Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking with Alex Wallash from The Rare Barrel

Berkeley, California is a long way from the Zenne Valley, the home of what’s been traditionally thought of as the spot for sour beer. But Berkeley is where you will find The Rare Barrel, founded in late 2011 by Jay Goodwin, Brad Goodwin, and Alex Wallash. It’s no Cantillon, no Drie Fonteinen, no Brouwerij Boon. No, The Rare Barrel is quickly becoming something all its own. As an “all sour” brewery, The Rare Barrel has been helping lead the sour beer renaissance in the United States since opening its doors — certainly working to put it in its most recent spotlight. Sour beer isn't exactly a style' in the traditional sense, but like IPA and Pilsner of late, it's blowing up in its own way. Almost. Alex Wallash, the Director of Sales and Marketing at The Rare Barrel is all-in for the long term with sour beers — what he calls a “decades long experiment.” And if early GABF and WBC successes are any indication, the long-term looks very sour, and very good, for The Rare Barrel.

photo by Tyler Shaughnessy

photo by Tyler Shaughnessy

From the very outset of opening The Rare Barrel, you’ve been clear and deliberate in branding the brewery as an “all sour” brewery. What does “all sour” mean to you?

We’re absolutely an “all sour” brewery, we’re very sour. Sour beer is what we specialize in; that’s what we love. Sour beer is an umbrella for a lot of different beer styles, tart and acidic flavors. Light and subtle to heavy and bracingly sour. We hope that when we look back in 20 years, we will have learned more about sour beer and made better sour beer by focusing entirely on just that, instead of also trying to make a world-class IPA, pale ale, or stout. We pour some guest beers that are clean beers on tap in the tasting room, but we don’t brew any of our own. Every drop of beer that we produce is sour. It’s our passion.

Back in 2011, how do you develop that business model? How do you sit down with your co-founders, Brad and Jay, and make that decision to go entirely sour? You’re opening a brewery, starting a business, paying rent, sourcing barrels, paying for wort, all of this before you can ever sell a drop of sour beer. And in the meantime, you don’t have a pale ale or an IPA that you can sell in order to pay the bills. . .

It was a big gamble for us to focus entirely on sour beer. A lot of folks said we were crazy. Think of the best sour producers in America — New Belgium, Russian River, The Lost Abbey, Allagash, The Bruery — all these places brew world-class clean beers, too.

Ultimately, it was three things that led us to connect the dots and say "let’s just go all-in on sour." First, it was our own very deep interest in the beer style. Sour beer is what we loved to drink. Second, it was difficult and hard to find sour beer at the time; you had to search it out at a bottle shop or wait in line at a brewery release. We wanted to make sour beer more convenient and accessible. Third and finally, Jay had a lot of experience brewing and blending sour beer from his time at The Bruery, and we were confident that he could execute some great sour beer.

How much of that experience at The Bruery went into the planning for opening The Rare Barrel?

 

We have mad respect for The Bruery. They are a highly experimental and forward-thinking operation. The Rare Barrel would be a lot different today if Jay hadn’t worked there. We also borrowed some inspiration from The Bruery, simply based on how their facility and footprint was laid out. They were producing wort in one building and trucking it to another where they would inoculate and manage fermentation. They showed us that they could produce wort at an outside facility without compromising quality. We reached the decision that we wouldn’t have a brewery on-site, and we don’t own a brewhouse. A brewhouse — a mash tun, lauter, boil kettle — wouldn’t make sense for us at The Rare Barrel. It would collect dust because we wouldn’t be turning it every week. We’re not cranking volume.

You’re purchasing wort from what is essentially a contract brewery and then bringing it in-house for everything after that?

Yes, but we’re very different from the typical contract brewery. Our whole set-up is based around keeping costs down but ensuring that quality is entirely on-point. We wouldn’t be doing this if we couldn’t manage fermentation. So I wouldn’t consider what we do as “contract brewing” because we manage our fermentations. These are all our recipes for the sour bases, and then we absolutely manage all aspects of fermentation at our facility.

Instead, we joke around here that we’re “phantom brewing” because at the end of the brew day there aren’t any traces of us being at that facility. In-house, our production crew is focused on the fermentation side of brewing, as well as additions of fruits or spices and the blending of beers. I’m heavily focused on aspects that reach the outside of the company, as well as the customer experience.

So what’s your day-to-day look like as Director of Sales & Marketing for an award-winning sour brewery? Not too bad, huh?

Ah, it’s not like we’re pulling nails and tasting barrels all day long. Well, the production guys are pulling nails all day, every day, but not me. Every day is different. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s easy waking up in the morning because I love what I do. My job is working with people, and that’s what excites me the most. We have about ten employees that work with me in the tasting room and work on managing the club membership. Between those two outlets, we interact with a lot of customers, and I really enjoy those interactions.

Something that strikes me about the staff that you have — those ten employees — are just how tight-knit and positive and passionate they are. Y’all have an amazing brewery culture, how did — how do — you build that?

 

We don’t just have blind luck in finding the right people, it’s something that we actively work on. Other than producing the beer, building a brewery culture is the most important thing that Jay and Brad and I can do. When we first started interviewing people, it became a pivotal time for me in the history of the brewery. We had just started selling draft beer, we were doing construction in the tasting room, we were building the website, we were opening membership in the club — I was doing all of that. I was wearing too many hats.

So I viewed hiring and interviewing as something that was just getting in the way of tasks that I had to do, and it was extremely frustrating. Now it’s the opposite, it is the most important thing that I can do with my time. I’ve had a complete change in philosophy. I focus on asking the right questions of people. I make sure that they will be confident and a good fit, with the right skill set and personality for The Rare Barrel. My role as a manager is to empower each of our employees, build the culture from within.

Anything else, besides empowering folks and giving them everything that is necessary for them to succeed in their job and excel at their work?

 

Well, we don’t always focus on work. Jay and I went to UC Santa Barbara together, where we quickly got on board with the “work hard, play hard” philosophy. We have a cornhole league here at The Rare Barrel starting up next week, and the idea is that we’ll play one match a week. One hour on the clock where these folks just play cornhole and hang out with each other. It’s an easy decision as a business owner to pay them to play and relax and interact. I also have an active role in scheduling events with the staff. We do a thing called “Super Fundays,” where every few months we take the day off as a group and visit spots like St. George Spirits, Anchor Brewing, Cellarmaker, Faction. Our staff chooses to hang out with each other after work, and that puts a big fat smile on my face.

Sounds killer. Where do I apply? In all seriousness, though, I’ve been lucky to be incidentally involved with you guys almost since day one. I was at the preview day at your brewery when you were pouring your very first draft beers — beers with just numbers, no names. Then, I’ve been a member of the Founders club, and now your Ambassadors of Sour club. Talk a little about that.

The Ambassadors of Sour is our annual club membership. It’s something that we always wanted to have at The Rare Barrel, for two main reasons. First, it's a platform to provide an excellent customer experience. It lets people be a part of The Rare Barrel. It’s an access point to our brewery for people who want sour beer.

Second, there’s a convenience aspect to it. We don’t want to have bottle releases with massive lines and waiting and all that. I hate waiting in lines, and I don’t want our customers to have to do that either. We let people purchase beer online, and we'll hold it for them here so they can pick it up when they get the chance to visit. It’s all about creating that opportunity for a terrific experience — that day when you visit The Rare Barrel, taste a lot of amazing beers, and then leave with your box of membership beers. Or, if people live in California, we'll ship it directly to them. You never have to leave your couch to get some world-class sour beer.

So, when are y’all going to start delivering Rare Barrel bottles via carrier drone?

 

As soon as the FAA let’s us. Direct-to-consumer shipping in the beer industry is still a bit of the Wild West. It’s something that the wine folks have over us. It’d be nice to see some parity. My dream is to be able to ship our sour beers directly to the doorsteps and the beer fridges of anyone twenty-one years or older in all fifty states within the next ten years.

 

Do you see any risk in the membership program creating exclusivity around your beer? Some folks get shut out, right?

We’re getting there. Club launch is a very stressful day around here. It’s one day where we have to rely on technology, and we’re not experts in technology. The “good” is that we’ve seen more interest from people than we can take on into the club, and it’s awesome to see so many people interested in sour beer. The “bad” is that the club gets filled up, and on launch day that created a negative experience for folks. We brought on ten servers for the website, and those crashed immediately. We brought on more servers, fifty-six total, and got the website back up after about twenty minutes. Fifteen minutes after that happened, the club was sold-out. That means people sat there, hitting refresh, only to be denied membership. It’s thinking about a customer experience like that that haunts me.

I believe that. What’s the customer experience, on the other hand, that you are after?

Something that still excites me is that first introduction to sour beer. Opening up someone’s mind and palate. My first “a-ha” sour beer was from New Belgium — something I will never forget — La Folie. It wasn’t the first sour beer I tried, but it was the sour beer I’ll always remember because it was the first time I was ready for a sour beer. It’s not a traditional flavor profile. You have to position someone to try it out. For people who haven’t had a sour beer, we walk them through the “three-sip” rule. Keep an open mind and take a new perspective. The first sip will be something different, it will shock your palate. The second sip you will taste more of the beer, but you’re still getting into it. By the third sip, you’ll be cruising and tasting the beer like you should be.

Cruising, I love it.

Definitely not a bad place to be.

Q+A by Mike Sardina
Photo by Tyler Shaughnessy

Mike Sardina

Mike is a GBH storyteller who reports on the West Coast, most specifically his hometown of San Diego and his home state of California. Mike is the "Ruler of the Underworld" at Societe Brewing Company, where he does a little bit of everything for the brewery. Mike also currently serves as the Vice President of the San Diego Brewers Guild.

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