The Rare Barrel: all sour, all the time

I’m generally against hyping up breweries whose beers I haven’t tasted yet, but how can you not be excited about an upcoming all-sour start-up in the Bay Area? Impossible.

The Rare Barrel is setting up shop at 937 Carleton Street in Berkeley, a city which hasn’t seen a new venture this beer-focused in some time. (Geographic bias alert: It’s 1.5 miles from my apartment.) They will contract/gypsy brew where they can but ferment, age, and blend the beer on-site. They also hope to be approved for a small tasting room and want to have beer ready for prime time by the end of the year…but as is always the case with sours and barrel-aged beers, the beer is ready when it’s ready.

The trio behind The Rare Barrel each covers an important base for a new beer business. Jay Goodwin used to be in charge of barrel aging at The Bruery, an outfit that knows a thing or two about sour beers. Biotech executive (and Jay’s father) Brad Goodwin will be handling the finances, something too many start-up businesses seem to forget to put someone in charge of. Homebrewer and sales guy Alex Wallash will be managing sales and marketing.

Jay, Brad, and Alex. Giddy up!

Before checking out their space and having some beers with them last week, I sent questions of varying levels of geekitude to The Rare Barrel via email. Alex and Jay teamed up to answer them and they tell it better than I can, so enjoy an edited version of our correspondence below.

Q: If approved, what do you envision for the taproom?
A: We envision a tasting room where beer lovers can come in and enjoy a range of sour beers with light snacks. We think of our tasting room as our barrel laboratory. Small batch blends will be available to locals who can come by and help us craft our next great sour beer!

Q: Can you reveal anything about beers you plan to make?
A: If it’s sour, we’ll make it. It’s going to be a decades long experiment using all sorts of combinations of yeast, bacteria, fruits, spices, and barrels. We plan to be highly experimental and look forward to exploring the spectrum of flavors that can be experienced in sour beer.

We’re going to start out by aging our beers in oak barrels that were previously used to make red wine. These barrels are particularly good for making sour beer because they have a relatively neutral flavor and most of the strong “oakniess” has been stripped from the barrel. Those barrels are just our launching pad though, and we’ll experiment with other kinds of barrels soon.

Soon to be full of goodness

Q: I assume your distribution will be just Bay Area for a while? Though it looks like you’ve given yourselves a lot of room to grow into that space.
A: Initially, we plan on selling our beer through our tasting room and self-distribution in the Bay Area. We currently have 205 barrels, but our barrel house has room for about 1,500 barrels. So yes, we have a lot of room to grow into that space if people want more sour beer!

Q: The brew-offsite, truck-it-to-a-fermentation-spot plan sounds familiar but I can’t put my finger on it, does some prominent brewery already do that?
A: The inspiration actually came from The Bruery. When their tanks got full, they needed a way to keep the brewers busy so they would brew wort and ship it over to the barrel warehouse for souring and barrel aging. It is also a relatively common practice among some sour beer blenders in Belgium. Gueuzerie Tilquin and 3 Fonteinen are two Belgian blenders who currently make some phenomenal sour beers with this method. [Editor’s note: 3 Fonteinen! I knew that. Duh.] The only difference is their wort is spontaneously inoculated at the “host” brewery whereas our wort will be purposefully inoculated with yeast and bacteria at The Rare Barrel. It’s great for someone like us who doesn’t plan on brewing every single day and it’s great for local breweries who have times when their brewhouse is not in use because they have full tanks.

Shiny, new, and ready for action

Q: Are you using old hops like lambic brewers do?
A: No, we do not plan on using old hops. We prefer using fresh hops, but in very low quantities. We may experiment with them a little bit though at some point.

Q: How much will you be inoculating with critters vs. getting Brett from your barrel wood vs …? Any chance of installing Berkeley’s first coolship?
A: We will be mostly inoculating with yeast and bacteria in our stainless steel fermenters. Depending on the history of the barrel, we may or may not want to encourage the yeast and bacteria living in there to impact the flavor. As for the coolship, we’ll try it at some point down the road.

Q: Who has been helpful in giving you advice?
A: It’s really tough to single out just a few breweries who have helped us out, as the craft beer community is very collaborative. A few that come to mind though include The Bruery, Societe, Crooked Stave, Gueuzerie Tilquin, and New Belgium.

There you have it. I’m cautiously optimistic that my new neighbors are going to do great things. To track The Rare Barrel’s progress, follow them on Twitter @TheRareBarrel or like their Facebook page.

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