Chow Bella

An Interview with David Walker, Co-Founder of Firestone Walker Brewing Co.

?The man: David Walker
The brewery: Firestone Walker Brewing Co.
The history: Walker is a British expatriate and the husband of Adam Firestone's sister. He brought an English twist to Firestone's beers, and the two founded Firestone Walker in 1996. We sat down with Walker during Arizona Beer Week.

Busy week so far?
These beer weeks can be grueling. Last week I was at San Francisco beer week; this week I'll be here; next week I'll be in Sacramento for their beer week. It just keeps going. We were in Tucson yesterday — which, by the way, I think Tucson is ready to explode. It's right there. You have this big college town, it has its own identity with a lot of local guys making their mark down there. I think it'll do really well. But here, we have three events tonight, then we're going to my favorite place in all of Arizona, which is the Cornish Pasty. He grew up in a little town next to mine in England. I grew up in a village with about ten people; he grew up in a town of like 400. We know each other. He makes the real deal — he's a Cornishman. I grew up there and that's all we ate were pasties. There was no fast food.

A problem many brewers and beer people see with Arizona beers is that none of them are distributed out of state. Do you get a lot of pressure to expand your distribution?
There's a huge push to get national with our brand, but I always say to my guys, you've got a population the size of France within a day's drive. What we need to be doing is getting deeper, not wider. I'm sure Arizona brewers are thinking the same thing. Ultimately, from a brewer's standpoint it's better. The beer is fresher, you're not spending 20 percent of your cost on shipping, you're not worried about it sitting on the shelf old and unrecognizable. There are a lot of good reasons why the retail model is working. There are lot of national brewers out there making a lot of noise, but we still sell 80 percent of our beer within 100 miles of our brewery.

There's been some concern lately over stores marking up the price of premium beers. When a store is selling Abacus and Parabola at prices way over what you can buy them for at the brewery, does that concern you?
I don't mind it. There's obviously a huge brew-ha-ha over the secondary market of beer and how much people are selling it like wine. There's some expensive beer out there. It concerns me a little, but I don't need to get involved in that transaction. The consumer is very smart — they sniff things like that out a mile off. I was in San Francisco the other day signing bottles in this bottle shop. Later on in the evening I was out at a bar speaking to some of the local brewers and homebrewers. I told them where I'd been. They said it was a great store, but they don't buy their beers because they mark it up too much. People know. You don't need the brewers to regulate that — the consumers can do that all by themselves.

I've had that happen to me when trying to buy Parabola last year. I bought a bottle at a store for $15, and when I came back a few days later they had marked the same beer up to $20. I don't shop there anymore. 
Exactly. And he probably lost several hundred dollars of your business. People put a lot of pressure on brewers to keep watch on stores like that, but it's ultimately up to the consumer.

On a related topic: As far as pricing goes, what do you think is too much for a beer?
It depends on the beer. Take Parabola. We age that for a year and a half in bourbon barrels. I think wine pricing for that beer is right, considering the amount of energy we put into it. I think $14 or $15 for a six pack of beer is high. That's not to say I've got an opinion on it; it's just to say I think it's hard for the consumer to buy session beers at that price.

Our most expensive beer is under $20, and I think that's fine. But I've got no problem if Patrick [Rue, of The Bruery] and Tomme [Arthur, of The Lost Abbey] want to sell their beers at higher prices. I'm sure they're not charging that because they can; they're charging it because of the energy that goes into it.

I'm in a regional brewery; I'm in a different game. Our barrel program is as big as The Bruery's whole program, and it's a tiny portion of what we do. We're a 100,000-barrel brewery, and we're focused on getting DBA in the hands of local consumers. That's our market. I can make weird and wonderful beers and we can go to GABF and win medals, and I can spend whole days working over the finer points of Parabola. But ultimately our brewery is there to make great session beer for people a day's drive from our brewery. That's what we set it up for. I'm curious about all these big beers, but in the long run it's not the focus.

How many barrels do you currently have in the barrel-aging program?
About 1,100. So it's pretty big.

The desire for craft beer has obviously been growing exponentially over the past few years, and more drinkers seem to be giving up the session drinking in favor of the search for the biggest, rarest, most flavorful beers. Do you think this growth is sustainable, or will there be a mass exodus of drinkers who are turned off by this new generation of drinkers?
I think there's more to it than Myspace. I don't think everyone's going to take off and start drinking bourbon now. I think it will definitely start to segment itself. It all depends on your perspective. I like wine, but I won't spend more than $20 on a bottle of wine. Pliny the Younger [a triple IPA released once a year by Russian River Brewing Co.] is something you have to line up for days in advance. Maybe the guys who have tried it will say, "You know what? It's good, but I'm not going to wait in line for it." I'll go have some Double Jack instead.

You started in 1996. What's changed since then?
In the early days, we were talking to people about why a beer like DBA is better for their customers than Foster's. And it was a really hard sell. They'd say, "Well, nobody knows what your beer is. Everybody knows what Foster's is. What kind of TV ads do you do?"

We've been at it a long time, but it's really only the last five years that things have taken off. Ninety percent of the beer brewed in this country is made by two brewers. The other beer is brewed by the rest of us. So you have to think there's some growth there. I don't see Miller Lite or Budweiser or Coors or Rolling Rock growing anymore. New drinkers are coming into the market every day, and their not grabbing a six pack of Rolling Rock anymore; they're grabbing some IPA. And those brewers are incapable of changing their plan.

Check back tomorrow for part two of our interview with Walker. 

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Zach Fowle
Contact: Zach Fowle