Firestone Walker Fires Up Japan: an interview with Adrian Walker

Adrian Walker with Yokohama Central's skyline

Adrian Walker with Yokohama Central’s skyline

by Brian Kowalczyk | photography by Matt Gammon

In mid-May, Adrian Walker, Export Director for Firestone Walker, visited Japan to help kick-off the launch of this excellent brand. We sat down with him over sushi for a chat about his involvement with this iconic brewery and his hopes for Japan.

“Beer before glory.” If there is one thing that Adrian Walker, export director of Firestone Walker, wants to stress to all, that would be it. Clearly, they have taken this mantra to heart.

Two years ago there were no exports to handle. The vast majority of their beer wasn’t even leaving California, where the brewery is located. Even now, roughly 80% of their product is consumed in-state. With their brews in such high demand it seems counterintuitive not to get out there and conquer the world.

But as Walker points out, California has a GDP larger than many countries. Their strategy, by design, was to be the best locally before moving on, and the local market was still a massive undertaking. Walker explains the philosophy in this way: “A lot of breweries are very keen on trying to get their beers out around the world when really they should focus on owning their own backyard first. Become something that you can hang your hat on and have a story about.”

That story for him started at the age of 19, when his older brother and co-founder of the brewery, David Walker, approached him after he finished school and convinced him to come to the US to help sell beer for their fledgling brewery. His first foray into the business didn’t quite go as planned. Adrian relates, “He gave me a beat up old truck, threw some beers in the back of it, showed me the way to Highway 101, and said, ‘Go, sell.’ I did it for about four months and I was mediocre to say the least. So he packed me back up and I returned to the UK.”

Soon thereafter, Adrian traveled to France to train as a chef. He comments, “That’s where my artisanal, quality-driven, ingredients-driven philosophy came from.” Eventually, he moved from culinary practice into the world of imports and exports. As he visited his brother relatively often in California, he could see the company slowly growing. With a strong hold of the California market, Firestone Walker was ready to export. Older sibling David thought it was time to give a more experienced and seasoned Adrian another go at selling their beer, this time internationally. Adrian was reluctant at first but his family convinced him. He remarks, “This time I got a plane ticket instead of a beat up pick-up truck and I’ve been flying around ever since.”

Still, the company is only in very select international markets (they estimate they will be in twelve by year’s end) and only about half of the states in the US. Walker reiterates, “Our goal is less about pushing huge volume and more about finding the best place we can be and how can we get them the best beer. At the bottom of everything we do is ‘beer before glory.’ It really is. I know that sounds a little bit trite, like one of those fantastic PR phrases. But this is how we’ve always approached things.”

Firestone Walker has some strict criteria for their distributors and retailers: cold chain from brewery to point of sale; cold storage and refrigerated at retailers and bars; no overstocking to prevent beer past its prime from being sold. If you can’t look after their beer properly, then you simply can’t have their beer. Having been a chef, Walker can relate to the brew team’s perspective. It would be an insult to the chef to serve a two-day old filet mignon–clearly not the way it was intended to be enjoyed. Why give people inferior beer that didn’t leave the brewer’s hands in that condition?

When speaking of their brewing team, Walker has nothing but the highest respect and praise for head brewer, Matt Brynildson (read our interview with Matt here). Actually, the majority of other breweries are probably the same, as Matt is one of the most respected brewers in the world. Walker never fails to be impressed by “Matt’s vast knowledge of all brewing matters and his desire to go hop hunting.”

According to Adrian and as also revealed in our interview with Matt, when founders Adam Firestone and David Walker were on the hunt for brewing space, they went to look at the SLO Brewing Company facility that was up for sale in Paso Robles, California (now their current home). As they were checking out the soon-to-be-defunct brewery, they ran into Matt, who was looking after his beer, even though it was facing the very real possibility of being dumped. His passion simply wouldn’t let him leave his “children” behind. Firestone and Walker were so impressed by this that they decided they had to hire him–a move that has proven to be particularly wise.

One move that has some beer fans questioning them, however, is their ramping up of exports. When Adrian tweeted the news that he was working at the Keyaki Hiroba Beer Festival in Saitama, he got responses from beer bloggers Stateside with the complaint that they couldn’t even get Firestone Walker in their state, so why the hell was he giving it to the Japanese?

One reason is that he has faith that their beer will be well cared for. In Nagano Trading they have found a partner that also preaches the gospel of cold chain from beginning to end. Walker is also happy with how fast Japan has embraced the “can revolution.” One thing Japan excels masterfully at is balancing the preservation of culture and tradition while adapting quickly to worldwide trends. Walker admires this quality about the Japanese and feels his beer will be in good hands here. Working a day at the festival slinging beers to myriads of smiling new fans did everything to cement his faith.

When asked about their recent acquisition by Duvel, Walker says it is more correctly a “marriage.” He explains, “We tapped out. Our brewery was absolutely up to the rafters. We had no capacity. We were at 350,000 barrels and the market just kept growing for us. There’s more demand for our product. So Dave and Adam had to make a decision. They were either going to go to a bank and cut a very large check or they are going to find a partner. They decided it was time to find a partner. Duvel has been doing this for 150 years. They know a thing or two about running large international breweries.” It seemed like a perfect wedding.

Now well past the honeymoon stage, both parties appear to be quite happy with the situation. According to Walker, “Probably, at the heart of it all is that Duvel is a family. CEO Michel Moortgat and his brothers run and own Duvel (read our interview here). We’re a family company, too. We like that. They’re a family and they run their business as such. There were a lot of natural synergies. I think people know Duvel for what they are: one of the best beer makers in the world.” Though it went unsaid, Firestone Walker, while lacking the long history, are also in that category.

Some would argue that being acquired by a giant cheapens your brand. Hardcore beer fanatics want to thumb their noses at you. But as Walker was quick to point out, none of this is anything new. It’s been happening since the concept of a business was created. Per Walker, “Everything eventually consolidates into groups. AB InBev are a Goliath in this industry and whilst I may not be the biggest fan of all their beers what I would say is that they have the power to take craft to the average man. If you want our craft revolution to get right down to grassroots, you need to have someone that’s got the power to do that. Whether or not they hold dear the same craft passions and desires, I can’t really comment on that.”

Those who have had Firestone Walker’s beers at Nagano Trading’s taproom (Antenna America), the Keyaki event or out of a can from a retail shop will find little to thumb their palates at, that is for sure. While some marriages fail, this one looks to be working out just fine.

Adrian Walker at Antenna America

Adrian Walker at Antenna America

Adrian Walker at Antenna America

Adrian Walker at Antenna America

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