Jay Goodwin of The Rare Barrel

Going Pro by | Jul 2014 | Issue #90

When Jay Goodwin co-founded The Rare Barrel, a tiny, sours-only brewery in Berkeley, Calif., he knew he’d be trading in a niche within a niche. “For hardcore beer drinkers, sour beer is one of the extremes of the beer world,” Goodwin says. At the same time, he’s surprised at how accessible their obscure, barrel-aged beers have been to non-beer geeks. Goodwin says he brews and blends American sours: He wants to push the boundaries of what Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, Pedioccocus, oak and time can do. Recent releases have included a sour Saison spiced with coriander, grains of paradise and chamomile; a dry-hopped Golden Ale; and a Golden with lemon peels and green tea that’s Goodwin’s answer to an Arnold Palmer. “The name sour might throw you off,” Goodwin says, “but the flavors remind you of things you’re used to.”

1. Chase the dream
Jay Goodwin found craft beer through his college roommate, and eventual Rare Barrel co-founder, Alex Wallash. Wallash homebrewed in their college apartment, and they talked idly about starting their own brewery one day, a brewery where Wallash would make the beers, and Goodwin would run point on sales and marketing. “We weren’t very good at it at the time,” Goodwin says of those apartment homebrew sessions, but the idea of launching their own brewery was “always in the back of our minds.” Along the way, the roles swapped: Wallash, the homebrewer with a biology background, landed a sales job, while Goodwin hooked on as an assistant at The Bruery.

2. Push the limits
Goodwin came to The Bruery when the Orange County facility was still in its infancy. He mopped floors, put in time on 13-hour-long bottling runs, and did whatever else he had to do to get his foot in the door. Goodwin started out as a hired hand, then worked his way up to brewer, and later, to head of The Bruery’s barrel-aging program. The Bruery taught Goodwin how to really brew. More importantly, it challenged his palate. “The beers coming out of there at the time were pretty experimental,” he recalls. “We were brewing with different yeasts, barrel aging, exotic ingredients. It was a blast. I never would have imagined getting those flavors out of beer.”

3. Chase good climates
Goodwin and Wallash are both Bay Area natives. They came home to launch their all-sour brewing project, the Rare Barrel, because the moderate temperatures around Berkeley help maintain healthy yeast and bacterial cultures during the long barrel-aging process. Just as important, Goodwin argues, is the beer-drinking climate around Berkeley, San Francisco and Oakland that the Rare Barrel plugged into. “There’s a great tradition of brewing here, and a lot of new small breweries people are excited about. We launched in Russian River’s backyard. They laid the groundwork for teaching people what sour beer is, what good sour beer tastes like. We’re riding their coattails.”

4. Make the market
The Rare Barrel brews sour beers exclusively because, Goodwin says, there aren’t nearly enough sours on the shelves. “If you want to go get an IPA, you can go get 50 awesome IPAs around here,” he says. “Other people are doing sour beers really well, but the volumes are so low, it’s hard to get. We love sour beers, and we want more of it. The flavors you get from sour beers are so unique. You can’t find them in any other food or beverage. It’s maybe the oldest style in beer, but there’s a complex fermentation that’s not well understood—it seems mystical. There’s a lot of intrigue.”

5. Celebrate the mystical
Almost all the beer the Rare Barrel brews gets sold through the brewery’s tasting room. The brewery doesn’t make enough beer to distribute widely right now. But even as the Rare Barrel grows, Goodwin plans to keep the brewery tasting room as a place to introduce people to sour beer. The tasting room is the brewery’s only direct avenue for customer interaction; Goodwin tries to use it to sell not just his own beers, but to sell sour styles in general. “We think it’s our responsibility to make it an awesome experience, to make them feel that this is a special thing, a mystical thing. So when they go somewhere else and see sour beer on the menu, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I love sour beer.’ It’s what Russian River did before us. It’s our responsibility to keep stewarding sour beer.”

6. Cross over
Rare Barrel drinkers fall into three rough categories: hardcore beer geeks, crossover wine drinkers and sour newbies. Goodwin describes sour beer as “a crossover beer, through the back door,” because sours have light, acidic notes that are familiar to drinkers who are turned off by bitter beers. “I hear, over and over, ‘I don’t like beer, but I like this.’ Sour beer immediately reminds people of wine, champagne, cider, kombucha—all these things that are really gaining in popularity. People who don’t like beer, but who are willing to try something new, really like sour beer.”

7. Experiment, slowly
“We try to be as experimental as possible,” Goodwin says. He brews the vast majority of the Rare Barrel’s beer with no set plan for what the final product will look like. He keeps three base recipes—a Golden Ale, a Red and a Dark—in constant production, spiking them with different blends of Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus. He’ll spin the beers off in different directions by tweaking fermentation temperatures and oxygenation levels; when blending time comes, the brewery staff will sit around a table, playing with blends from different barrels and secondary ingredients, like fruit and spices. “We ask, what are our blending assets, and how do we move them around to make the most compelling beer possible?” Goodwin says. “It’s a decades-long experiment. We’re willing to try everything once, and willing to take our time.”

8. Play it by ear
Two Rare Barrel brews that medaled at this year’s World Beer Cup show Goodwin’s approach to brewing and blending in action. One batch of sour dark tasted better on its own than it did blended or spiced; it became the Oud Bruin-style release Shadows of their Eyes. Another batch of sour Dark came off as too roasty, so Goodwin blended it with a batch of assertively sour Red, and then played up the blend’s tartness by aging it on raspberries. “When they came together, they were awesome, and the sum was greater than the parts,” Goodwin says. The blend, dubbed Ensorcelled, won a gold.

9. Extend your reach
The Rare Barrel launched with a loyalty club that gives members first dibs on a number of specialty releases. The effort was partly a way to raise capital during the brewery’s early days, and partly a way to build relationships with its best customers. Most importantly, though, the club has become an opportunity for Goodwin and Wallash to test a California-wide online distribution network. As production increases, the Rare Barrel will open online distribution to the public. “We want to make it easier for people to get sour beer,” Goodwin says. “The biggest thing is getting like-minded people on the same page.”