Paso Robles' Firestone Walker Brewing is one of the finest breweries in the entire world. Their standard production beers, like Union Jack IPA and Pivo Pils, are among the most reliable everyday choices for discerning drinkers all over the country. And their Proprietor's Vintage series — recognizable for its super-fancy cardboard packaging — which includes high-octane barrel-aged beers like the imperial stout, Parabola, and the barleywine, Sucaba, are some of the best special-occasion beers you'll find anywhere. My closet is full of them.
But between those two tiers, there's the Proprietor's Reserve series, which has long been made up of three beers: Opal, a dry-hopped saison; Double Jack, an imperial IPA; and Wookey Jack, a black rye IPA. Word came late last week, though, that by year-end Firestone Walker will be ceasing production on all three of these beers.
“It’s a bittersweet occasion,” said brewery co-founder David Walker. “Each of these beers was forward-thinking and representative of some of our best brewing efforts, but they are now stepping aside to make room for the next generation.”
And it's true: Each of these beers was noteworthy in its own way. Opal, the most recent addition to the lineup, is one of the first widely distributed hop-forward saisons — a style that dominates tasting rooms of on-trend breweries everywhere. Union Jack is a piney, citrusy 9.4% ABV text-book interpretation of the West Coast double IPA that was synonymous with craft beer for so long. And then there's Wookey Jack, the beer I'll personally miss the most of the three: a beautifully, almost disconcertingly bright, citrusy black IPA with a subtle rye spiciness. There are few beers like it anywhere, and none with anything approaching the distribution footprint of Wookey.
But, about that distribution footprint: One thing that must be noted about these beers is that, at least in New York, where I live, they had become increasingly difficult to find fresh. I assume this is a reflection of sales figures that ultimately led to this decision, but just last week, I excitedly grabbed a four-pack of Wookey, only to find that it was bottled in September... of 2015. Double Jack also had a tendency to sit on shelves for too long — a real shame given that this is not a style that does well with any age on it. And I feel like it's been an eternity since I've even seen a bottle of Opal.
These are extremely delicious, important beers that are simply no longer exactly in line with what people are looking for. Folks at the brewery are aware of it. “This was a hard decision made for the sake of innovation," said co-founder Adam Firestone. "These beers were born of that ideal, and now they are yielding to it.”
The silver lining here comes from brewmaster Matt Brynildson. “The suspension of the Proprietor’s Reserve tier will create a void that the brewers here are extremely excited to fill,” he says. “It opens up a brand new canvas. That’s all I can say for now on that.”
Follow Mike Conklin on Twitter.