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By Jim Galligan

There’s a saying that it takes a lot of beer to make a good wine, because winemaking is thirsty work. The latest edition of Firestone Walker Brewing Company’s Anniversary Ale proves it’s a two way street – it can take a lot of winemakers to create a world-class beer.

Firestone Walker is located in the wine country surrounding Paso Robles, Calif., which was just named Wine Enthusiast magazine’s 2013 Wine Region of the Year. The brewery has taken full advantage of the local vintner talent to craft Firestone XVII, their 17th Anniversary Ale, a blend of seven barrel-aged Firestone Walker beers that were produced over several months and years.

Instead of blending these beers into their Anniversary Ale themselves, Firestone Walker invites local winemakers to join in a friendly competition to see who can whip up the tastiest concoction. This comes as second nature to the winemakers, who are master blenders by trade and know how to bring out the best from the contents of an oak barrel.

The winemakers are paired into teams, and work to create the best blend of beers they can dream up. These blends are then recreated by Firestone Walker and served in a blind tasting to all the winemakers who vote for their favorites.

These competitive blending sessions started seven years ago, when Firestone Walker decided to create a special beer to commemorate their 10th anniversary. A new edition of Anniversary Ale has followed every year.

This year’s winning blend was crafted by Neil Collins and Chelsea Franchi from Tablas Creek Vinyard. Like every edition of Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale, it’s a big beer, clocking in at a toe-curling 13.3 percent ABV, which is high for a beer but typical for a dark wine.

Here’s the breakdown of what went into Firestone XVII. Each of these beers lends its character to this remarkably delicious and hearty brew:

  • 30 Percent Bravo (13.6 percent ABV): An imperial brown ale aged in Bourbon and brandy barrels
  • 25 PercentStickee Monkee (15.3 percent ABV): A Mexican turbinado (brown sugar)-infused English barley wine aged in Bourbon and whiskey barrels
  • 15 percent Velvet Merkin (8.7 percent ABV): A traditional oatmeal stout aged in Bourbon barrels  
  • 15 percentParabola (12.8% ABV): A Russian imperial oatmeal stout aged in Bourbon barrels
  • 8 percent Double Double Barrel Ale (12 percent ABV): A double-strength English pale ale aged in retired Firestone Union barrels
  • Four percent Helldorado (11.5% ABV): A blonde barley wine aged in Bourbon and brandy barrels   
  • Three percent Wookey Jack (8.3% ABV): A Black rye IPA

Like most dark and rich beers, Firestone XVII is best served just slightly chilled, allowing for the deeper subtleties of this complex masterpiece to open up and shine.

It pours a deep mahogany with gorgeous ruby highlights when the light catches it just right. The nose is loaded with dense notes of milk chocolate, dark fruit and cocoa. The mouthfeel is rather light, but the beer has a heavy presence to it; perhaps it’s the intensity of the flavor playing tricks on the tongue.

This beer has flavor for days. It starts with a boozy brace of whiskey, followed by big notes of milk chocolate, figs, cocoa and tobacco that slowly unfold in your mouth. There's just a hint of cloying earthiness lurking in the background, no doubt thanks to the barley wines in the blend and the use of brandy barrels for aging the Bravo imperial brown ale. All of these flavors hang on the palate long after the sip has slid down your throat.

A couple of years in a cellar would do wonders for this beer, allowing time to tame the alcohol bite and give the rich flavors a chance to deepen, just like one of the wines created by the alchemists who crafted it.

Firestone XVII Anniversary Ale is available in limited supply in California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Illinois, Texas, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Maryland and it runs $23.99 a bottle. Be sure to keep an eye out for the fancy cardboard box the beer is packaged in, because it’s easy for the eyes to glide past its flat surface on the shelf.

With all the beer-versus-wine talk out there, it’s cool to see that great things can happen when brewers and vintners collaborate. Here’s to Firestone Walker for finding an innovative way to bring these two worlds together and for many more happy anniversaries.