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Taking a Look Back at the 2024 Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival

Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival Stage
Ryan Pachmayer

Beer festivals had a long run of relative stability. Many festivals could rely on the same venue to come through year after year, at relatively predictable prices. Core volunteers would be in place each year and many of the same sponsors and breweries could be expected to attend each season. Critically, attendance at these festivals was almost a guarantee. The pandemic blew that all up. Beer festivals are still plenty popular, but now organizers have to contend with a far wider range of potential changes from year to year. It has been a more ruthless and unforgiving world for beer festival planners over the last few years.

The Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival faces those same challenges each year, but it also helps mitigate them with its core purpose—community. Involving dozens of local businesses and giving the proceeds back directly to the Paso Robles community allows Firestone Walker to tackle some of these hurdles with the support of the collective community, instead of facing them alone. The efforts of many allow the attendees, from ticket holders to breweries and sponsors, to enjoy an incredible weekend filled with food, drink and fun.

Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival Booth
Photo by Tristan Chan

For the festival itself, what really stands out is the involvement of the local restaurants. Serving food under the umbrella of an all-inclusive ticket adds an incredible amount of value to the cost of entry. You’re lucky to have even a couple of food truck options at most festivals—usually for another $15-20 cost per person. At the Firestone Walker Invitational, you have 25 restaurants serving small bites, with no limits on how many you try. Pick your favorites and frequently reload, or explore everything there is to offer–much like the beer at the fest, the world is your oyster.

Streetside Ale House, a local staple of Paso Robles’ main town square, showcased a hearty, yet flavorful mac and cheese cup that hit on the perfect blend of spices and cheeses and provided a much-needed base to kick off the festival.

Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival mac n cheese
Photo by Tristan Chan

Some of our favorite bites this year included the carnitas quesadilla from Taqueria Don Jose. The meat was deep, rich, fatty and flavorful–it hit all the classic flavors of a good carnitas. The verde salsa was mild, but had a pleasant blend of flavors, while the roja salsa really stood out with a medium-plus heat and great depth.

Another standout was the People’s Choice winner, Etto Pastificio. The local dry pasta maker served radiatori aglio e elio, a dish that really screamed California. Local olive oil, garlic and herbs accented the al dente pasta and let it shine.

Photo by Michale Moeller

There were three ceviche-type dishes being served, all different. Two of our favorites were the shrimp and octopus cocktail from FSW’s own taproom kitchen team. The microgreens within were a fantastic touch. It had an appropriate level of heat, waking up the palate early on in the festival. San Luis Obispo’s Luna Red also had a wonderful tuna ceviche with red onion, radish, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeno and sour citrus juice. The tuna was soft and the broth was expertly flavored.

Union & Vine had some nostalgia-inducing chili verde frito boats, while Zen Dog’s Mahalo Dog featured a perfectly charred hot dog, with a refreshing hit of homemade tequila pineapple relish. Sugar Lips had its mini donut truck on hand as well, which provided a visual experience. The truck’s underlying motto is “Always Fresh” and it makes everything to order in front of customers.

Finally one of the biggest revelations of the festival was a vegan deconstructed brewhouse bahn mi from Wild Fields Brewhouse, which on the surface sounds like complete blasphemy. This basic-looking open-faced sandwich consisted simply of a cabbage blend, jalapeños and a roasted baby carrot atop a piece of bread, but the creation was so perfectly spiced and marinated that we could’ve consumed an entire sandwich of this veggie-friendly treat.

Photo by Tristan Chan

Closing Thoughts

One of the more interesting parts of the festival weekend is engaging in state-of-the-market discussions with industry members from all over the country and around the world. Much of the chatter this year revolved around craft beer’s recent slip, down a few percent in 2023. David Walker may have offered the most grounded take of the weekend on that front. During a media tour, the Firestone Walker founder was asked what he thought about the future of beer. He told attendees that he didn’t see a world where beer, and really the wider spirits and wine categories (which have also experienced down years, far worse than beer’s recent decline, over the last decade) weren’t a part of the social structure for many people.

Walker says that the brewery will feel good if it maintains production volumes in 2024, reflecting a more challenging marketplace. But he also said that he’s been around for a long time now, and compared the constant change in trends to taking a nap and waking up and things being different.

Firestone Walker has never been afraid of embracing change, while not necessarily chasing down every last trend. Its recent beer, Firestone Walker IPA is reflective of that mindset. For years the brewery developed new IPA series with names like Mind Haze and Luponic Distortion. Those beers were delicious in their own right, but IPA is sort of a culmination of the techniques of the brewhouse, led by Matt Brynildson’s steadfast determination to continue innovating and improving these beers. 

The latest beer is now simply called Firestone Walker IPA, and according to Walker, it was as straightforward as understanding that today’s consumer associates Firestone Walker with making quality IPAs. Blending elements from their previous iconic IPAs like Luponcic Distortion and Mind Haze, Firestone Walker IPA combines the best in hop innovation in a simple no-nonsense brand that’s easier for a wider audience to adopt. It’s a beer that the typical consumer will see on the shelf and understand that since it’s made by Firestone Walker, it’s likely going to live up to the brewery’s sterling reputation. And that is truly reflective of where today’s marketplace is currently at.

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