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This sour beer brewer is hitting the sweet spot

If you want a taste from The Rare Barrel, you’ve got to move fast.

Earlier this month, the Berkeley, CA-based brewer of sour beers began accepting new members in its Ambassadors of Sour club. Initially, the Web servers collapsed from the sheer crush of people trying to land a coveted spot. Once they upped the count (from 10 servers to 56), the spots were taken within 15 minutes.

The story wasn’t dissimilar at the Great American Beer Festival last month. Lines at The Rare Barrel booth rivaled those of giants like Avery, 3 Floyds and Cigar City – and long before each session ended, the beer was gone.

That sort of demand is remarkable for any brewer, but for a micro-brewer that focuses entirely on sour beers, it’s phenomenal – and just the tiniest bit frustrating for the founders.

Word of mouth about the Rare Barrel in the craft beer community has spread rapidly. It opened its doors to the public two years ago, right about the time sour beers started to dramatically increase in popularity. Since then, it has become a destination for beer lovers, some of whom drive from several states away to enjoy a pint or two when the tasting room is open Friday through Sunday.

But, to the frustration of all parties involved, they often aren’t able to leave with a bottle to go. Demand for the beers is so high that there are no bottles available to sell at the brewery.

“We’re at the mercy of the beer,” says co-founder Alex Wallash. “If you’re going to do a sour right, you can’t rush it. So we have to bite the bullet financially and in terms of customer satisfaction.”

The Rare Barrel ages its beers for at least one year in oak barrels – and fruited offerings like Ensorcelled or Map of the Sun require another three months minimum of fermentation. So, unlike a brewer of a hot IPA or porter, there’s no real way to quickly ramp up production.

“I think we operate more like a winery than a brewery,” says Wallash. “We put beer in barrels, take measurements and we’ll taste each batch every 10 days so we can understand the flavor profile. But ultimately, at the end of the day, sour beer is ready when sour beer says it’s ready.”

Wallash and his partners – brewer and blender Jay Goodwin and finance chief Brad Goodwin – founded The Rare Barrel for a pretty simple reason: They liked sour beers and had a hard time finding them commercially. Figuring they weren’t alone, they decided to open a brewery specializing in the often difficult practice.

Step one was talking with the masters. The team went to Belgium and spoke with Lambic Gueuze producers along with some sour beer makers in the U.S., ultimately taking pieces of advice from each to develop their own style.

“We view this as a multi-year long experiment,” says Wallash. “We’re always trying to find a way to tweak a variable in our experiment – whether it’s temperature or time. We’re trying to change something so we can better understand our product. Hopefully, 10-20 years down the road, we can say we’ve made better sour beer than we would have if we weren’t experimental.”

What’s coming next?

There’s no real flagship offering at The Rare Barrel yet – a decision that’s deliberate. But there are a few recurring favorites, including Ensorcelled (which won a silver at this year’s GABF awards) and Cosmic Dust (which won a gold at GABF in 2014).

Part of the fun, though, is no one – not even the brewers – is ever quite sure what’s coming next. That’s due, in large part, to The Rare Barrel’s blending program.

“When the beer is finished in oak barrels after a year, it’s fermented and ready to be packaged, but by the end of a one year period we’re going to have 10 barrels that are slightly different in their own way. One might have more pineapple zest. One might have more lemon. … As a blender, we get to hand select which barrels are mixed together.”

That adds an artistic touch to the process that keeps people coming back – even if they may not be able to get as much as they’d like.

Make no mistake, though, if you get the chance to try something made by The Rare Barrel, you should take it. The brewer’s reputation is well deserved and I’ve yet to taste anything from them that didn’t wow me. Here are a few to really keep your eyes open for.

Ensorcelled – If you read our coverage of the GABF, you might have deduced this was my favorite beer of the show. It’s a perfect mix of sweet and sour, with loads of raspberries riding that edge. There’s a natural tartness in that fruit, but the beer finishes with a refreshing dryness that leaves you instantly wanting more. The balance of the raspberry and the malt is astonishing. It’s a beer that’s on par with, if not better than the Belgian greats. (ABV: 5.8%)

Impossible Soul – The taste of cherries explodes in your mouth the minute you take a sip of this infusion – and you’ll quickly notice a hint of oak in the flavor. And that flavor burst might surprise some people, given the beer’s gold/orange appearance. Impossible Soul does a very good job of successfully balancing the sweet and tart qualities of the cherries, which is an admirable accomplishment. You may also pick up a little bit of lemon or pepper as it warms. (ABV: 7.2%)

Shadows of their Eyes – There’s a lot going on in this complex wild ale. You’ll pick up hints of everything from cherries to plums to apples. It’s a bit more sour than some of the other Rare Barrel offerings, meaning a slightly higher pucker factor, but it’s still quite approachable. Acidic and funky, it has just the right amount of carbonation. (ABV: 5.6%)

Apropos of Nothing – The winner of a bronze medal at this year’s GABF, this is a jammy, juicy sour that a bit heavier than some of The Rare Barrel’s offerings. The elderberries give the beer a blueberry/blackberry backbone – almost like a good pie filling, only with a very slight tart twist. (This is arguably the least sour of the brewer’s offerings.) The lavender compliments this, giving it a floral layer. (ABV: 5.6%)