Published in SLO New Times
Make your way down Chorro Street toward the creek, and you can’t miss it: an old fashioned white-and-teal barber chair sitting alongside a spinning antique barber pole. The sign above the storefront reads “BarrelHouse Brewing Company,” but the space smacks more of beard trim than beer.
Trust me here.
Step inside and you’ll find your first clue: A glass case filled with bottle openers forged from old railroad spikes. You’re getting warmer. A large print hangs above a narrow, descending staircase: hands overflowing with malt.
Go down, down, down the steps. Is that the faint, pungent scent of West Coast hops you smell?
Don’t lose your nerve now. You’re facing the secret door, fitted with a metal window the size of a deck of cards. Peer through. Aha! Now you can see what’s been going on below street level as the world grinds monotonously above.
Frothy, golden pint glasses are clinking, people are laughing; cheers erupt from a shuffleboard table across the room.
You just discovered BarrelHouse Brewing Company’s long-awaited San Luis Obispo taproom, which—if you catch my drift—feels a lot like a Prohibition-era speakeasy.
Co-owners Jason Carvalho and Kevin Nickell crafted it that way. They’re contractors by trade; beer lovers at heart.
Opened in 2013, their flagship Templeton taproom and brewhouse features a rustic, breezy beer garden complete with waterfall and flatbed truck-turned-stage. The SLO location, housed in a historic building built around the turn of 19th century, is the “city” version of that—although you can’t really take the “country” out of these Central Valley natives.
Case in point: The ancient double-barrel shotgun hanging above the rusted beer tap; the reclaimed wood furniture they crafted themselves; the portrait of a youngish Abe Lincoln, looking naked without his top hat. Once a dirt floor basement, the revamped space shares a brick wall with San Luis Obispo Creek.
You gotta hand it to these two: They know how to create beer you want to drink in a place you want to hang out.
“Back during Prohibition days, there was always a ‘business front’ for what was going on behind the scenes,” Carvalho said during a quiet morning tour. “Where else can you go downtown for a straight-razor shave, then pick from 16 to 20 different beers on tap and enjoy them while looking out on downtown?”
Although the two-chair barbershop won’t be operational until next month, the taps are currently working just fine (18 standard beers and anywhere from four to six sours are available on draft). Amazingly, the team didn’t buy a lick of advertising. Instead, they let the mysterious momentum grow.
Maybe that’s why hundreds of people showed up to the brewery’s Jan. 8 grand opening, as evidenced in a black-and-white photo on the wall. On that night, a boisterous line snaked around the block past nearby Luna Red, all for the love of craft beer.
“We want this taproom to be a unique and different experience for people, and that’s why it will focus more on the barrel-aged and sour beers,” Carvalho said. “You can go downtown and get a lot of the same kinds of beers, or you can come here and get stuff you just can’t get anywhere else, like our Grog, a brown sugar imperial ale aged in rum barrels.”
Another fave of Carvalho’s: the Curly Wolf, a rich maple bourbon stout served on nitro, giving the dark beer an unbelievable creamy texture (tip: buy a growler and make ice cream floats for your friends).
Then, there’s the sours, which have made a huge splash on the craft beer world. Fresh flavors include BarrelHouse’s Wild Dapple Fire, a sunset orange brew with ripe stone fruit and a woody funk, as well as the Wild Peacot, the brewery’s second 2014 vintage barrel select release, fermented with local organic peacot (yup—that’s a crazy hybrid of peach and apricot). The brewery’s first barrel select sour release is a honeysuckle-infused blonde sour with late-harvest riesling. Wine people, you will need to try this.
Barrel aged for 12 to 18 months and released only when they’ve reached that optimal level of tang, the sours are available seasonally. A new sour facility and outdoor music venue is currently under construction at the Templeton location—a damning sign for folks who assumed the “sour trend” would fizzle out like last summer’s top 40 hits.
And if you’re one of those people, it’s OK. You can still grab a pint of Tropical Wheat ale, Sunny Daze Citrus Blonde, or Rye IPA (my personal favorite). No judgments here.
“Every time you come in, it’s a new experience, because we’ll constantly be rotating in new sour, barrel-aged, and forager beers,” Carvalho said.
Note: Forager beers include Night Ryder Imperial Black Rye IPA, among other seasonal offerings. The brewery started with 1,000 barrels in its first year, and now produces 5,000, so it’s safe to say there will be more styles to come.
That’s why I suggest you get down there and see what’s new for yourself. You might even run into head brewer George Numair, who will be on-hand to take questions during release events.
“This is the first place you can try new beers,” Carvahlo said. “We’re kegging down our brown ale for the first time today. That means it will be available here this afternoon. It can’t get any fresher than that.”
Down at the speakeasy, it’s all about fresh beer mixed with old ideals: work hard, play hard, early to bed, early to rise (the taproom closes promptly at 10 p.m.).
And although Carvalho swore there is no “secret password” to get in, he is secretly guarding the brewery’s third location, currently in the works.
Yes, you heard right. Another taproom is slated to open this year. Where could it be possibly be located? In a treehouse overlooking San Simeon? An old rail car in Santa Margarita? Nestled within the loft of a weathered barn in Arroyo Grande?
This plot twist calls for another round. Here’s looking at you, Abe.