Berkeley, Calif.-based The Rare Barrel is an all-sour-beer brewery that came from its founders’ shared conviction that sour beers are delicious, but too tough to get your hands on.
“Jay [Goodwin] and I ended up falling in love with sour beers, but years ago they were difficult to find,” says co-founder Alex Wallash. “You had to go to the brewery the day of the release, or know the bottle shop owners. There was a need for more sours out there.”
Not that The Rare Barrel beer flows through the streets or anything. To get your hands on these award-winning sours (TRB won a gold medal in the American-style sour category at GABF last year for Cosmic Dust, an oak-aged golden sour with hibiscus), you’ll have to show up to the brewery for release days, or join the brewery’s Ambassadors of Sour beer club. Bottles can only be shipped to addresses in California or held for pick-up at the brewery, so the beer is still something of a rarity for most outside the state.
But if you’re a sour beer fan, consider making a new friend in Cali or start planning a vacation. The just-over-a-year-old brewery has already established itself with a lineup of well-balanced, not-overly-cheek-puckering beers that explore the subtle side of sour. The beers exhibit a consistently pleasant level of acidity and only light funk that won’t turn off sour newbies. Wallash says it’s a result of the way The Rare Barrel incorporates yeast and bacteria like Brettanomyces and lactobacillus.
“We don’t have a house culture, but we do have strains of Brett and lactobacillus that we work with quite a bit. We really enjoy that strain of Brett because it gives off a lot of juicy tropical zest notes,” he says. “The other side of the spectrum is that wet dog, funky, goat, fill-in-your-animal-descriptor flavor. I think one of the things that would define our beers is that they have Brett, but they’re not that funky. We’re going more for the cleaner Brett characteristics.”
That neat Brett flavor shines through in three recent releases: Home Sour Home, Map of the Sun and Fields Forever. The first two begin with the same base golden ale. But to Home Sour Home (one of DRAFT’s 25 Best Beers of 2014), brewers added peach puree, cinnamon and vanilla bean to mimic the flavors of peach cobbler. The nose is a comforting cloud of Cinnamon Toast Crunch aromas, chased by pie crust, peach sourness and just a hint of oak on the swallow. Drink it now, or cellar it for a while to let that oak round out some of the tartness.
Map of the Sun highlights the addition of apricot puree to that base golden ale. To hear Wallash tell it, The Rare Barrel was practically compelled to make this beer. “Most people who make sour beers ultimately end up making an apricot sour. Apricots just compliment the acidity and the flavors in most golden sours so well,” he says. Look for this beer to return in bottles in the future.
Aside from the golden ales, there’s Fields Forever, which sees the addition of strawberries to a base sour red. Serve it for dessert; the nose is all strawberries and cream and angel food cake.
If you’re left shaking your fist because you can’t make it to Berkeley, don’t despair. The Rare Barrel plans to pour at some out-of-town fests this year, including Extreme Beer Fest in Boston and the Firestone Walker Invitational in Paso Robles. And consider this: If the bottles were easy to get your hands on, the brewery wouldn’t quite be living up to its name, would it?