Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival roundup

The shouts crescendo as a countdown comes to an end—three, two, one!—and thousands at this year's Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival blitz through the main gates. They’re careful not to full-on sprint to their favorite brewer, however. It’s more of a run-walk; in years past, videos of grown men hauling ass to guzzle down prized brew at festivals has gone viral, thus discouraging repeat offenders. Nevertheless, the run-walk is hilarious.

If you're into the still-exploding craft-beer scene but haven't pilgrimaged to Firestone Invitational, it's one of the premier beer gatherings on the planet. This past Saturday, more than four dozen of the world’s baddest brewers—from California's The Bruery to Missouri's Side Project Brewing, Cigar City in Florida and Jester King in Texas—converged on Paso Robles, a click over 260 miles southeast of Sacramento, for a five-hour crush of 3-ounce pours and grub from nearly two-dozen regional restaurants. Bands jam (local boy Jackie Greene headlined) and friendships are forged in malt, hops and yeast (the hotel afterparties are legendary). This fourth incarnation of Firestone sold out in minutes.

There's so much, but let's just talk beer: Zombie Dust, the flagship pale ale from Three Floyds, is my first pour and tastes wildly fresh, with hop character that pops like fireworks. Never tasted it this alive. Three Floyds also poured six super-rare, barrel-aged variants of its Dark Lord stout—but I don't do Disneyland or 500-person beer lines.

Vinnie Cilurzo is the head brewer at Russian River, and he's pouring the latest and unreleased batch of Beatification, a lambic style beer that is spontaneously fermented (which means no yeast pitch). This brew is bright with lemon character and should be remarkable when bottles drop (he says end of summer).

Kern River Brewing Co. is east of Bakersfield and only releases its Citra, its double-IPA, twice a year—and you have to win a lottery to purchase bottles! But fresh pours abound this afternoon, and it's dry, pine-y finish seals the hype deal.

Michigan-based Founders toted in kegs of Canadian Breakfast Stout, a super-impossible-to-acquire coffee-chocolate imperial aged in bourbon barrels that previously held maple syrup. Not my style—but it's the beer I'm thinking about days later.

Brewer John Kimmich of Alchemist in Vermont looks relaxed in a tight-fitting blue T-shirt and khaki shorts. He makes the most popular brew in the world, Heady Topper double IPA, but today is pouring two different beers. He's also passing out stickers of the letters “DB” with a red cross through them. “What's this mean?” I ask.

“It means don’t be a douche bag,” he answers while handing a pour of Petit Mutant, a cherry sour with a uniquely spiced fruit profile.

The foreigners nearly rule the day. Birrificio Italiano's pilsner is so crushable that I could quit water. Birrificio del Ducato entire lineup is delicate, artful brewing. And Bridge Road Brewers out of Australia poured a pilsner with the new Enigma hop that was unlike any other light-bodied beer.

Firestone's wild ales, part of its sorta-new Barrelworks program, do sour beer right. And their Parabola aged with Intelligentsia coffee would be the best thing at Starbucks by far.

Pours upon pours turn into slurs upon slurs, but thankfully Firestone—ever the host!—is serving barbecue plates and live music back at the brewer's campground. The ribs and chicken disappear with the 89-degree sun. And after hours, of course, more brew—peach sours, cinnamon and ancho chili ales, port-inspired sippers and an endless flow of Pale 31. Then it's three, two, one: You're passed out, asleep.