At 1pm sharp a garage door groaned and lifted to life, letting in the sunlight. The taproom manager opens the front door and greets a few waiting customers. Upon entry your eyes adjust to the dimly lit tasting room, behind which lies a warehouse with hundreds of oak barrels. A small staff begins taking orders and answering questions for several first-time visitors. Brewer's from Southern California introduce themselves, in town for an event in Sacramento but making sure to visit several buzz-worthy Bay Area beer spots.
This isn’t your typical brewery. They don’t actually produce wort onsite, they don’t produce IPA’s and Stouts, and their fermentation is primarily done in wood with limited time spent in stainless. Beers here are made with mysterious yeast and bacteria with names such as brettanomyces and lactobacillus. These odd bugs create pungently tart but equally refreshing beers infused with berries, hibiscus, and a variety of other ingredients. Welcome to The Rare Barrel… home of the infamous PH1.
PH1 has already been written about in great detail by much greater bloggers than I (Here, Here, and Here) but in a nutshell the story goes like this:
While working at New Belgium Brewing, Peter Bouckaert (former brewmaster at Rodenbach) assigned co-worker Lauren Salazar the task of labeling which of their barrels to keep, which to blend, and which to dump. These barrels house unique blends of yeast and bacteria deep in the pores of the wood which will create the character of the souring beer inside. PH1, a barrel that had been integral to some of NBB’s early sours including the development of "La Folie", was a keeper and one of Lauren’s favorites. This, however, did not prevent Peter from giving the barrel to Vinnie Cilurzo at Russian River who used it to create their famous wild sour “Beautification”. The barrel was eventually gifted back to Lauren before making it's way to its current home at The Rare Barrel.
This post, however, is not just about PH1. Rather, what it represents: Experimentation. Not as a novelty or as a side thought but as an integral part of a business model.
New breweries, born in the era of constantly rotating handles, have to introduce new variations at a rapid pace to stay relevant in today's beer market. Gone are the days of perfecting and mass marketing a couple year-round offerings. Instead you have new flavors, ingredients, and experiences with every release. What I find incredible is, despite constant change and rotation, there are breweries who are hitting the mark in terms of quality and drinkability nearly every time. Here in Northern California you have young breweries such as Fieldwork putting out a constantly rotating IPA, Faction and Henhouse putting out base beers with changing hop additions, and Almanac putting out their base sour with seasonal change in fruit additions. With rare exception these beers and all their variations are fantastic.
It's not just up-and-coming breweries, however, that are pushing the limits with small batch and rotating specialty beers or variations on classics. Producers such as Lagunitas, who already had a well known seasonal lineup with occasional new additions, recently added their "One Hitter" series and have released a variation of their pale ale with an addition of blood orange and another with wet hops from the Pacific Northwest. Anchor Brewing recently released a dry-hopped version of their classic steam beer, a mango wheat, and a lemon lager.
The Rare Barrel is preparing for this weekend's "Search for the rare barrel"...the culmination of all their experiments. Each of their hundreds of barrels has developed its own unique microbial environment and character. Through careful selection with the help of their customers they hope to find one special barrel. This process, inspired by the story of PH1, will help them evolve their barrel-aging program by using the contents of the selected barrel to inoculate new barrel additions.
Experimentation, when built into the very fabric of a company, is not static. Experimentation is by its very nature the act of moving towards some new target. You may reach that target only to discover, for better or worse, you've landed somewhere you weren't expecting. Sometimes you've gone so far there is no turning back. I think it's worth the risk.