Sitting across from him at one of the communal tables in the cavernous space of The Rare Barrel brewery, one could easily take Alex Wallash for a Cal student knocking back a few on a Friday afternoon, or (there’s something just a bit too laid-back surfer dude in the carriage of that 6′ 4″ frame and perpetually windswept shock of soft brown hair for the typical Berkeley undergrad) perhaps a visitor up for the weekend from UCLA or UCSB. Alex, however, is actually a co-owner and manager of this popular Berkeley brewpub that specializes in barrel-aged ‘sour’ beers. Your first impression wouldn’t be far off, though: he did graduate from Santa Barbara…and is an avid surfer.
Alex, all of 32 years old, is a CALM swimmer who splits his swimming between the early morning and mid-day workouts in the 1:30 lane. He began his love affair with surfing growing up in Morgan Hill as the eldest of four siblings (and the only boy). After getting his driver’s license, he and a friend regularly made the hour-long drive to Santa Cruz to learn and hone their surfing chops. Came time to go to college, he matriculated at UCSB, a campus renowned as a surfer’s mecca. Alex did go surfing some at Santa Barbara, but “…my focus was really more on classes…and staying out late,” he says. He majored in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology with a minor in Entrepreneurship–not a curriculum compatible with a lot of beach time–and was aiming at medical school and becoming a doctor. His enthusiasm for a career in medicine was tempered a bit, though, when the doctors he worked with during a year-long internship at a hospital initiated him into the realities of being a physician-in-training. “All the doctors would tell me ‘don’t do it’,” he says, “they all said ‘your lifestyle is terrible, you’re not going to have any personal life…only do it if all you want is to be a doctor’.”
Then, at the beginning of his senior year at Santa Barbara, something happened that entirely changed his outlook. Soon after receiving his motorcycle license, he went to visit an uncle in Colorado. While on a motorcycle ride in the mountains there, a front fork of the bike he was riding detached from the handlebars. The front tire shimmied uncontrollably, and Alex was thrown from the bike and over the side of a cliff. He was seriously injured; lost four pints of blood and his spleen, had broken ribs, pericarditis and a punctured lung. “I almost died,” he says, “…I was a level 10 trauma patient at [the hospital they took him to], but I lived…and it really shifted my focus. Before that, I was really interested in prolonging life, and that was my interest in medical school…but, after that, it was more like, what’s the point in trying to extend life if you can die at any moment? Better to enjoy the present, and what you have.”
For his first “field trip” after weeks in the hospital following the accident, his uncle, an award-winning home brewer, took him on a tour of the New Belgium brewery in Fort Collins, where Alex experienced an epiphany of sorts that would determine his career path going forward: “I realized that brewing is using the science of biology to make art.”
Back in Santa Barbara, while taking a quarter off to recuperate from his injuries, Alex followed up on his newly discovered interest by starting to brew beer at home with a friend and roommate from college. After finishing his degree and graduating, he and his friend continued to develop their home brewing moxie. A few years later, the two friends decided to start a brewing business in earnest, together with his friend’s father to help them with the legal and financial aspects. Looking for a commercial space in the Bay Area, they found and rented a spacious, but relatively cheap (because it lacked a sewer connection and running water) warehouse in west Berkeley. They made the necessary renovations, but kept the raw industrial look of the space with only a few aesthetic modifications, and opened The Rare Barrel five years ago.
As the first brewery in the entire USA to specialize in barrel-aged sour beers, success came early and often. Beginning with some of their initial offerings they have garnered no fewer than three World Beer Cup awards, and have also won three awards at the Great American Beer Festival! The Rare Barrel is now rated one of the top 30 breweries world-wide by Untapped, a popular beer-rating app. “We’ve had some successes,” Alex (under)states,”but there’s no finish line…we’re just constantly trying to make better beers.”
For the first several years of its existence, the only in-house food served at The Rare Barrel was a grilled cheese sandwich, albeit a very high quality one. Recently, however, Alex and his partners responded to popular demand for increased food options with the same attention to quality and detail they put into the making of their beers. Having engaged the services of a chef (formerly the executive chef at Berkeley’s Gather restaurant) plus a line cook, the brew pub now offers a ten-item menu featuring mostly small plates and appetizers. The selections are high quality (the smoked potatoes are to die for), but they intend to keep it simple: “We wanted a food menu that complemented the beer, but still be a brewery and bar first.”
Alex’s fascination with the science and art of brewing sour beers remains undiminished. “The science side, that was my gateway into it,” he says, “…but then the other side is: beer brings people together; it gets you to live in the present, whether it’s hanging out with friends, having conversation over a beer, or, maybe you’re just by yourself and you sit for a moment and you smell it…you experience those aromas and flavors and you just zone out for ten seconds…so beer is experiential. That’s why I got into beer, those two things…the ironic part of it is,” he laughs, “I didn’t want to be a doctor and spend my whole life working, and now I’m running a business, and…you know, I worked 13 hours yesterday!”
Between the rigors of running a small business, however, Alex still finds time to pursue his love for surfing, and, now, swimming. A couple of years ago, looking for a way to keep in shape for surfing, especially during the winter, Alex decided to try lap swimming. Despite an abortive experience trying to join a summer swim team as a sixth-grader (“I hated it–felt like I was drowning the whole time. I convinced my parents to let me quit, and that was it”), he joined CALM, where he started a new lane all by himself that he terms the “un-timed” lane. “The first year was torture,” he says. With Tiffany coaching him up, and after upping his swims to 4 days/week he soon found himself in a timed lane: the 1:40. Not long after he moved up to 1:30, where his current lane-mates agree he is only stopping for a cup of coffee on his way to faster intervals. “Now it’s what I call ‘meditative torture’,” he jokes.
The workouts have indeed improved his surfing, helping him to out-paddle people and catch waves he couldn’t get to before–and surfing is still his priority. “When the waves are good, I’m going surfing,” he says, rising at 5am on days the surf is promising and still managing to be at work between 9 and 10. He owns no fewer than 7 surfboards for varying conditions, and has learned to have most of them painted teal or blue. Those are his wife, Brittany’s (they were married last July) favorite colors, which means the boards can stay in the house instead of being kept in the garage.
Brittany is a nurse at Kaiser, which befits a family pattern that Alex, having forsaken his own medical ambitions, seems unable to completely shake: of his three younger sisters, one is also a nurse and another is training to be one. Alex notes that for a for someone with his history of traumatic injuries having a nurse for a spouse is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Brittany isn’t squeaked out by it–she’s accustomed to the like–and worse; on the other, Alex, lacking his spleen–an organ that plays an important role in the immune system–has to be especially careful to remain healthy and watch his exposure to pathogens. Thus, after a shift at the hospital, Brittany has to shower and change out of her scrubs before they can really be around each other. As one can imagine, this was a bit of a tough sell early on in their relationship, but Brittany is fully on board now.
Also on board after being less than sanguine about his career change when he first announced it, are Alex’s parents, as evidenced by their frequent visits to Berkeley from Morgan Hill. They’ve become familiar faces at The Rare Barrel–so much so that the joke among staffers is that more regulars recognize his parents than Alex or his partners.
If you haven’t been to the Rare Barrel yet yourself (Alex has already generously hosted a couple of CALM social occasions there), it’s well worth a visit. Even if beer is not your thing, there’s wine, great food and atmosphere. But–really–try the beer.
They call it sour beer, but it’s made for a pretty sweet life for Alex Wallash.