I really dislike the term “gateway beer.” There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, I think there’s room in the craft beer world for all types of brews. I’m not particularly fond of barleywines, for example (one day I am going to go to the Alaska festival where—under layers of furs and surrounded by huskies and malamutes—I will, no doubt, thoroughly enjoy a big beer in the right environs… but I digress). The point is, some people like to drink (or make) beers that are not particularly challenging on the palate. That’s just the kind of beer they like.
However, the other reason why I don’t like this term is it can let a brewer off the hook, quality wise. If all you’re trying to do is cut into Anheuser-Busch’s clientele, I don’t really count you as a craft brewer. You’re just a charlatan making shitty beer that only shitty beer drinkers will ever want to buy. Good luck to you, now be on your way!
Fireman’s Brew out of Woodland Hills, CA, has a cool story. Or a hot one. Back in 2000 after working on putting out a particularly nasty brushfire, two Los Angeles firefighters were thinking of what any sane—and slightly scorched—individual would be thinking: Where can I get a nice cold beer after a day like today? The slightly ironic joke of “extinguish your thirst” became the impetus for starting a brewery. Now, 13 years later they’re available in 12 states including NY. They’ve recently made their way into the Brooklyn, Queens and, now, Manhattan markets.
Last night local rep Rob Keiley (himself a proud member of the FDNY) was pouring the company’s three flagship brews: The Blonde (a 5% ABV Pilsner), The Brunette (an 8% ABV Dopplebock), and The Redhead (a 5.5% Amber Ale). None of these beers was remarkable, but all were decent. They were being offered at The Mason Jar, which has a long row of sticks featuring the aforementioned A-B offerings along with various Sam Adams (or SA affiliates). In other words, not a craft beer bar.
But Rob told me that the beer is also at Salty Dog in Williamsburg, along with a few other traditional craft beer bars. And I can see why. Their story is just too good to dis on this beer. With five percent of proceeds going to the Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Fireman’s Brew plays right into the craft beer ethos.
And, honestly, the beers are reasonable offerings, along the lines of what you’d find in many brewpubs. While the Pilsner wasn’t as crisp or hoppy as I would like, both the Doppleboch and the Amber were solid entries. The latter in particular was full bodied without too much alcohol, and reminded me of what I would typically drink at Heartland Brewery. Certainly the beers were better than any mass produced lager being poured at The Mason Jar.
Another aspect to Fireman’s Brew is their “on duty drinks”: coffee and sodas that they market directly to firehouses (you can also buy their non-alcoholic drinks online). These are brewers who are selling to their own kind: hardworking men and women who risk their lives every day. And just want a nice cool one at the end of a shift to wash the soot out of their mouths.
If I had a bone to pick with this beer, it wouldn’t be its quality (which is fine) but the hesitance to be forthcoming about their brewing process. They are some hybrid of contract brewer working with an unnamed brewmaster from an undisclosed facility. I have no issues with gypsy brewers or contract brewers, but you either name the brewmaster or the brewery where the beer is being made. I think that concern—far more than taste—is what will cause craft beer drinkers to shy away from the brand.
UPDATED; Jeanne wanted me to know that Fireman’s has a partnership brewing arrangement with their Mendocino brewing facility where brewmaster Don Tubbs creates beers from their own recipes. Fireman’s Brew used to brew in Los Angeles before outgrowing their previous facility. Thanks to Jeanne for reaching out about this! And looking forward to more of Don’s beers.
So go ahead and do your heart a favor and try a Fireman’s Brew if you happen to see it at a craft beer bar near you. It may not be the best craft beer you have this year, but you’ll feel good drinking it all the same. Or buy one for your buddy who only likes Coors. Just don’t let The Bitch hear you telling him it’s a “gateway beer.” Cheers!