A visit to Firestone Walker Propagator

Firestone Walker Propagator is more than my local beer bar: it's an iconic brewery's pilot system, a mere 200 miles from the mother ship. I met brewer Ben Maushardt who gave me the skinny on this odd situation.

Firestone Walker Propagator on Washington Blvd, Venice, CA. (That’s my wife’s bike there.  Mine was broken.)

Shortly before I moved to Santa Monica last year, I heard that Firestone Walker Propagator, an outpost of the iconic brewery’s Central Coast operation, would be opening in neighboring Venice.  To say it with restraint: I was pumped.

A concern about moving to LA was its immature beer scene.  LA County, with over 10 million residents, only had about 20 breweries, and even finding good spots to drink beer was a challenge.

(This is changing. Read on to the very end my friends.)

So Firestone Walker Propagator made sense.  LA’s growing beer community would have access to fresh beer from a celebrated brewer (multi-award-winning Firestone Walker brewmaster, Matt Brynildson) and a spacious, well-run place to drink it.  Conversely, Firestone Walker would have access to a large and somewhat untapped audience far from pretty but sleepy Paso Robles.

Inside the bar at Firestone Walker Propagator. It’s not tiny.

Brynildson and his partner David Walker, the man who drove this project by accounts, had an audacious plan for the Venice site.  Not only would Firestone Walker Propagator serve fans the established line up, including style archetypes Pivo Pils, Union Jack IPA and Parabola Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout, it would also house Firestone Walker’s first pilot brewery.

You see, Matt Brynildson, comfortably one of the most remarkable brewers I’ve met, is so confident in his team at Firestone Walker’s main brewery that he’s never brewed pilot batches there. He designs recipes then whips them out on an 80 barrel system.

But in an increasingly capricious market, especially in fast-evolving California, it behooves even the best of brewers to have a small-scale brewery to play around on.

To staff this pilot system – a state-of-the-art, fully-automated Schultz 10 hectoliter system, worth over a half a million dollars – Brynildson promoted Ben Maushardt, affectionately known as Brewer Ben.

“I work on style exploration; I’m in charge of the Throwback Series; and I pilot brews that are intended for scale production up in Paso,” Maushardt told me, while milling in for the first trial brew of the next in the Leo Vs Ursus series.  “The style exploration beers, like Gen 1, and the Throwback Series, go on tap here.”

Brewer Ben Milling Firestone Walker

This is what brewers do all day. This, and cleaning stuff.

The Propagator was first announced shortly after Firestone Walker told the world fan favorites Wookey Jack, Double Jack and Opal would be discontinued. The silver lining? They would sporadically be brewed at the Propagator as the Throwback Series Maushardt mentioned.

But during our interview, the beer he most often referred to was Generation 1, an unfiltered IPA, designed and brewed only in Venice, which has already picked up a rabid local following.

“Generation 1 is definitely our flagship brew here.  It will probably be brewed at scale at some point soon, but right now that’s a Propagator beer.  And when we put it on tap it just disappears,” Maushardt explained.  “[At the Propagator] 805 is typically the highest seller, but Gen 1 outsells everything when it’s on.  It’s become kind of a cult thing, and having it on tap will bring a whole different crowd into the bar.”

The retail store opposite the brewery, taproom and restaurant in Venice.

I first met Brewer Ben at a beer dinner he hosted during LA Beer Week, showcasing five beers brewed on his 10 hec system.  While hops were well represented, Maushardt’s range was on display with a Belgian-style wit – the first in Firestone Walker history – a Marzen and a porter served on cask.

“Our aim on this system is to brew beers that are clearly in the Firestone style, but a little more rustic.  Nothing here is filtered.  And we try to push things in new directions,” Maushardt said. “Our biggest problem so far has been keeping things on tap! We only have two in-house beers on right now, and we’d like it to be more like four or five.”

Given the rent price in Venice (trust me, I looked at living there then thought better of it), space is an issue.  This limits Maushardt’s brewing capacity.

“[We] brew two days a week right now,” he told me.  “We’re exploring doing more, especially if I have trained up assistants.  We’re joking around that we could maybe produce 2,000 barrels here, but we’ve only made about 400 barrels since October last year.  So we’re unlikely to brew much more than 1,000 barrels a year under current conditions.”

I’ve visited Firestone Walker Propagator several times (it’s a short ride from Muscle Beach, so I often take visiting Brits for a recovery beer after the sensory overload of a walk along the Venice Boardwalk) and the place is always bustling.  One gets the sense of an operation in flux; an ambitious project still finding its feet.

“Things here are evolving fast.  We’re helping set the pace for the whole company now,” Maushardt explained. “We obviously pilot and experiment on our brewhouse and that influences what gets brewed up north, and our head chef, Chef Justin, just became the executive chef for the whole company.”

“Being in LA, our role is to try out new ideas on a discriminating audience,” he continued. “Which I think can help steer the company’s direction for the future.”

Brewer Ben at the helm of his state-of-the-art (not cheap) brewhouse.

10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Ben Maushardt, R&D Brewhouse Manager, Firestone Walker Brewing Co

  1. Can you describe what your company does in one short sentence?

 This place is a propagation of ideas.

  1. How long have you worked here?

I’ve been at Firestone Walker for three years, and here at The Propagator since last October.  The restaurant opened in April, but we started brewing in the fall.

  1. How and why did you come to be here?

I started out watching my folks make wine when I was about 15.  I would help them out crushing grapes and whatever.  At first I hated it because I wanted to hang out with my friends, but I came to like the idea of creating something people would enjoy.

I left high school thinking I would have a career in wine.  I wrote letters to a lot of wineries and no one got back to me.  Some family friends suggested I try breweries instead, to start learning about fermentation and so on, and they got back to me right away.  I thought that was pretty cool.

I went to Chico State for college, sold my truck and bought a homebrew kit.  After batch one I figured I’d do this for the rest of my life.  I was delighted; my father a little less so! I was drinking a lot of Sierra Nevada, working at a craft beer bar, homebrewing and networking like crazy for a couple years.

After college I interned with the small batch team at Stone.  Then I picked up another internship at Weyermann Malting, and ended up living in Bamberg, Germany for just shy of two months.  While I was in Europe I managed to squeeze in a few days here and there at some Lambic breweries, a couple of breweries in the Netherlands.  Not only did I learn some great techniques, but I saw how open and hospitable the industry is.

I went to Europe without a job to come back to, but in a piece of luck it turned out my resume had been sitting in someone’s junk folder at Firestone Walker.  I interviewed with Matt and he pretty much offered me a job on the spot.

I started as a cellarman at Paso, then a couple of brewer roles, and a lot of barrel work which I really enjoyed.  I was halfway through a job in filtration when I found out I had this job, so I moved into more general brewing work to round out my skillset before I moved down to LA.

It was a bit of a whirlwind once I got here.  It was “hit the ground running” on a bunch of commissioning work, procurement, ingredients and recipe development.  It’s been about eight months and it’s just starting to slow down a little.

Firestone Walker Propagator Pale Ale

Firestone Walker’s Ekuanot Pale Ale, another Propagator experiment.

  1. What is your daily routine?

Mondays I CIP [Cleaning In Place: using solutions to clean equipment without the need to disassemble it] the brewhouse, order materials from Paso and maybe clean the brite tank.  I’ll try to mill in on Monday as well if I can, and potentially run a dry hop depending what’s in the tank.

Tuesday and Wednesday I will generally run brews.  Thursday I’ll generally be transferring beer, doing some CIPs on fermenters and preparing for packaging, which always happens on Friday.

Deliveries come from Paso on Tuesday and Friday, and that’s also when we can ship stuff back up there.  80% of the beer we keg goes up to Paso because we have such limited storage space here.

The beer also goes on tap at Paso and Buellton [Firestone Walker Barrelworks is deep in wine country in Buellton, where the movie Sideways is set (in case you wanted to know)] and funnily enough gets sent back down here too.  You can drink beer on tap here that’s been on a 400 mile refrigerated round trip!

Well-traveled kegs.

  1. What is the hardest thing about your job?

Being a pilot brewery 200 miles away from the main brewery is tough. We’re a start up still, so we’re learning how to do it as we go.  I’m sure things will improve.  It’s both a blessing and a curse, you know: I have a lot of freedom to get on with things, but I also miss having a big team around me.

And being involved in a start up situation is hard!  But we’re always improving.  That’s what Beer Before Glory means to me: you can always make better beer, and you can always find a better way to do things.

  1. In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?

The industry’s changing, the customer’s preferences are changing.  A lot of trends are coming and going.  You have to keep an open mind, be ready to do what you need to do to sell beer but also to build a lasting brand.

Successful brewers have a vision, but listen to their customer and aren’t afraid to make changes to their plans.  The vision stays the same, you know, but maybe you end up taking different steps to get there.

Another factor is there are so many amazing breweries that there’s no room to hide.  You need to sell a very high quality product if you want to be successful.

Firestone Walker Propagator Tap Handles

Few would argue that Firestone Walker doesn’t have quality products.

  1. What is success for you?

Consistency.  Everyone can brew a great batch.  But for the great brewers that’s every batch, not just occasional lucky brews.  For example, Firestone Walker has won GABF medals for some of its beers, and you can walk into a bar today and you will taste exactly what the judges tasted.

Achieving that really is the pinnacle of brewing.  The flavor of ingredients will change over time, and the conditions you’re brewing under will change.  It’s only the people who’ve mastered brewing who can manage a changing context and still produce the same beer time after time.

  1. If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

Ha, gimmicks!  Stop making gimmick beers! I won’t name names, but some people are doing stuff that is just silly.  It’s to get attention and in my opinion it takes away from any merit the beer has.

There’s true exploration in brewing styles and standards, but then some people just do stupid stuff they don’t need to.  Even if you’re an amazing brewer, focus on quality and stay away from the craziness.

  1. Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?
  • A beer that really caught me off guard was Allagash White. Now it’s one of my favorite beers of all time. I had it super fresh at a beer dinner a couple of years ago – I’d probably had it before and written it off, but this time I took one sip and instantly thought “This is one of the best made beers in the world”. It’s so interesting but so drinkable at the same time.
  • I have to give Russian River some love. It’s my hometown brewery.  I love Pliny, but if I had to choose, I’d go Blind Pig.  It’s so awesome. It reminds me of home whenever I have it.
  • A beer that changed my world in an instant is St Lamvinus from Cantillon. It’s a two year old Lambic that gets put on Merlot grapes for a few months. I was lucky to work at Cantillon for a couple days and at the end Jean Van Roy saw they had some new bottles so he popped one open and we drank it together. That was a moment, I can tell you.
  1. Where do you like to get a beer in Los Angeles?

It’s definitely true that LA was behind the curve when it came to world-class breweries, but that’s changing so fast now.  There have been something like 40 new breweries in the last two years. I’ve tried to get around and visit as many as I can, and there are some great spots.

I really like Three Weavers, they have an amazing kolsch.  One of my all time favorite breweries is Beachwood. Julian [Shrago] is the man and they just knock it out of the park with every beer.  Mumford is awesome, doing some fun stuff.  The downtown Mikkeller is great.  Monkish is great, Henry’s [Nguyen] awesome.  Brouwerij West is awesome. And I can’t forget about Highland Park.

Ben Maushardt Firestone Walker Propagator

I’m pretty sure it’s mandatory for all FW brewers to wear branded trucker caps.

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