How Sour is Your Sour Beer?

Total Acidity vs pH by Jeffers Richardson at Firestone Walker

by Greg Nagel @OCBeerBlog

Back on an old episode of Four Brewers, we sampled some Barrelworks beers and noted something we haven’t seen before on a beer label, “Total Acidity.” We cracked jokes at our ignorance, “how much more acidic can it get? Uhhh, like 7.”

Over twitter, we got some response from Firestone Walker, but we shrugged it off as Barrelworks seems to be the only people using this format in the beer world. (Here’s the show for reference! )

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Recently, Jeffers Richardson, director of brewing operations at Firestone Walker Barrelworks, tied me to a chair at 10am on a Saturday in their cannery dungeon and forced his acids in my mouth, 10cc’s at a time. With a cooler full of Barrelworks beer sitting nearby, I put on my trust underpants and went with the flow.

People often mistake aroma for taste. Acidity is just the measure of acid in a solution (or soil). There’s two ways to measure that, pH and tactile acidity. In terms of tactile-wise, it’s a sourness on the tongue. One reason we use TA instead of pH is pH can be affected by buffers, so you don’t get a true measure of taste of acids. Just think of our bodies, if we eat all acidic foods, we don’t become acidic as we have buffers to break that down. PH is literally the measurment of hydrogen ions. Every time a free hydrogen ion goes into solution, pH lowers.  – Jeffers Richardson of Firestone Walker

In front of me is a place mat with four taster glasses filled with clear liquid. “Don’t drink!” yells Jeffers, as I secretly sniff each one. “Taster glass one is lactic acid, taster two is acetic acid and number three is citric acid…we couldn’t get Malic acid so use that fourth for water,” he continued.


Dropping Acid Breakdown

Lactic Acid – This is what gives most sour craft beers their sourness. It is created by lactic-acid creating bacteria such as lactobacillus and pediococcus. At low levels, it’s soft and not really harsh (no burning sensations). I noted aromas of wet sugar and raw baked goods prior to baking. On the sides of the tongue and back of the throat, it is perceived as tart and sour. Plug your nose while swishing it around your mouth to avoid aromas: you can taste the sour sensation. Some mentioned it tasted like Greek yogurt, which is interesting as lactic-acid bacteria is also responsible for creating yogurt. Someone else noted it tasted buttery.

Acetic Acid – More harsh and punchy when found in beer. This acid is caused by acetobacter, which needs oxygen to survive.  At any level, it smells like vinegar or pickle juice. It is quite rough on the palate with noticeable burning sensations while swishing it around and swallowing it. Breweries consider acetobacter a spoiling agent. Some Flanders-style beers, such as Duchesse de Borgogne have small amounts of acetic acid to perhaps mimic properties and complexities of wine.

Citric Acid – More of a wine or mead thing, but it has a Sweet-Tart candy character. In homebrew shops, you can typically buy an “Acid Blend” that contains Citric, Mallic and Tartaric acids which can adjust acidity in wines. Not harsh.

Tasting Three Total Acidity (TA) Levels of Lactic Acid

Measuring sourness with three T.A. Levels as reference points

tongue_mapLevel 4 TA Lactic Acid: Slight tinge of numbness to the gums and roughness to the cheeks and big sourness on the sides of the tongue.

Level 8 TA Lactic Acid: Felt like my tooth enamel was coming off. Rough cheeks, mouth wateringly sour.

Level 12 TA Lactic Acid: Instantly caused the inside of my mouth to feel dead, like rubber. So sour I couldn’t taste it due to its offensive nature.

Next: I was presented with three Barrelworks beers and tried to guess the Total Acidity of each (at gunpoint).

AgresticBeer 1: Agrestic Ale (2014): Starts out as DBA (minus the barrel union) and undergoes primary fermentation at Barrelworks in Buellton. Once complete, it undergoes secondary in 87% French oak / 13% Freedom oak with Brettanomyces and two strains of Lactobacillus. My perception was a nice tannic/oaky beer. I plugged my nose to taste the sour and focused on what it did to my cheeks, teeth and gums. I thought it was in the middle of 4-8 and I picked 6. Actual TA? 6.6. 


 Beer 2: Lil Opal (2014): One thing I love about Barrelworks beers is the level of oak. It’s a definite calling card for their beers I’ve tried thus far. Lil Opal is a truly wild Saison with juicy notes of citrus and tropical fruit like pineapple. Are the flavors and aromas yeast or barrel driven? Regardless, It’s a refreshing beer with a sourness that cleans up your teeth nicely with a little bit of gum tingle. I picked 5. Actual TA? 4.01.


Beer 3: SLOambic (2014): Olallieberry jam and oak all up in your business. I find it hard to say Olallieberry, so I just call it LOL-Berry. The berry itself is blackberry in appearance and grows in Central CA. I’ve long-loved the Framboise style of Belgian beers (raspberries) but this may dethrone it! Tons of jammy berry character with an aggressive sourness that bites at my teeth enamel and roughs up my cheeks. I thought it was a little bit less than the TA 8 sample and I chose 7.8. Actual TA 8.7. LOL-Berry! 

After all that acid trippin, I was fed crackers as they untied me and forced me into the Firestone Walker barrel room. After fifteen minutes smelling boozy wood at 50 degrees, I was left to fulfill a life of religious consciousness.



Thanks LA Beer Bloggers and Firestone Walker for this unique opportunity! Disclosure: FW provided food, beer and transportation to the event, but wasn’t required. Hotel and take-away items were all purchased at full price on my own.

Love Buzzed up the Central Coast With Firestone Walker

Untitled-30If you have a vintage Firestone Walker Anniversary barrel-aged beer, take a look at the number, then think back to when it was zero. Back? Okay. I’m currently swinging my legs off the back of a truck in wine county; happy like a kid licking an ice cream cone. Destination? Firestone Walker’s original brewhouse. The warm springtime sun projects long-lashed shadows from the vines across the dusty dirt road behind us. A nearby field of llamas watches us pass, perhaps doing their best “Paris Hilton on a red carpet” look. “Como se llama!” I yell as they continue to stare blankly. “Those are Alpacas,” says John Verive.


Andrew Murray Vineyards, previously Firestone Walker’s brewhouse.

10296261_10203874627050886_7166790387008297076_o“Just when you feel like you’re about to get murdered, turn left” quips my seat mate, gingerly. The best part about keeping company with fellow writers is the constant unfiltered witty banter. She snaps a shot of Union Jack IPA using the moving greenery as a backdrop. As we squeak to a stop, our driver honks twice next to a white two-story building.  We’re engulfed by lush rows of grapes, a scarecrow staring off into the distance and a couple feral black cats licking themselves nonchalantly in the dirt. “That must be feral one and feral two,” I say chuckling to myself, poking fun at a recent beer release from Barrelworks.

Untitled-3“This is where it all began” says Jeffers, one of Firestone Walker’s original brewers and director at Barrelworks. “This is our original brewhouse.” There is something romantic and movie-like about brewing beer in the middle of such rich viticulture. Being here, breathing the air and sipping freshly bottled beer has me hypnotized. Andrew Murray, the current tenant, greets us with a glass of his soft and minerally white wine that seemingly cuts through six hours of bingy bus-drinking…all in one sip.Subsequent sips revive my palate and make me hungry for more.

“The beer we made here was terrible for years” confides co-owner David Walker. “There were quality issues as we had trouble sustaining a boil for any amount of time,” he continued. Inside, the brewhouse is now filled with dimpled wine fermentation vessels, an industrial sink and an upstairs office. It’s functional, industrial, open air, and clean.


Back at the ranch, our tents are pitched and the tri-tip is sizzling on an open flame. Corks fly and Belgian bottles meet tipped logo’d Teku stemware. “Meet Bretta Rosé, a blend of fresh raspberries with our Barrelworks Bretta Weiss beer.” Expecting Framboise, this is more like squishing a bag of ripe raspberries in your mouth and washing it down with a refreshing wild beer.

Our location is somewhat of a fugue…although I know we’re deep in wine country passed Buellton, they picked the name “Area 51”, heightening the mystique. I attempt to check into a beer on Untappd and see Michael Jackson’s ‘Neverland Ranch’ as a location option. “I hope I don’t get molested in my tent tonight” I mumble and sip. “Does this beer give me Kool-Aid lips?” I ask my table with a dorky side-smirk.

Untitled-4Over dinner, an experimental beer is poured that breaks all classification. It shows up table-side with a thick two-fingered meringue head. The best description is that it’s somewhat of a beer/wine hybrid that drinks like neither. “Sour Jim” Crooks attempts to explain the pilot beer, and ends up breaking down FW’s past, present and future. The correlation between our location and what we’re drinking sums it up beautifully: Barrelworks is more than just a playground for bacteria and wild yeasts. It’s a return to the fields for Firestone Walker.


The nearby fire pit lit from a gasoline can off of David Walker’s Land Rover calls us over with a bon-fire roar. Bellies are full. Bottles are shared from back home. Various items are smoked. Not knowing our secret itinerary, I give the old “Irish goodbye” back to my tent just past midnight. I hear a howl, not knowing if it’s one of us or a coyote…I twirl a fresh earplug in my ear just as the konk hits.

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This is part one of three from a recent beer-junket up to visit Firestone Walker Brewing Co. with the @LABeerBloggers group. Bus/Food and some beer was provided courtesy FW.

Photos from my LOMO LC-A camera, Expired Fuji 400 Sensia film cross-processed.

Beer and Loathing in Paso Robles | Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival

P1050620This post originally appeared on the website  West Coaster, a new Southern California beer magazine.

We were somewhere around the edge of wine country in Paso Robles when the craft beer began to take hold(1). Baked and dripping with sweat, I dump the remnants of my tasting plate on the ground and use it as a makeshift fan. The air is thick, hot and pointless, laying on us like a sleeping bag you can’t escape. Black bugs have somehow managed to attach themselves to odd parts of my body and pinch every so often. “Holy Jesus! what are these goddamn bugs?”(2) One clings to my armpit as I smack it and smack it again, making it bite harder. “SHIT! Shitfucker!” I yell as spectators laugh wildly. I duck in the bathroom and dunk my head under the bathroom sink, then sling on my hat to grab a beer…the only cold thing in this dusty, arid place called Paso Robles.


Two seconds after this picture was taken, purple girl trust-fell into they guy behind her.

Flash backward a few hours as this ‘Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival starts and I’m in ‘kid on Halloween’ mode. Media check in and pre-fest starts early and I’m not taking any chances. It’s peaceful. Nearby cows moo. It’s time to drink.
P1050609Standing near Russian River Brewing I hear brewer/owner Vinnie Cilurzo say the words “five-day old Pliny and two-year old Temptation.” These words fish-hook multiple members of the press. We walk like we’re in a Broadway musical, jazz hands fluttering. A pretentious voice behind me mutters, “I’ve had two-day old Pliny once” while clearing his throat nervously. Five day old must taste like piss to this this guy. I toss it back, note the fresh Simcoe, Amarillo, Centennial and CTZ hops and move on quickly for a glass rinse and something dark before it gets too hot. The forecast is dialed in at 104 degrees.
agostino from birrificio italiano and terrance sullivan of SN
At this festival, beers like Pliny the Elder are ‘just beers’. Not to discount the highly baited Double IPA from Santa Rosa, but there’s some serious beverages to be consumed today. Brandy Barrel Aged Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout from Cigar City (won the People’s Choice award), Bourbon Barrel Aged Dark Lord Three Floyds Brewing and other barrel-aged treats that elude the west coast. Lambics, framboise and collaborations are being unleashed from MikkellerThe Lost Abbey and Firestone Walker.  Orange County’s sole contingent, The Bruery, is leaking several rarities on the crowd every hour. Tyler King, The Bruery’s senior director of brewing operations  quotes, “It’s an honor no matter where we’re from, we love so many of these breweries and to pour beer next to them is pretty amazing.”
P1050650As much as the public loves this festival, brewers also gush at the prospect of getting an invite.  Tony Yanow of Golden Road/Tony’s Darts Away quips, “We are a very young brewery and to present our beer along side our heroes is an honor.” Meg Gill, also of Golden Road reminisces, “I cried in a department head meeting about it today…I have the fondest memories of pouring beer with Tony the last hour and fans gushing over our Berlinerweiss. It was the first festival I brought my parents to..their first beer fest ever.”
Fascinated with the thought of sampling fresh beer from Europe, my associate Daniel Fernandez and I make a trip to the fest’s ‘little Germany’. “I had no idea Germans were so tall” says Daniel with his sub-sombrero sized hat. The guys at Mahr’s Brau Bamburg put David Hasselhoff to shame, and the girl at BraufactuM is at least three inches taller than me in flats. Birrificio Italiano sent Tipo Pils, a beer that inspired Firestone Walker’s brewmaster Matt Brynaldson to brew Pivo Pils which should be arriving in the southland soon.
P1050662Of the many, many beers sampled, three are standouts:
  1. Mikkeller’s Spotancherry Lambic gives me repeatable goosebumps. Juicy tart cherries burst in my mouth with the tiniest sip.Tastes like fresh tart cherry pie.
  2. Lagunitas is shocked to hear my love for Sonoma County Sour Stout. “It’s pretty shocking considering we aimed to break every rule when making it…a stout on a hot day that goes down easy? Shocking!” says the biker-looking guy pouring. Layered flavors and aromas hit me, then hit me in waves with each sip. Tart roastyness, oak, tart fruit, some pleasant funk. The sign aimed to debunk it’s tastiness, only made me want it more.
  3. The Lost Abbey’s Framboise de Amorosa is also among my standouts. Very bright and clean raspberry tart without any metallic notes. Finishes dry with tons of flavor. Shocker, I know.
P1050624Food at the festival is dotted potluck-style amongst breweries. 25 local restaurants brought small-plate tastes to serve throughout the day. I really enjoyed the Bloody Mary Granita from Luna Red and Ancho Duck & Cheese Quesadilla from McPhee’s Grill. Near the end, most food was gone.
The Music from Hot Buttered Rum fit the mood of the festival – hyperactive progressive bluegrass is something I could very well be a fan of without  knowing it. The White Buffalo also performed later in the day but I was blissfully altered by craft beer at that point in time (see top paragraph).
P1050623The Gripes – None! If you go to one festival a year in California, this is it. It’s like a GABF greatest hits mixtape in a small venue with really good food and music. This is the gold standard of beer festivals! Despite the hot temps, there was no problem finding shade, misters, water or an NFL sideline cooler.
Title,(1),(2) – quotes inspired by “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, copyright 1971 by Hunter S. Thompson
Bonus – I found out who signed this girl’s breasts…none other than Agostino from Birrificio Italiano.

For Whom the Beer Tolls – Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Paso Robles

pils23pm on a Saturday: Paso Robles : Drinking deeper and deeper into my Firestone Walker beer junket, I’m handed a beautiful sparkling golden beer upstairs in the center of the brewhouse. “This is our newest beer, Pivo Pils” says Matt Brynildson, Firestone Walkers Brewmaster. “I was dreaming about this beer for years after visiting an Italian brewery – Birrifico Italiano“. My brain wanders trying to figure out Matt’s accent. Michigan? The way he pronounced ‘hops’ is truly Michigander (“haps”). Pivo, in Czech, translates to beer. Pils, (or Pilsner) was born in Pilsen, Bohemia in the Czech Republic. This fine bohemian style beer is sunshine in a glass with huge rays of floral lemongrass notes. And yes, I’d like another.
brewery matt
I’m a sucker for a good brewery tour and Firestone Walker is unique in its use of old world brewing tradition. Nobody uses oak barrel unions in the America to ferment beer, right? Double Barrel Ale is a wildly popular beer that uses this beautiful old British technique. There’s something relaxing about knowing your beer sat on wood for any amount of time. Perhaps I was a cooper in a previous life, or really good at Donkey Kong!
Bird's eye view of the patented Firestone Union - gulp!

Bird’s eye view of the patented Firestone Union – gulp!

On the tour, we sample 100% barrel fermented Double Barrel Ale (DBA); compared to the production 20% blend you get in stores, has a fruitier nose and firm bite. If this beer were served on cask, or even on nitro, I’d probably drop to the floor and have kittens! Both 100% and 20% DBA are outstanding and screaming with character, and worthy of a trip up to Paso Robles alone. Beer history lesson in a glass!

3rd day

In the name of the Adam, and of the David, Amen. – View of Paso Robles and silos

portalContinuing the tour, fifty feet up on a grated catwalk makes my ass pucker. High as a kite, I duck through a portal to the outdoor silos. I believe I could fly. I believe I can touch the sky.  On the way back in, I pee in the brewers lounge, which may sound fancy, but it’s pretty much just a regular toilet next to some lockers. I’d skip that portion of the tour next time.



Onward, I skip into a private four barrel dip tasting where some serious wood is laid out. Raw American oak, bourbon, rum and tequila barrels sit like a nest of giant beer eggs. The room is cellar temp (mid 40’s) and smells like a team of drunken lumberjacks. Off to the side, I close my eyes…breath deeply through my nose and nearly faint at how unbelievably pleasant this is.
Head brewer Dustin Kral snaps on the latex gloves, sanitizes the bung cheeks and thiefs a squirt in my glass. Of the four barrels, raw American oak is my favorite with subtle notes of char, vanilla and toffee. I was excited to try the tequila barrel, but the flavors separate quite a bit; sort of like drinking a beer with a tequila chaser!
As the day winds down, I slide like a snail into Firestone Walker’s Taproom for meal, and you guessed it, more beer. The Taproom serves bistro style food, appetizers, small plates, big plates and desserts, all paired with beer suggestions. Paso Robles has tons of character, but lacks a true craft beer bar aside from the Taproom. It’s the type of place that’s diverse enough for night out with your homies, or to celebrate a birthday. I devoured a panko crusted seared ahi over farm fresh snow peas from Windrose Farm. It’s hard to believe I ate there for lunch! (read all about it here.) The Taproom sources all of its veggies from that remarkable organic, local and biodynamic farm! This place is definitely worth checking out.
Firestone Walker makes brewing magic. Whether it be award-winning base beers, barrel aging them, blending them, then winning more awards is remarkable, deserved, and a treat. Lets face it, Firestone Walker beers are accessible and classy, just like me!

Preview for next time: Barrelworks!

Coming soon, part 3: Firestone Walker's latest venture: Barrelworks in Buellton. Blending sours, and sneaking tastes from nail-holes!

Coming soon, part 3: Firestone Walker’s latest venture: Barrelworks in Buellton. Blending sours, stealing bugs and sneaking tastes from nail-holes!

Some photos sourced from Firestone Walker on my tour. Above photo credit ‘Overcarbed’. Other photos are copyright 2013 Special thanks to the LA Beer Bloggers for arranging this!

Farmhouse Lunch with Firestone Walker Brewing Co. (Beercation pt 1)

union-station-front7:30 A.M. LA Union Station: “I’m pretty sure the guy next to me at the urinal was jacking off” claims Kip of Bierkast/LA Aleworks. I once wrote about this building’s romantic nature, but the thought of decorating a urinal cake in front of company is somewhat impressive yet depressing at the same time.

andersSeated in the center of a bus full of the absolute cream of LA beer media, I can’t help but smile. Batteries are fully charged, bagels are schmeered and bottles of craft beer are flowing wildly. We’re headed north to Paso Robles on a ‘Journey to the Center of a Barrel’  hosted by Firestone Walker. Anders, the LA area Firestone rep (looking strikingly like Mike Myers, but with a German accent) passes bottles of Double Jack, Double Barrel Ale and Pale 31 like communion. Our livers (and cell phone batteries) are in for a slow and painful death this weekend.

11:30 A.M. Slowly sipping a Bruery Rugbrod makes the time and trees melt by the bus windows ever so fluidly. The business cards have all been passed out, Twitters have all been followed and the bus vegans have all outed themselves. Somewhere off of James Dean Highway, the bus creeps onto a thin dirt road and squeeks to a stop. Bones crack as we emerge through the dust cloud. “Where the hell are we?” Anders trots to the top of the nearest hill and makes a call. I check the itinerary: “noon – Lunch – Think Fresh”. Then it happened, a sunbeat tractor rolls over the hill to save us. “Is that David Walker on the back? Holy fucking shit!”

walker on tractor

Ridin’ dirty.


“Hop on” David says in his Mozy ‘charming man’ accent. Musical chairs ensue. Being lunchtime, the thought of dining on a farm seems like a fucking fairy tale. I snap a photo of David Walker with the sole purpose of showing my barber. “He’s one cool son of a bitch.” I tell the Beer Goddess next to me. Picking up a bunch of media people on a tractor is beyond pimp-like. I need to be pinched.


We end up at Farmers Bill and Barbara Spencer’s Windrose Farm just outside Paso Robles. Firestone Walker and many other restaurants get their truly organic/biodynamically produced goods from this wildly manicured plantation. Envision rolling hills littered with trees, 70’s porn rosemary bushes, sheep grazing and shitting like natural fertilizer factories…acres upon acres of apples and beyond. If you’re looking for a spot to camp for Firestone Walker’s Invitational Beer Fest, this is the spot. They even offer a cozy pink trailer ‘farmhand for a night’ stay that includes fresh food and beer! (Call for details)


Gathering around the farmhouse, pitchers of Firestone Barrelworks BrettaWeiss are served. As farmer Bill speaks to us on the crappy state of “organics”, a rooster tro-lo-los along to a quartet of wind chimes jingling in the warm breeze. Closing my eyes while taking a sip, I feel dreamy and hypnotic. This beer is bright, tart and is farming with character from the wild yeast, yet remains approachable and refreshing. If this is any indication of what Barrelworks in Buellton is capable of, I’m 100% on board.

farmlunch tableOnward to lunch! We’re seated at a thirty-person communal table set in the sun, four courses of farm-fresh food are served:

  1. Farmstyle salad; fresh picked greens, vegetables, Union Jack vinaigrette; w/Double Jack IPA (bottled yesterday)
  2. Braised bitter greens; Windrose Farm smoked tomatoes; w/ Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA (bottled two weeks ago)
  3. Walker’s Reserve Braised Lamb; roasted root vegetables; w/Parabola Russian Imperial Stout (2011)
  4. DBA caramelized apples, vanilla ice cream; w/ Double DBA Imperial ESB

Enjoying such beautiful food at its peak of flavor and nutrition next to shockingly perfect beer sets a perfect foundation for the rest of the day. I’m ready for anything.  I could box a lion and wrestle a bear after this. This lunch is world class and faultless. This is my Jonestown moment for fresh food and craft beer!

Stay tuned for more on this journey! Windrose Farm produce is available at the LA Farmer’s Market as well as many fine restaurants in LA! Check their site for details. (map)