Having grown to love sour beer, I find myself seeking it out more than ever when I go out to drink. Hot City Pizza is a great spot for that. So is Pangaea, with a special bar devoted entirely to lambics. Locally, Sudwerk is making some amazing sours, and Mraz is devoted to sours and some saisons with the famed wild yeast Brettanomyces.
Last week, two of my drinking buddies joined me for a quick trip to Berkeley to visit The Rare Barrel, which just celebrated its first anniversary. Young as it is, it has already become renowned for absolutely killing it with an all-sour lineup. It won a gold medal at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival and another gold (and a bronze) at the World Beer Cup, where it competed against 1,403 breweries from 58 countries.
The lineup at the taproom changes frequently, and there is usually one beer available for growler fills, so it’s best to talk about the drinking experience in general rather than specific beers. With barrel aging and souring, you get something that is different from any other beverage you can imagine. The beers are neither hoppy nor malty. There can be berry notes on the front of the palate. It can be very tart or oh-so-smooth with a lingering sour finish and a balanced acidity. There can be a touch of sweetness. It can finish clean and dry or it can linger with an appealing aftertaste.
The potential rough edges are smoothed off during the aging, when the yeast and bacteria and the wine-soaked wood all work together to build this very complex and appealing beverage known as sour beer.
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I often don’t know what to say when people tell me they don’t like the taste of beer, because there is no single taste of beer. There’s a wide range. Maybe those folks haven’t yet found a beer to like.
The Rare Barrel is the brainchild of former college roommates Alex Wallash, 28, and Jay Goodwin, 29. Back in their early college days, they were drinking ho-hum beers like Natty Light and Keystone – the cheap stuff. Looking for something better, they started homebrewing and got deeper into beer. Then they developed an affinity for sours, which then were not widely available.
Goodwin went on to work for four years at The Bruery in Orange County, one of the leaders in sour and barrel-aged beers. In February 2013, the duo launched The Rare Barrel and released its first beer in October of that year.
Because of the style of beer they make, opening for business meant lots of barrels with liquids doing their thing in slo-mo, but no beer – and no sales – for months and months. It generally takes nine to 12 months in barrels before the beer is ready. The Rare Barrel has 600 barrels in its brewery.
“With making sour beer, it is a real blend of art and science,” Wallash said. “We’ll start out intending to make something, but once you get a couple of months in, the beer takes a certain direction. Then we’ll work with it and let the beer speak to us and tell us what the next direction is.”
This seems to be one key to The Rare Barrel’s success. They taste the beer as it progresses, they’re willing to let nature and science guide them, and they have the refined palates and know-how to make the finished product something truly sublime.
When this brewery was conceived, there wasn’t nearly so much talk about sour beer as there is now. In addition to talent and business savvy, The Rare Barrel has excellent timing.
“We’re seeing a shift in the American palate towards foods that are different and more complex – and maybe more satisfying – than homogenized processed products,” Wallash said. “To fuel the change in the palate for sour beer, you need supply.”
The Rare Barrel has plans to grow in the coming years, including distribution to the Sacramento area. For now, the best way to experience these exciting sour beers is to visit the taproom at the brewery, 940 Parker St., Berkeley.
I recently got to do a pre-release tasting at Sudwerk Brewing of a bourbon barrel doppelbock, and not only loved this beer but found it educational to taste Sudwerk’s standard doppelbock right after. You get a sense of the magic that happens in the barrels and how barrel-aging brings so much character to the beer. The two beers are both excellent – but incredibly different.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.
What we’re tasting: Map of the Sun (5.5 percent alcohol by volume) by The Rare Barrel. It’s hard to pick a favorite from this incredible new all-sour brewery, but this one did it for me. So smooth and tart and well-rounded, this is a golden sour beer aged in oak barrels with apricots.
Where we’re headed: The Monk’s Cellar Brewery & Public House. This new brewery just opened and is making Belgian-style beer. There is plenty of talent and experience here. The two brewers used to work at the former Sacramento Brewing Co.. The Monk’s Cellar is brewing in a traditional Belgian style called “open fermentation,” which allows the yeast to breathe in a more-natural and less-stressed way. If the Roseville/Rocklin area isn’t careful, it’s going to become known as a craft beer Mecca. Already there are popular craft breweries Out of Bounds and Boneshaker, along with Final Gravity, an excellent beer bar. Yes, there’s also a BJ’s in Roseville!