Interview: Sour Jim Crooks, Firestone Walker Barrelworks

Interview: Sour Jim Crooks, Firestone Walker Barrelworks , 4.7 out of 5 based on 12 ratings
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Jim Crooks

PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER – (–the-barrel/)

Interview: Sour Jim Crooks, Firestone Walker Barrelworks 

From Microbiologist to Master Blender, Jim Crooks, better known as “Sour Jim”, has led the way for Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks Program. To tap into this burgeoning market, Firestone Walker has developed Barrelworks, a program dabbling in both barrel-aged strong ales and sours created from some of your favorite Firestone Walker Beers. Through the process of aging base ales in different oak varieties that are infused with the remnants of its previous usage, and of course wild yeast strains, these previously award winning beers will be molded into something great in their own unique way. Today, we discuss the history of Sour Jim and the future of Barrelworks.

Graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree Food Science, Jim always had a fascination for bread yeast. While working towards his Bachelors degree in Food Science he focused his thesis on yeast in sourdough bread using yeast strains such as lactobacillus and how it affected bread production. He became well educated on the possibilities of what yeast could accomplish in bread, which led him to apply his knowledge to his interest in homebrewing. While dabbling in homebrewing amongst friends, he was able to really see the potential effects that yeast also had on beer.

At his first Job as a Microbiologist at SLO Brewing Co., Jim’s primary responsibility was to set processes in place and provide some solutions for their recent quality issues. As if fate crossed upon him, Jim filled a previous Brewmaster’s role as an interim brewmaster until Matt Brynildson was brought in as Brewmaster 6 months later. In addition to that, in 2001, SLO Brewing Co. struck gold winning a few Gold Medals and “Brew Pub of The Year” at the GABF in 2001.

After the closure of the SLO Brewing Co. production plant in Paso Robles in May 2001, Jim and Matt Brynildson worked together keeping the fermenters full, their yeast alive, and managing a cellar full of beer; all while discreetly filtering and packing beer to fill a few orders. After about 2 months of these covert ops Firestone got wind that a working brewery was for sale and decided upon this purchase, allowing them to mothball the brewing system they were about to commission in Buellton. Matt and Jim keep brewing and packaging while Firestone prepares to transition brewing operations from “Area 51” on the winery property in Santa Ynez, to Paso. This takes 6 months, with first order of operations being to bring the Krones Filler up to Paso.

But a twist of fate helped transform Barrelworks into what it is today.  They had originally begun dabbling in bourbon barrel aged beers in 2006 for Firestone Walker’s Strong Ale program;  as if by fate, the Firestone Walker team discovered a few vessels of beer hidden outside of the production area between pallets of packaged beer, which turned out to become an epic beer dubbed “10” (their first of many anniversary ales). This started the beginning of their Strong barrel-aged component beers. Only soon after making some solid industry connections, Jim started working with these local barrels and some starter cultures to develop his batches into a new parallel program of wild ales to complement their strong barrel-aged program.

Claiming the new paralleling program to Barrelworks as the “new red-headed stepchild” to the Firestone Walker flagship, Jim began to dabble in these wild ales.  The first step in this side project, most likely a trait of a QC Manager, was to separate out his ales as far away as possible from the main brewery. The distance was extremely important because the little critters that create wild beers would wreak havoc if they were to escape into the main brewery, potentially having the same souring effect on the clean beers. “These wild beer barrels are like powder kegs—they can do a lot of damage if they’re not handled with care,” Sour Jim says.

Jim was in an extremely vulnerable state at this point because most sour beers need some time before each batch can truly develop taking almost 4 years sometimes before turning into something drinkable. During this time, Jim was in an extremely vulnerable state with the majority of the beer developing.  While slowly building up his fleet of wild ales, these initial concoctions that were originally stored in a dry goods warehouse began turning around starting in 2010. With no temperature control, which can speed up fermentation with warm temperatures and slow down with cooler temperatures, the turnaround time of these beers can vastly differ. With the first few batches coming out undesirably, Jim almost threw in the towel until one of his multiple attempts came around and he cautiously presented the idea to Brewmaster, Matt Brynildson, who loved the idea.

With his confidence up, and his spirits high, Jim decided to take on the remains of one of Firestone Walker’s summer seasonal beers, Solace, a wheat based pale ale. After racking into barrels and inoculating it with Brettanomyces Lambicus and Lactobacillus Brevis he came back later on to add olallieberries then let it develop and age.

After a few hiccups of where this concept fit into Firestone Walker’s overall strategy, for the second time, Jim found himself on the cusp of shutting down this side project. That is until the glorious David Walker took his sales reps to Belgium for inspiration where they made a stop at Cantillon. Upon David’s return, they truly understood the potential of sour beer.

After building out a 1000 barrel producing facility, Jim has requested everything from DBA (Double Barrel Ale) to Hefeweizen to start building volume for Barrelworks.

The Future of Barrelworks

With more breweries developing experimental batches involving Wild & Strong ales, those breweries who take note of this demand will rise victorious.  With rare batches being integrated into exclusive societies, such as The Bruery’s Reserve Society and Crooked Stave’s Cellar Reserve, there will always be a growing market of one-off beers for us to appreciate and check into on Untappd.

*hint Barrelworks may or may not be looking into a similar product offering.

There is a lot going into Barrelworks and I’m personally extremely excited to see what comes around in 2014. From distributing Feral One, their first bottled sour to potentially developing indigenous yeast via coolship, there is no doubt in my mind that Barrelworks will go far.

Here a breakdown of what Barrelworks has currently developed:

Bretta Weisse
Lil’ Opal
Sour Opal
Lil’ Mikkel
Velvet Merkin
Sucaba 2012-2014
Double DBA 2012


**Be sure to check out Feral One’s release party on March 8th at Firestone Walker’s Paso Robles location from 12-2pm to pick up this extremely limited offering.

You can buy your tickets here: Feral One’s Release Party



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