Urban Breweries, Rural Breweries
The town of Paso Robles, CA contains 30,000 souls—a small town, but not a tiny one. But the population somewhat overstates the lived experience of visiting: it is remote. The hometown of Firestone Walker is 200 miles from both LA to the south and San Francisco to the north. Visitors flying in can either land in San Luis Obispo, a sleepy airport that receives few planes, which is 40 minutes away, or the busier airport in San Jose, which means a two-plus hour scoot down 101. And even those numbers may not communicate what it feels like as the hood of your Ford pushes further and further into a terrain of parched hills and fewer and increasingly smaller settlements. The entire county, which is about 50% larger than Delaware, has a population of just 270,000.
I was in town over the weekend for the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest, and I was surprised by all this. (Full disclosure: the brewery flew me down and put me up. We’ll have a lot more about the brewery and the fest, including an interview with co-founder David Walker, on the podcast.) I’ve lived most of my life living near California, but have spent little time there. Of course, most of this huge state is rural, and a lot of it feels remote if you get outside the cities.
Breweries Are Culture
As I am fond of saying, beer is culture. The stuff in our glass can take on nearly any quality we want, and so culture—tradition, trends, history, modes of consumption, preference—dictates the form it finally takes. Breweries are culture, too, a fact not evident as we stand gazing at cans in the beer aisle. The people making the beer exist in a very specific context, as do those who sit across the bar in the brewery taproom. How they think about, make, sell, and drink beer is conditioned by where their brewery is located. It’s why visiting a brewery is one of the most important points of data you can bring to your understanding of it.
Yesterday, as I was walking around the vast footprint at Firestone Walker, I started to think about how rural/remote breweries differ from urban breweries. Clearly, elbow room is a big part of this. Harpoon’s founders situated the brewery in a finite space along the Boston Harbor and grew by packing more and more equipment into it. Firestone and Walker had luxuries Harpoon couldn’t imagine. I hesitate to call the current facility a campus, freighted as that term is, but it’s something close. Building after building is purpose-built for a specific activity. Here’s the building where the beer is canned. Oh, here’s the building where it’s kegged. Oh, and here’s a building with a mechanical room. A mechanical room! Driving in along Ramada Drive on the way to the brewery, you first pass a building dedicated entirely to merch.
The Power of Isolation
But space is just space. Everyone wants more, but everyone also manages with whatever they have. More significant is whether a brewery evolves in isolation, where the business of beer involves slowly converting a local population drinker by drinker, or amid thick competition, where every drinker is constantly looking past the pint they have to the one at the next brewery.
It seems like urban breweries would have the advantage; they have bigger populations to serve, readier access to resources, a more immediate community of brewers. It’s instructive, then, to note how many of the country’s largest breweries actually hail from small or remote towns. Isolation, it turns out, has its own advantages. Breweries have a chance to find their voice and grow into an identity. The successful rural breweries (and of course, these are rare) come to know themselves by virtue of having few nearby comparisons. They don’t worry about keeping up with the Joneses because there are no Joneses.
There are anxieties for the remote brewery, of course. I remember that when Deschutes opened a Portland pub, founder Gary Fish was uncertain. For a brewery that had become a regional icon and one of the biggest breweries in the state, that surprised me—but he was anxious about “coming to the big city.” Isolation helps a brewery know itself, but doesn’t make the big cities seem any smaller. Gary’s lived experience was brewing in a small town three hours away from a major city. Finally coming face to face with the thrum of competition was unfamiliar. (Bend has a crazy number of breweries now, but that’s because of Deschutes, which came first.
It’s hard to visit Firestone Walker and not apprehend its sense of particularity. From the carefully-placed signs to the neat-as-a-pin facilities, there seems to be a real intention there. This is unusual for a brewery that has evolved so wholly over its life. What started out as a very English brewery has become the icon of California mellow. Very few breweries have transitioned so effortlessly with the times. (The brewery’s commitment to quality, which has produced 51 GABF medals, half of them gold, probably plays a role as well.) What part of that has to do with being located in little Paso Robles, where the brewery could do its own thing, far from the scrutiny and second-guessing that happens in a big city?
Before you say “very little,” let me pose a different question. What if Firestone Walker had been founded in LA? Would it be the Firestone Walker we know today? (Or try out Bell’s, Deschutes, or Sierra Nevada.) It’s hard to argue “yes” with a straight face. Breweries are culture. Urban, rural, remote, in the thick of things—these are critical elements that shape what each brewery will become. You can no more peel the Paso Robles of Firestone Walker and leave it Firestone Walker than you can the Bamberg from Mahr’s or Payottenland from Drie Fonteinen. Breweries are a product of place. Remember this the next time you plan a trip—