In case you haven't heard, sour is the new bitter. An increasing amount of shelf real estate is populated with puckering tart beers, a number of which are produced in the Bay Area. Roughly a year after the announcement of The Rare Barrel, Berkeley's all-sour, all-barrel aged brewery, the facility is up and running. The good news? Batch #1 is in the bag. The bad news? You won't get to try it until 2016.
Unlike many beers that can be knocked out to the market in a few weeks, sour beers take notably longer to produce, typically around a year. The extended aging in oak barrels allows time for wild yeast (brettanomyces) and bacteria (lactobacillus and pediococcus) to work away at the sugars, yielding funk and acidity. Some styles, such as the tart Berliner Weisse, can be matured more quickly, and we expect the Rare Barrel team to create some shorter-term projects while initial batches take a long, oaky rest.
Back to Batch #1, which was inspired by the Belgian Gueuze tradition. One of the most complex styles of sour beer, gueuze is an artful of blend of sour lambics that have been aged 1, 2, and 3 years. The resulting blonde ale has a pronounced, bright acidity and layers of funky, "barnyardy" aroma and flavor. While gueuze can only truly be created in Belgium (a la Champagne), the Rare Barrel team seeks to capture artistry via blending, which requires an acute palate (and diligent notetaking).
The Rare Barrel is taking the Belgian gueuze blender approach, whereby blenders procure beer from neighboring breweries to be aged in their own oak vessels, and taking it one step further. Partners Jay and Alex will be brewing the wort (unfermented beer) at local breweries in the "gyspy" fashion, then transporting it back to their facility for fermentation with house yeast/bacteria and oak aging. To boot, Batch #1 makes use of a brettanomyces strain from Drie Fonteinen, one of Belgium's most beloved blenders.
Once the guys have some finished product ready to sample, they'll be opening up a tasting room on the premises. They also plan to organize an annual scouring of the barrels, wherein fellow brewers, homebrewers, beer judges, foodies and local beer luminaries will taste their way through the extensive barrel selection and vote for their favorite barrels. Once "The Rare Barrel" is found, its contents will be served at a party for the public, and the yeast and bacteria from that barrel will be re-used in the hopes of created another masterpiece.
Kudos to The Rare Barrel for helping to cultivate the wild side of brewing in our own backyard. While the beers mature, we'll do our best to cultivate some patience.