Based out of Berkeley, California, The Rare Barrel is an exclusively-sour beer brewery at the forefront of the sour beer renaissance (currently the hottest trend in craft beer). In a pool of heavyweight breweries– think de Garde, Jolly Pumpkin, Lost Abbey, Almanac, Jester King, Wicked Weed — The Rare Barrel is, arguably, the best in the world right now at what they do.
Sour beer is complex, expensive and still largely misunderstood by the majority of beer drinkers. While almost always fermented with tart fruits, it is, in fact, the unique bacteria strains and barrel aging process that give sour beer their unique tart and funky taste. If you’ve never tried one, the best description is like drinking a cross between white wine and lemonade, with varying degrees of tartness. Sour beer is on the opposite spectrum of the bitter hop-bomb IPAs that have dominated the craft beer landscape over the five years. In that respect, they are refreshing, in more ways than one.
Situated in an industrial neighborhood, The Rare Barrel’s facility looks more like a warehouse than a brewery. It’s 20+ foot ceilings are stacked to the brim with rows of barrel racks, each filled with beers that need time (some, several years) to mature. Each barrel is like a fingerprint, imparting it’s own unique flavor profile to the batch as it ferments.
And there really is a search for that rare barrel amongst their collection. Each year, beer sommeliers and enthusiasts alike sample from each of the barrels in the warehouse, until they’ve come to a consensus on the best batch. That barrel is deemed the Rare Barrel.
I’ve visited The Rare Barrel a half dozen times, and each time they have an array of blends on tap, several bottles for purchase and a delicious sourdough grilled cheese to pair with your beer (and pair you should!). Unlike most other breweries today, The Rare Barrel does not offer growler fills to the general public. Given the rarity of what they’re producing, they simply can’t keep up with demand. If you want a growler filled, you need to be one of the lucky few who lands a membership in their Ambassador of Sour club. If I l lived in NoCal, no doubt, I’d want to join that club!
Tip: Finding The Rare Barrel’s bottles outside of the brewery is legendarily difficult. On my last trip, I was led to a local grocery store down the block from the brewery called Berkeley Bowl West. Here, you’ll find several bottles that you can’t get in the brewery, along with bottles from many other fantastic breweries. The grocery store is also a great spot for hard to find cheeses and delicious ethnic treats.