For a number of years my parents have traveled to Paso Robles Wine Country. Each year they'd ask me to tag along and this September, I finally did. But I didn't go for the wine. Instead, I went for the beer, specifically, BarrelHouse Brewing Company. BHBC is in the midst of 200-plus wineries — and no small task, they're carving out a space for their craft beer to thrive in the depths of Merlots and Cabernets.
Lead brewer, Mathew Jacobs, lead me through the brewhouse while head brewer, George Numair, worked over a batch of BarrelHouse IPA — the Meheen bottling line puffed in full force in the background. Jacobs explained their all-hands-on-deck approach to brewing, fully aware of their geographical location, with a giant Foeder (traditionally a large oak wine vat) five-feet away. The 2,000 gallon French Oak Foeder is the latest addition to their arsenal of supplies purchased from local wineries, and was originally used for California reds. But here, it's intended to create a six-percent ABV blonde beer. "Depending on how the oak character comes out," Jacobs explains, "we may end up doing some blending later on."
Although the Foeder is Jacobs' newest toy, the wall of wine barrels is his playground — more than twenty barrels are currently aging sour beers. Jacobs climbed the barrels like a farm hand over a wired fence to reach a sour that's been barreled for 14 months. This particular sour had a complexity of apricot, pineapple, and peachy characteristics with a rich finish. This will be their first sour beer to be packaged in a cork and cage, a Champagne-style bottle that Jacobs designed himself. "I hope the package stands out," Jacobs mutters.
BarrelHouse's experimentation with sour beers is a result of the clientele that drops by a brewery in Paso Robles. "We get a lot of people wine tasting and they end up here at the end of the day," Jacobs said. "You have a lot of people who say they really don't like beer and ask for wine — half the group likes beer, half the group doesn't."
But like many contemporary sour producers, Jacobs knows that sours can be the perfect crossover beer for wine connoisseurs. "I love sour beers and one of the reasons why is because I love wine," Jacobs admits. "I love how much complexity you can get out of a sour beer, unlike many others." From the barrel room to the beer garden we work our way through their current releases. Great sours in a beer garden is what makes BHBC a destination in a region full of wineries. In fact, co-founder Chris Vaughn credits the beer garden with keeping everything afloat when the doors first opened.
The stainless steel brewhouse with an open ceiling and large wooden tables provides a comfortable urban renewal feel. But the beer garden is special. In the middle of the yard rests a broken-down work truck, who's bed doubles as a stage for musical entertainment. The stage gets good use, too, as live events take shape every weekend. This being a Friday afternoon, It was a perfect way to experience the brewery from the bones of the operation to the jubilation that beer, combined with friends, strangers, and music could provide. By late afternoon, the wooden picnic tables fill up across the large yard with a dozen teachers having a post-school cocktail and two couples capping off their day of wine tasting.
The beers. Templeton, a crisp session ale crafted for the end of a long wine tasting day. The limited release, Brazz Monkey, a smooth honey-citrus beer with a taste reminiscent of a mimosa. Although their menu offers a few selections for wine connoisseurs and novice beer drinkers, Vaughn maintains that BHBC is crafting unique offerings for beer enthusiasts. "We don't want to be for the masses," Vaughn explained. "We want to be for the 20 percent."
This vision became clear further into the portfolio. Down the line, the beers displayed the complexity and imagination BHBC prides themselves on, like Heidbanger, an Red Rye Scotch Ale that was prepared in rye whiskey barrels released in October. Jacobs revealed the bottle, with a grizzled-haired, bearded man planted in between "Heid" and "Banger." It had a parcel of flavors, including rye notes and an oaky finish.
The Scotch Ale exemplifies BarrelHouse's goal of innovating new beers and new tastes with each batch. Heidbanger is a part of their "clean barrels" projects. Along with rye barrels, Numair, Jacobs, and cellar master, Gavin Warnock, are playing with bourbon and rum barrels. Similarly, Curly Wolf is a maple vanilla Imperial Stout, aged for six months in 11-year-old bourbon barrels, undoubtedly a stout brewed for the beer fanatic. The diverse blend of ingredients creates a savory oak and sweetness that smoothly quenches the palate.
It's hard to believe that this area was once desolate. Along with the emptiness, according to Vaughn, the neighborhood wasn't even a safe place before they started construction of the brewery. Now, I sit here with five-ounce glasses of beer under the California sun, with a constructed waterfall flowing and a band tuning their instruments for an evening concert. "It's all about the experience," Vaughn acknowledges.
Constructing the brewery was a DIY project headed by owners Jason Carvalho and Kevin Nickell and co-founder, Vaughn — three friends that all grew up together. Carvalho and Nickell own a contracting business and have been homebrewing for years. When the daily grind of the business wasn't fun anymore, they decided to collaborate with friends on a new journey. They bought a brewhouse from a Canadian brewery and traveled up North to dismantle it before having it shipped back to California. Only a short time later, they're making new friends with that piece of equipment: "Our Spring release was a session IPA that we did in collaboration with Green Flash," says Jacobs, "and that turned out great."
Jacobs, who grew up in the wine industry, is known by his coworkers for admiring people in the local wine business. Even the Templeton Ale is described as a tribute to their friends in the community. BHBC is succeeding in Paso Robles because they developed a company that's supported by that community. In fact, local wineries regularly recommend BarrelHouse to tourists passing through the area. With a smile and a handshake they've fashioned relationships that enable them to borrow supplies, fruits, and education.
But even with friends on both sides, BHBC is a young company, vigorously growing, and developing more exploratory tastes to help them succeed — particularly in an area known for yielding rare, exceptional flavors in their alcohol. "You're trying to dig through the layers and find the complexity and depth — then it evolves in the glass," explains Jacobs, as though he were a man making beer in Paso Robles.