Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale

Firestone Walker Brewing Company opened on a vineyard in Paso Robles, California, in 1996. From the outset, they focused on beers fermented in wooden barrels and their Burton Union systems of interconnected oak fermenting barrels is the only one like it that we know of in North America. Since 2006, the brewery has also been focusing on aging some of its beers in wooden barrels as well. More than a few of these barrel-aged beers have landed on enthusiasts' "white whale" lists. The ultimate Firestone barrel-aged beers, though, are the annual Anniversary beers they have been producing since the company's 10th anniversary.

The Firestone Walker Anniversary beers, unusually, draw upon the creative talents of the region's leading wine blenders in addition to head brewer Matt Brynildson. Throughout the year, Brynildson creates a variety of complementary beers for aging in different barrels, and each autumn the brewery invites teams of wine blenders to evaluate each beer and create a custom blend of the beers. The panel then blind tastes each of the blends to choose which one will become that year's Anniversary beer. While the beer changes every year, the blenders always have the same goal – to create a complex beer showcasing the characteristics of barrel aging.

Since the release of each year's beer is limited, it typically vanishes quickly into the marketplace. Several of the component beers that make up the blend are already elusive rare beers. We sampled the XVII, the 2013 vintage composed of the beers Bravo, an imperial brown ale; Sticky Monkee, a barleywine; Velvet Merkin, an oatmeal stout; Parabola, a Russian imperial stout; Double DBA, a strong English pale ale; Helldorado, a blonde barleywine; and Wookie Jack, a black IPA.

The resulting blend was a deep and complex meld of chocolate, vanilla, and coconut flavors and aromas with echoes of the bourbons and ports that were the previous residents of barrels housing the various beers in the blend. The brewery predicts positive flavor development over a 10-year period as the beers ages and bottles slowly take in minute amounts of oxygen.