Good Beer Hunting

The Rare Barrel Returns its Namesake to Peter Bouckaert at Purpose Brewing

photo by  Matthew Curtis

In 1998, in the nascent world of American barrel-aged sour beer production, Peter Bouckaert at New Belgium Brewing sourced and purchased several wine barrels from a French cooper from Seguin Moreau in the city of Cognac, France. Bouckaert would fill these barrels with beer, of course, and two of the barrels received an acidification treatment prior to seeing beer. Those barrels were dubbed “pH1” and “pH2.”

Over time, Lauren Limbach (formerly Salazar), New Belgium’s Wood Cellar Manager, would come to inherit these historic barrels, along with hundreds more, as a part of La Folie’s production. In 2003, Lauren spearheaded a sensory panel to taste through all of the barrels in New Belgium’s collection, determining whether to keep the barrels, blend them, or put them on the market to be passed along.  pH1 was so characteristically representative of La Folie, so exceptionally distinctive, that it was never meant to leave the brewery. But somehow it disappeared.  

In 2005, Russian River co-founder Vinnie Cilurzo was entertaining brewers at his brewery in Santa Rosa. A group was gathered in the back of the house playing a game of washoes, New Belgium’s Salazar among them. One of the barrels caught her eye, and sure enough, scrawled on the side in Bouckaert’s handwriting was “pH1.” That special barrel, now filled with a beer that would become Russian River’s Beatification, was inexplicably there.

In 2014 Cilurzo decided to pay it forward, returning the barrel to New Belgium where it was folded back into use for the brewery’s sour beer production.  Meanwhile, Jay Goodwin, a brewer at The Bruery in Placentia, California, and his roommate and buddy Alex Wallash, were in the midst of opening an all-sour brewery. Their brewery would focus primarily on stainless and barrel fermentation—and barrel conditioning in order to produce sour beer.

“We heard this story about this barrel that started at New Belgium and went to Russian River,” Wallash tells GBH. “This great barrel that made great beer. We got inspired by the idea that there was one barrel that was better than the rest. We named our brewery after [that] one rare barrel.”

Finding commercial success with The Rare Barrel, Wallash and Goodwin became friendswith Salazar and the New Belgium team. Salazar eventually invited The Rare Barrel to blend a beer together and, as fate would have it, pH1 was selected and emptied for the final blend. Now empty, Salazar decided to send pH1 along to Berkeley, where the Rare Barrel production team filled it. It was later released as a single-barrel sour beer called Err on the Side of Awesome.

In May, Bouckaert announced he was transitioning out of the role he held at New Belgium for 21 years in order to open Purpose Brewing in Fort Collins, CO. And when Wallash and Goodwin traveled to Colorado last week for the Great American Beer Festival, they opted to bring along some extra baggage.

“We decided that giving pH1 to Peter at his new brewery was a perfect fit,” Wallash says. “He had such a big impact at New Belgium and for sour beer in the United States.”

On Thursday, Wallash and Goodwin walked into Purpose to deliver the barrel personally.

“It was emotional to see that barrel from 20 years back,” Bouckaert says. “It has to have a good home here. We’re going to take good care [of it], and then figure out the right place for it to go next.”

—Mike Sardina