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Firestone Walker's Chicago Debut Adds to Craft Beer Convo

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jan 20, 2011 8:20PM

Last night, Firestone Walker Brewing held a media and trade tasting of their Proprietor's Reserve line they're bringing to Chicago art Small Bar Division Street (and tonight's launch at Piece is still on). Firestone walker's arrival is easily the most anticipated craft beer launch in Chicago since Stone Week last year. But if Stone, which brought every beer they brew to town, was a nuclear option, Firestone Walker's limiting their beers in Chicago to the Proprietor's Reserve line is more akin to a surgical strike.

Co-founder David Walker told us that's by design; all of Firestone Walker's session beers are busy being consumed by the home state crowd in California. "From the Los Angeles County Line to San Jose, we have more tap handles overall than the beers made by SABMiller," Walker told us. For a city like Chicago that has become very educated in a short time to the benefits of barrel aging, having the brewery that is one of the vanguards of the technique in craft brewing hit town with a line full of wood-aged beer will only further spoil the hop heads. Firestone Walker has access to the clean barrels of the Firestone winery at their disposal. Whereas many barrel aged brews can set your mouth into high gear with high alcohol contents, Firestone Walker's barrels mute the burn without sacrificing alcohol content. "Matt (Brynildson, brewmaster) is very good at bringing rigor to the operation," Walker said. "It's nice to have someone in the operation who recognizes anything that can throw off the balance of an English Pale ale, for example."

As far as the three beers we sampled — Walker's Reserve Porter, 14th Anniversary Ale and Double Jack Double IPA — you can pick and choose between the three and not find a dud in the lot; all are ideal winter warmers. The porter is one of the brighter takes on the style, with an effervescence on the tongue that almost tickles like a champagne. The Double Jack IPA has all the hallmarks of a classic India pale ale, especially on the nose, which teems with aromatic pine and citrus. The hops also impart that oily consistency on the palate (we've often referred to it in "Beer of the Week" reviews as "soapiness") that the best-brewed IPAs all have. But the one most of the beer geeks in town will run for is the 14th Anniversary ale, a bold, big beer at 12 percent alcohol by volume that goes down like a session ale. These beers are hitting Chicago at the right time.

Walker recognizes this. "Craft beer only makes up 5-10 percent of the volume of beer sold in the marketplace," he said. "But wholesalers and consumers are smart enough to recognize this and they're making more informed decisions regarding their purchases and how they sell beer these days."