You don’t have to feel like a homer to root for our area breweries — the recent Great American Beer Festival (GABF) held in Denver September 16-18 named eight Santa Barbara beers as some of the best in the country. GABF is a suds-lover’s paradise, the largest commercial beer competition in the world with 3,523 beers vying for medals in 2010. Let’s put it this way: Earning a medal there isn’t like landing a ribbon at the county fair. Firestone Walker Brewing Company led the way locally with six medals (three golds and three silvers), while Island Brewing Company scored a gold, and Hollister Brewing Company a silver.

The Firestone Walker team.
Courtesy Photo

And the winners were … Firestone in the American-Style Pale Ale Category with both a gold for Mission Street Pale and a silver for Pale 31; Firestone in the American-Style Strong Pale Ale Category with a silver for IPA Nectar; Firestone in the American-Style Amber/Red Ale Category with a gold for Red Nectar (they’ve certainly revived the old Humboldt Brewing brand); Firestone in the Ordinary or Special Bitter Category with a silver for the DBA; and Firestone in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Beer Category with a gold for Velvet Merkin (and if you don’t know what a merkin is, look it up — the giggle’s on me). Island won its gold in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer Category for Barrel Aged Big Island; Hollister won its silver in the German-Style Sour Ale Category for Tiny Bubbles.

Island Brewing's winning beer.
Courtesy Photo

“This was my 15th trip to the GABF as a brewer and my ninth as Brewmaster for Firestone Walker — it never gets old,” said Matthew Brynildson. “The competition has grown every year both in participants as well as beer styles. It is an amazingly dynamic event that continues to challenge us as brewers.” Brynildson is particularly grateful that Firestone Walker’s focus has been so rewarded. “Pulling down the gold and silver medal for American Pale Ale with 109 beers entered in the category does more for team spirit and morale after a crushing summer work load than anything in the world!” he enthused. “I’m more proud of these guys than you can possibly believe. If you look closely you will notice that five of the six medals are for Pale Ale style beers. Even Red Nectar, winning in the Amber Ale category, is a recipe based on the original pale ales of English brewing history. Our program has always focused on Pales and the results echo that. We love to brew them.”

Eric Rose of Hollister Brewing Company
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Paul Wright, owner/brewer at Island Brewing, was also pleased and humbled by the experience. “It’s really an affirmation that we’d been doing the right thing,” he explained. “I have to say most of the other beers [in our classification] were good, but it’s really nice that others thought we stood out. It really makes it a little sweeter to be honored by your peers.”

The Firestone Walker team.
Courtesy Photo

Wright describes Barrel-Aged Big Island as “trying to add some complexity to a beer that’s already fairly complex — it’s a 10% alcohol beer. We were trying to add complexity but keep it balanced. So many barrel-aged beers end up pretty hoppy or malty or roasty. Ours actually lends itself to food.” If people are interested in tasting some, they better move quickly, though. Island only serves this beer in 22 oz. bottles, and since a bourbon barrel holds only 52 gallons, the stock began as a mere 277 bottles. “It’s a pretty rare thing,” Wright admitted. “So we do sell them at a premium.”

The Island Brewing team at GABF.
Courtesy Photo

While Wright’s brew won in a field of 77 entries, Hollister Brewing’s Tiny Bubbles won in a field of 23. That doesn’t bother Hollister brewer Eric Rose, though, who said, “I think it’s a hyper hyper competitive category. It’s a category of people with balls; not that many people do a gose, people do Berliners. It’s a really really quirky style of beer.” For those not as down with the lager lingo, a gose is a peculiar German style of wheat beer, inoculated with lactic acid bacteria, that is one of the few German styles permitted to be made while violating the Reinheitsgebot, or German brewing purity laws. Berliner Weiss beers, while sour, are not as tricky to brew. Anyone knowing his adventurous streak at Hollister won’t be surprised to know that Rose, of course, goes for the gose.

Tiny Bubbles, which Hollister served straight or with raspberry or tart cherry syrups, was on tap this summer. “Honestly, it was our least-selling beer, but most requested from our beer-geek customers,” said Rose. “I’m really happy that I’m able to make beers like that since we make so many others.”


Enjoy our region’s award-winning brews at the following locations:

* Firestone Walker Brewing Company, 602 McMurray Road, Buellton, 805-686-1557 x 18,, dinner 5 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday & 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, lunch served in bar 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday, also available at stores and bars throughout the area;

* Hollister Brewing Company, 6980 Marketplace Dr., 805-968-2810,, seven days a week, 11 a.m.–close;

* Island Brewing Company, 5049 Sixth St., (Linden at the railroad tracks), Carpinteria, 805-745 8272,, weekdays 2 p.m.-9 pm., weekends 11 a.m.-9 p.m, also available at stores and bars throughout the area.


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