Helldorado in a Handbasket: Firestone Walker Partners With Duvel Moortgat

Helldorado in a Handbasket: Firestone Walker Partners With Duvel Moortgat
chicagoreader.com

Before about 8 p.m. last Thursday, this was going to be a very different article. It would’ve been a lighthearted tale of a beer’s creation, plus some tasting notes. I might have even thrown in a joke or two. 

But then this news dropped:

“The Firestone Walker and Duvel Moortgat families have combined forces to broaden their capacity and scope as brewers. Long admirers of each other’s beers, culture and breweries, the two teams saw the perfect fit for an alliance. The partnership will allow Firestone Walker to develop our capacity across the US in a conservative and thoughtful way by consummating a life long tie with this family-owned international craft brewer, who continue their commitment to participating in the American Craft Revolution.”

That joint press release from Firestone Walker Brewing Co. founders David Walker and Adam Firestone, along with one from Duvel Moortgat CEO Michel Moortgat, announced an agreement signed last week between the two massive craft breweries. It was met, predictably, with shock and panic from many fans of Firestone and its beers. After witnessing the drawbacks of such mergers — a supposed drop in quality of Alpine Brewing Co.’s products after Green Flash acquired it last November or conflicts that led Elysian Brewing Co. founder and brewmaster Dick Cantwell to resign shortly after his brewery was sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev in January, for example — craft beer fans are, understandably, wary.

But this one’s a little different. First, Duvel — which, let’s get this out of the way, is pronounced “DOO-vull” — has a much better track record in its partnerships with American craft breweries. Operated in Belgium since 1871, the brewery’s best-known for its outstanding Belgian strong pale ale, also called Duvel, along with the Maredsous line of abbey-style ales. Its presence in the U.S. is profound, with a controlling stake in Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewing Co. and outright ownership of Brewery Ommegang, a Belgian-focused brewery from Cooperstown, New York. Together, those two breweries comprise Duvel Moortgat USA, the 12th-largest craft brewing company in the country by sales volume, according to the Brewers Association. Firestone Walker, which produced around 200,000 barrels last year, was ranked 16th on that list.

It also sounds as if the union between the breweries will affect distribution and production capacity while leaving operations intact. “We will continue to operate independently in Paso Robles as we have always done,” a letter posted on the Firestone Walker website says. “Our people and partnerships will remain, and there will be no change discernible in and around the brewery. In other words, we will not miss a beat.” Nor would they have reason to — Firestone already employs one of the top brewmasters in the country, Matt Brynildson, and produces a number of limited ales that cause a clamor among beer geeks every time they’re released.

Speaking of Brynildson and limited releases: Helldorado. First brewed as a component of Firestone’s blended Anniversary Ales, this blond barleywine has heretofore appeared only irregularly on draft. Twenty-two-ounce bottles of the brew will arrive in Arizona for the first time this week.

As barrel-aged barleywines go, Helldorado is unique. It’s a beast in terms of alcohol content — 12 percent — but is brewed using just one type of pale barley malt and a single hop variety, called El Dorado, which is something of a darling among American brewers looking to punch up hoppy beers with its characteristic notes of stone fruit (peach, plum, cherry, nectarine) and watermelon. The use of so few ingredients keeps the beer delicate and, in a way, naked, leaving space for brandy and bourbon barrels to profoundly impact its flavor.

Helldorado belongs in a snifter, where it shimmers in hues of softly hazed molten gold with a thin eggshell crown. The presence of the barrels permeates the aroma as peach, plum, vanilla, butterscotch and caramel swirl. The flavor — sweet, vibrant and very fruity — carries similar plum and peach undertones with added accents of Juicyfruit, mango, caramelized sugar and green oak. The medium-light body has sugars that stick to the tongue, but the beer doesn’t come across as heavy. It’s not a boastful, beefy exhibitionist, but rather a messenger; an emissary for outstanding brandy- and bourbon-barrel character.

As you sip on Helldorado, ponder this: The craft beer industry is in flux. As the people who founded today’s most successful breweries near retirement age, they’re going to look for ways to cash out while ensuring their people, products, and legacy are in good hands. Mergers and partnerships and outright purchases will become ever more common. Try not to freak out about it.

Zach Fowle is a BJCP-recognized beer judge and a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.

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