Road Trip: An Afternoon with Barrel Aging Pioneer Todd Ashman

High in the Sierra Nevada mountains through Donner Pass on Interstate 80 you can find Fifty Fifty Brewing in Truckee, CA. By my standards it’s the middle of nowhere, especially when gas stations become few and far between.  This small brewery with a big reputation sits a mile outside of town near the Truckee-Tahoe airport.  You might think you’re lost when seeking it out (I certainly did and Google didn’t help much), but just keep going down the road and you’ll see a big grain silo on the left emblazoned with the Fifty Fifty logo.  I arrived after a light snowfall and being unaccustomed to snow, thought a foot-long icicle hanging from the brewery was going to break off and kill me.

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

The inside of the brewery’s restaurant was all hustle and bustle.  The recent snowfall attracted a large winter sports crowd, surprising the staff, which had to work at full tilt in a packed house.  Seventy percent of Fifty Fifty’s revenue comes from the busy winter season when people are looking for calorie-heavy pub food and a strong ale to relax their bones after a long day on the slopes.  Calling it pub food might actually be a disservice though, it’s not often you see steamed mussels in the high Sierras.


Despite the madness of the crowd and his busy schedule, Brewmaster Todd Ashman found the time to talk to me a little bit about his career and the brewery.  He was leaving for Germany two days later to accept a Silver medal at the European Beer Star competition for his barrel aged Eclipse, but acted as if he had all the time in the world to chat.


The first thing I asked Todd was how he got started and ended up in Truckee. Of course it all began with a passion for homebrewing out of college, which led to a stint with the Sonoma County Beerocrats and then enrollment in the UC Davis Extension Program for brewing. Since then he’s worked at Bison Brewing, Kegs Brewery in New Mexico, Flossmoor Station in Chicago (where he became a pioneer in bourbon barrel-aging), Titletown Brewing in Green Bay, the Brewers Supply Group and now Fifty Fifty.


He took the job at Fifty Fifty Brewing when it opened in 2007 itching to explore new recipes and push barrel aging even further. Since then he’s garnered even more awards and accolades, primarily for his Eclipse Imperial Stout series, which has become a must try before you die.  If didn’t sign up for futures this year you could always check eBay for a “collector bottle” from years past, but be prepared to pay.

It turns out Todd is actually in favor of rare beers being sold on eBay.  His reasoning, which like an idiot had never occurred to me, was that if a beer cannot be found at retail then it does have some extra value to consumers.  If people are going to pay for it, then there must be demand.  My own feeling is more like “don’t be the wine industry,” but it makes sense that someone who’s been aging a beer, of which only a few exist in the world, could command a higher price.  That’s just simple business.  As for people selling beer online for crazy prices, which can be found at retail, he’s dead set against that.  All in all, I have to agree with his philosophy.


While we were talking I also inquired about his decision to sell Eclipse futures this year. Last April, Fifty Fifty sold out of its entire “planned production.” The concept was the brainchild of brewery owner Andy Barr, which took a few people by surprise. There were even some complaints, but once you see how that money was applied, you can’t help but think it was a great idea.


Once we finished talking over a few beers, Todd gave me a tour of the brewery, which is the size of a postage stamp.  I’m not kidding.  I don’t know how he produces so much beer. Their entire brewing system could fit in my living room with room to spare. The gap between fermenters can be measured in microns and stacks of Eclipse barrels sit in the restaurant. Unfortunately, drunk people sometimes pull out the bungs and ruin an entire barrel.


Due to the space crunch, proceeds from the Eclipse futures was invested in four rental properties around Truckee for barrel aging.  You’d think there would be just one big warehouse they could rent and cram everything into, but then you wouldn’t be in Truckee.  I don’t even want to know how they plan on cramming in the new bottling line they’re getting for the Eclipse release on December 8th.


I followed Todd by car to one of the barrel rooms located in a seemingly abandoned retail area and every foot was taken over by barrels, each containing $6,000 in Eclipse beer. The drinking devil inside me wanted to invest in a crow bar and rent a semi-trailer. The number of barrels blew me away and my head was spinning at the thought of more locations around town.  The resin was slowly seeping from the oak, forming solid teardrops that I had to suck on like candy just for the heck of it.  Seriously, try it.

Future plans for the brewery include expansion, but Truckee’s water constraints could be a problem.  The town has a small treatment facility that’s been struggling to keep up with the population boom over the last few years.  Factor in how much water is actually used in the brewing process (yes, all those “save water, drink beer” t-shirts are lying) and you get one stressed out water department.  Performing their own water treatment doesn’t make sense for such a small brewery and it will be interesting to see if they limit growth or contract brew somewhere else.

Despite their small size, Fifty Fifty has made a big impact on the craft beer industry and culture. Todd’s successful barrel-aged beers have inspired many other brewers and the style sector is getting much bigger.  I just hope that Fifty Fifty can find a way around their water issue and crank up production of their wax-sealed goodness (yes, some bottles have pink wax, get over it) so more people can have access to what they are doing.  In the meantime, buy futures.