By Hayley Thomas
Published in VINO Magazine 2013
Before Firestone Walker Brewing Company earned household name status, before brewmaster Matt Brynildson’s own name became synonymous with the bearded wizard Merlin, and certainly before earning top honors at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival(for the third time) last October, Brynildson was not unlike the bulk of young students at Michigan’s Kalamazoo College: Passionate, determined and preoccupied with beer.
“I was studying pre-med, but when I finished class for the day, I wasn’t sitting there geeking out on anatomy – I was reading brewing books,” said Brynildson. “Brewing was my hobby and my passion; I was fixated, just nutty about it.”
One look around the twenty-something’s college pad would have easily confirmed it. Brynildson and a brewing partner in crime had rigged up the garage with a full-on home brew setup, complete with an impressive collection of about half a dozen whirring refrigerators. A European foreign exchange tour — highlighted by a lineup of frothy, life-changing pints — solidified the student’s love affair with hops, yeast and malt.
“One day, I just realized that if you can make your profession your passion, and vice versa, what a perfect world it could be,” said Brynildson. “There was that first wave of home brewing excitement — the time was right.”
With personal encouragement and borrowed knowledge courtesy of late Bell’s Brewery brewer Rob Scalla, Brynildson made the leap into the emerging world of craft beer. Armed with a degree in chemistry, the eager home brewer began work at Kalamazoo Spice Extraction Company (KALSEC Inc.), where he performed research and development on hops for the brewing industry. Soon, Brynildson was bolstering his knowledge at Siebel Institute of Brewing Technology in Chicago.
Now in his late 30s and a first-time father, Brynildson’s eyes light up when he speaks of those formative years. KALSEC Inc. owner Paul Todd, along with Stroh’s former brewmaster Rudy Held, served as powerful mentors.
“Rudy was this classic, attention-to-detail brewer…if you gave him a home brew, he would tell you it was ‘alright,’ but he’d also give you about ten things you need to fix,” said Brynildson with a laugh. “With brewing, just like with music, you never feel like you perfect your art, and there is always something to learn.”
In 1995, Brynildson fed that ever-growing hunger for knowledge at Chicago’s Goose Island brewery, which boasted a fully operational laboratory, but no one to man it. There, Brynildson quickly climbed from cellarman to head brewer – a testament to his internal drive to succeed. During his post, Goose Island grew to serve eight Mideastern states with an output of 50,000 barrels.
Although success was sweet, Brynildson said it was around that time that he began to fray on the edges. Looking back, he can now chuckle at the fact that his tenacious tendencies got the best of him. He was working long hours and striving for greatness – basically, burning the candle at both ends.
“At one point, I called up a travel agent and said, ‘I need a plane ticket to somewhere,’” said Brynildson with a belly laugh. “So, I packed my backpack, sandals and told everyone I was getting away for a week or three and headed off to Jamaica.”
It was the late 90s and Brynildson was searching for more than a place far from nippy weather and relentless, 15 hour workdays: He needed to find his true self – his personal brewing identity. Brynildson said that, above all else, he knew he wanted tell his own story through beer.
“There’s a story to be told, and a life beyond just water, malt, hops and yeast,” Brynildson added. “Maybe the story is as important as the beer…[Firestone] beers like Velvet Merlin or Union Jack have found their own life.”
But before the brewer could write his own future, he had to make a leap of faith. An amiable split from Goose Island and a big move to California soon changed the trajectory of his life. Straight off the plane, Brynildson went to work for SLO Brewing Company, which was then looking to expand from its single downtown San Luis Obispo Garden Street operation to a broader market.
Brynildson soon found that he would need to take two steps forward and one step back.
“I left a perfectly good job in Chicago and moved to California by myself, only to realize we couldn’t revive the patient, so to speak,” said Brynildson. After a year at SLO Brew, in which Brynildson was credited for revitalizing the brewing program, the business ground to a halt.
The brewer could have packed up his things right then and there, but was compelled to stay. A native of rural Minnesota, Brynildson said he felt connected to the Paso Robles area – the people and the land.
“I had gone out to Nacimiento Lake and had beers and I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? I can live here and make beer?’” said Brynildson. “It definitely sold the deal.”
It was lucky, then, that in 2000, the brewer was tapped by Firestone Walker Brewing Company owners David Walker and Adam Firestone. The craft brewers had outgrown their small Santa Ynez Valley location and acquired SLO Brewing Co.’s former facility, located on Ramada Avenue in Paso Robles.
“Matt sort of fell in their lap…so Adam and David ended up with this amazing brewmaster to boot,” said Firestone Publicist Christopher Weir.
Firestone Walker Brewing Company, which released its first beer in 1996, was ready for a new, charismatic leader. The operation began in a small facility at the Firestone Vineyard estate in Santa Barbara County and, over the past 15 years, has grown steadily.
Despite this growth, the majority of Firestone beer is still consumed on the Central Coast, according to Weir. The company’s tagline, “It’s what we drink around here,” appears to ring true. Fans of the company applaud the fact that a swath of ales are selectively fermented in the Firestone Union oak barrel brewing system, which incorporates 65-gallon medium and heavy toast American oak barrels.
More than a decade on, Brynildson likens his day-to-day job to coaching a professional sports team. There are a lot of moving parts to keep an eye on: Firestone Walker encompasses a high tech beer-making facility, tasting room, and the popular Taproom restaurant. Plans are currently in the works to open a Southern California location in Venice Beach.
“We have the brewhouse that’s taking grain in, producing wort and hopping that, the cellar department working on fermentation — we have a lab that works on quality control yeast and packaging, and my job is to make sure that everyone understands the story and exactly what it takes to get the beer to the finish line,” said Brynildson.
That’s not to say that the brewer doesn’t enjoy rolling up his sleeves.
“Physically brewing beer is this awesome opportunity to forget about the rest of the noise that’s going on,” he said. “I’m often super jealous of the guys who get to go through these zen-like, methodical moves of making beer…and when I get the chance to do it, it just feels so good.”
The brewer’s passion has translated into unprecedented wins at prestigious competitions. Last year, Brynildson traveled to Munich to accept the top honor at the European Beer Star competition for the second straight year. In 2012, he and Firestone Walker Brewing Company earned top mid-size craft brewery honors at the bi-annual World Beer Cup for a record fourth time. Most recently, Firestone Walker took top mid-size craft brewery honors at the Great American Beer Festival for a third time.
This year is looking fruitful for the brewer: Firestone Walker will produce 30 percent more beer as well as four new releases in 2014, including two collaborations, a low alcohol IPA dubbed Easy Jack and a Belgian-style Saison. The brewery is also set to bottle sour beers for the first time from its Barrelworks facility in Buellton, which opened last year.
“It’s all just clicking, and as long as it continuesto flow, we’ll keep going,” said Brynildson. “That isn’t so much a reflection so much of my talents, but the fact that we put together this amazing team of people… Adam and David have been the perfect owners. When we met, they had a different philosophy of ‘Lets make one or two beers really well and just stay in the Central Coast and be the home town favorite,’” the brewer said. “Double Barrel Ale was their original beer, and what they based the company around. Now, you look at the company and we have beers everywhere from 805 to Wookey Jack and everything in between – and all of these things are working, and it took an openess from the ownership to make that happen.”
Where once the brewer may have struggled with knowing just when to relax, Brynildson said he makes sure to step back and enjoy his life – whether it be hiking with his wife Alison or hanging out with newborn son Mateo. More than anything, he said he’s thankful for his family, forged by both by blood and beer.
“My managing team has pretty much been with me for over ten years now, and that’s what I ammost proud of,” said Brynildson. “All the awards and everything are great, but the fact of the matter is that I have been able to keep talented people close to me.”
As for what the brewer plans on doing next, it’s anyone’s guess. Matt “Merlin” Brynildson is known to make magic happen again and again.
“Adam and David always come to me and ask, ‘What do you want to make next?’” said Brynildson. “That’s the best thing a brewer can hear.”