In 1995, when Jeffers Richardson was the first person hired by the fledgling Firestone Walker Brewing Company — the project founded (in a barn behind Curtis Winery) by Adam Firestone and his brother-in-law David Walker — his entire charge as brewmaster was to develop a method of safely aging ale in old wine barrels, a risky task because leftover yeasts usually spoil beer. His solution was to instead use fresh wine barrels, which imparted the oak flavor of the brewery’s flagship Double Barrel Ale but could still be used afterward by the Firestone family for wine. Today, nearly two decades and many career moves later, Richardson has returned to build an innovative Barrelworks program, where his job is to ensure that those wild yeasts will contaminate the beer.
“We’re meaning to do all the things we were trying not to do in 1996,” said Richardson, who came down from Chico to start his new gig in September 2012. “I was originally hired to prevent this, and now I’m overseeing its growth.”
To do so, brewmaster Matt Brynildson is making a series of base beers — typically lighter in color, heavy on wheat, but sparse on hops — that Richardson puts in used wine barrels, where the remaining microflora triggers a secondary fermentation, adding slightly sour, citrusy twists to the batch. Because the process is indeed wild, some barrels might be ready within months, some may require years of aging, and some may just be bad.
“We’re doing things that I could have only imagined and dreamed about 16, let alone eight years ago,” said Richardson, who worked at, among other jobs, Sierra Nevada Brewing and on olive oil projects in Palestine for the World Bank after leaving Firestone in 1999. He sees the project as a sort of “time machine,” an educational look back at the way beer was made for centuries. “Brewing is still a very traditional process,” said Richardson, who believes that there’s much to learn from the time-tested methods of old. “We use science to explain those traditions, not vice versa.”
In addition, Firestone’s new barrel room — which currently has 400 barrels with room to grow to 700 and is being enhanced with stained-glass windows to create a “cathedral effect” — features ales that are being aged in former spirit barrels (mostly bourbon but also others), as well as other beers simply aging longer in new oak barrels. A selection of these can now be tasted every weekend at the Barrelworks tasting room, which Richardson describes as the “altar” of this new cathedral.
“This is a pretty big step,” admitted Richardson, but it also keeps Firestone Walker’s eyes on the craft. “As we become bigger, this is our way of staying smaller.”
The Barrelworks project and tasting room (firestonebeer.com/barrelworks) is at the Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Buellton (620 McMurray Rd.;  225-5911). To coincide with Vintners’ Festival Weekend, the “In the Barrel Room” event on April 20, 5:30-7:30 p.m., pairs the new wild ales and Curtis Winery wines with a five-course menu. See curtiswinery.com or call (805) 225-5911 x111 to buy the $45 tickets.