When, several months back, the Alamo Drafthouse announced that we had collaborated on a beer with Odell Brewing to mark the release of the Drafthouse Films title The Connection, some of our other favorite craft brewers came to us and whispered that if we had another film and beer collaboration in mind, they’d be interested in working with us. As the weeks passed, we kept the conversations going and, suddenly, an opportunity presented itself to put together a beer with Firestone Walker, and we couldn’t be more excited about what we’ve cooked up.
Crimson Peak, the next release from Alamo Drafthouse favorite Guillermo del Toro, premiered at Fantastic Fest, and we decided we simply had to mark the occasion with a special release brew to be served in all Alamo Drafthouse locations. Del Toro’s films, be they cult classics like Hellboy, Hollywood popcorn fare like Pacific Rim or beautiful, weird and surprising hits like Pan’s Labyrinth, are always popular with ADH audiences -- Pan’sis one of the all-time top grossing films at the Alamo South Lamar location -- and del Toro himself has been to Fantastic Fest and counts himself a fan of what we do in our theaters.
Tim League, our fearless leader, reached out to del Toro about the possibility of our doing a special beer for the Crimson Peak release, and del Toro, a craft beer enthusiast, embraced the idea. There was some studio red tape to navigate, but once we got the go ahead, we eagerly booked our tickets out to Paso Robles to get brewing with the good people at Firestone Walker.
Firestone Walker has been brewing craft beer since 1996. They are one of the pioneers of the craft movement, best known for their use of oak casks during fermentation, and are one of only two breweries in the world to still use a Burton-Union wood barrel fermentation system (the other is Marston's in Burton-upon-Trent). They are known for really well-made beers in classic styles and they don’t generally muck about with non-traditional ingredients or flavors in their beers. But they were game to go outside their comfort zone to get something really special made for Crimson Peak.
Leaving Austin’s 100-degree heat behind for a few days brewing beer in Paso Robles, where nighttime temperatures dropped into the low 60s, was tough work, but we kept our noses to the proverbial grindstone to get this beer done. In our pre-trip conversations with Firestone Walker, the one thing we knew for certain was that any beer for Crimson Peak would have to be, well, crimson, a color that isn’t easy to get into a pint glass. We could have done something in the vein of an Irish Red Ale, using traditional malts and roasted barley to get a red tinge going, but Red Ales are more cooper in color, and, taking a look at the trailer for Crimson Peak made it pretty clear that we needed to get bloodier than that. We briefly talked about the possibility of doctoring the mash with beet juice, but feared that would get us a beer that was more purple than red, and the additional sugars and the flavor of the beets could present some fermentation and taste issues that might be problematic.
In the end, we landed on Hibiscus, and the decision was inspired. The Firestone Walker brewing team, under Brewmaster Matt Brynildson and head brewer Dustin Kral, were totally amped about doing something outside their comfort zone and their normal day’s work. Before we arrived in California, they sourced some (okay, a whole lot) of beautiful dried hibiscus flowers. When crushed between your fingers, they left a crimson stain on your hands and released a beautiful flowery citrus aroma that, in theory, would link up beautifully with the aroma from the hops. When chewed, the flowers brought more of the same flavors, but were anchored by a subtle earthiness that should mingle nicely with the malt.
The Firestone team had decided before we arrived to anchor the beer with Crystal Light Malt so that the hue and flavor of the hibiscus wouldn’t be muddied by a darker malt, but their big question was how to get the hibiscus flavor into the finished beer without over-extracting the hibiscus and ending up with something astringent and unpleasant. The final solution came from a long-time employee who took some hibiscus home and brewed up a strong batch of hibiscus tea. The intense extraction, without off flavors, gave us all some confidence, and we settled on a two-step hibiscus process to ensure both color and flavor.
During the boil, we added 50lbs of hibiscus flowers to the mash. At first, it seemed as if everything might have gone wrong -- the mash initially turned a sort of muddy brown from the bleeding of the hibiscus -- but by the time the boil was done, the proto-beer had settled into a nice, deep pink and was starting to show some hibiscus floral notes.
For the second stage, massive amounts of hibiscus flowers were added to steel mesh bags and suspended by steel chains into the wort as it went through the whirlpool (the process by which the mash solids and hops are clarified out of the wort) and left to steep like giant tea bags in the wort as it swirled and cooled.
In the end, the finished wort was a striking red color and tasted as if it was going to be pretty spectacular once the sugars were fermented off. For you beer geeks, the beer went into the fermenter at an Original Gravity of 11.8 and after about a five-day ferment came out at a Final Gravity of 1.6, with an ABV of 5.2% and a pH of 3.5. At press time, we are still waiting on the IBU measurement, but the finished beer is a striking color, with oodles of hibiscus on the nose. It is light bodied -- absolutely sessionable -- and refreshingly tart and it will make its debut with Crimson Peak at all Alamo Drafthouse locations. It should be a perfect complement to those last warm days of Indian Summer and early fall, with the hibiscus a subtle reminder of the dog days as you sip.
The team at Firestone Walker were incredible hosts to the Drafthouse crew; it is impossible to say enough nice things about how great they were to work with, and more, to hang out with (there’s a pretty good bit of downtime when you’re brewing beer), and Paso Robles is a great town, with more incredible food than any small town has a right to have and a fantastic dive bar where hulking gay bikers mingle with sorority girls on a bachelorette weekend, local winemakers, speed freaks and, of course, brewers and guests from Texas. If you schedule a trip out that way, make sure you schedule time to visit the brewery and the tap room (get the fried calamari) and see what Firestone is brewing up.
Originally published in the October issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. Crimson Peak arrives in theaters October 16.