just as clean, crisp and refreshing as you’d expect it to be, given the style and the primary ingredient, but there’s a certain brininess to this one that almost evokes a pickle instead. Perhaps that’s because it’s barrel-aged for six months in neutral oak wine barrels and conditioned on Himalayan sea salt, giving it just the right amount of kick.
Revolution Sanctuary #11 – Double Barrel Deth’s N’ Roses
Style: Oatmeal stout
Chicago’s Revolution Brewing is a big believer in happy accidents. Their Sanctuary barrel program rescues the beer from inside their occasional “orphan” barrels — the ones that leak or begin to drip — and blends it with another brew that’ll complement its flavors in a new, fresh barrel. The result is a unique, one-off batch of double-barreled beer. Sanctuary #11 is derived from the brewery’s popular Deth’s Tar series, and it does not disappoint. If you’re in the mood for a big, boozy imperial stout with a one-of-a-kind flavor profile, look no further.
Russian River Pliny the Elder
Style: Double IPA
Some would argue that the point of attending a fest like the Firestone Walker Invitational is to sample beers you haven’t tried before. Many breweries use it as an opportunity to show off their rare limited-batch releases or tease brews that haven’t hit the market yet. But there’s also no shame in sticking with an old favorite; Russian River’s beloved Pliny the Elder is well-known to any craft beer fan, but it still drew some of the longest lines of the festival — and rightly so. Being based on the East Coast means I rarely get the opportunity to drink this legendary double IPA, and being able to have it fresh was an absolute game-changer. That first hoppy sip was so good that it quite literally stopped me in my tracks on my way to the next booth.
Sante Adairius West Ashley Cuvée
This beer was actually a blend of four consecutive years of Sante Adairius’s West Ashley flagship saison — their 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 batches. All four were aged with apricot in pinot noir oak barrels by the Santa Cruz-based brewery, and while each is an extremely delicious saison in its own right, blending them together adds some complexity to the flavor profile.
Surly Key Lime Supreme
Style: Fruited Sour
Lime and beer have always gone hand-in-hand, especially when the beer in question happens to be a Mexican lager. But Minnesota’s Surly Brewing changes it up slightly by offering a key lime kettle sour. The lambic acid really complements the tartness of the lime, and it’s got a nice crisp, clean finish that makes it perfect for a hot summer day. And at just 4.5% ABV, it’s extremely sessionable, making it ideal for a day when you’re sampling multiple beers.
There Does Not Exist Temporal Illusion
There Does Not Exist is located less than an hour away from Firestone Walker, in San Luis Obispo, so it makes sense that the two neighboring breweries would eventually collaborate. They teamed up for Temporal Illusion, a rye base saison that was brewed at There Does Not Exist and then incorporated in hand-selected barrels from Firestone Walker Barrelworks. The resulting blend is 88% Rye Saison, 10% Sauvignon Blanc Wild Ale and 2% mixed fermentation IPA, and you’ll pick up hints of apple and pepper in it.
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