Paso Robles, California
Walker and Firestone didn't begin brewing in the 1990s with the intention of becoming craft trailblazers. "If there was any forethought regarding the business end or competition, we probably wouldn't have done it," says Walker. "We loved beer, so it felt like a natural thing to brew our own. It was part of our artisanal lifestyle."
Firestone had grown up around wineries but gravitated towards brewing. After Walker married Firestone's sister and moved to the Bay Area, the co-founders found a common bond in craft beer.
Walker says that their initial ventures in the craft brewing business was predominantly a hobby. "We spent many years moonlighting," he says. Firestone ran a third-generation winery and Walker was in the computer business.
In the 1990s, it was difficult finding retailers that were willing to stock the brewery's product, but it's a different world in the 2010s. Firestone Walker's production grew from roughly 150,00 barrels in 2014 to 275,000 in 2015 and 350,000 in 2016; Walker's long-term target is 600,000 barrels annually.
As the company has grown, Walker says that one of the most enjoyable things to witness is the growth of the suppliers that were with his brewery from the very beginning. While most of them started out as homebrewing shops, they have grown to become suppliers for many other craft breweries.
When it comes to ingredients, Walker says he's very particular: hops come from the Pacific Northwest, some from Europe; malts from North America and the United Kingdom. "It's important to us that we make and control our beer from the cradle to the grave," Walker says.
And they don't disappoint, as their Double Barrel Ale -- the "trailblazing flagship beer that started it all" -- is a five-time medalist at the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver.
While Firestone Walker now employs more than 500 people, Walker says the company remains very family-oriented. He says the founders are incredibly hands-on in all of the day-to-day operations and want employees to enjoy an environment where waking up every morning and coming to work is something that they look forward to doing.
"Healthy growth," Walker says, "is the key to our future."
This is the reason Firestone Walker partnered with Belgium's Duvel Moortgat in 2015 in an investment deal designed to catalyze long-term growth. The company is still independently operated and privately owned. "We've been at capacity for several years. Although we've grown dramatically, this enables us to make long-term plan on growth," says Walker. "We want to make the right moves so Firestone Walker is relevant 50 years from now."
Challenges: "We are an old-world company," Walker notes. "Labor, energy and a positive economy are all important and need to be managed conservatively." He says when the economy fluctuates, they want to be in a position where they're still doing well. "We want to take care of our employees."
Opportunities: Continued growth. "I think there's a seismic shift in the way U.S. consumers see American beer," says Walker. "No longer is it a strange thing to drink craft beer. It's more mainstream, and big breweries recognize that. Big brands are really struggling. This provides a huge opportunity for regional craft brew to provide great beer, like a lager with a bit more dimension than a basic big brand lager that a consumer might want to drink."
Needs: "We need to increase our footprint in the United States," says Walker. "As of now, 80 percent of our product is sold in California."