By outward appearance, pH1 is an ordinary 60-gallon barrel. Constructed from French oak staves by Seguin Moreau Cooperage, it spent nearly a decade in the Napa Valley wine trade before being sold first to a broker and then to New Belgium Brewing Co. in 1997.
Brewmaster Peter Bouckaert, formerly of Rodenbach Brewery in Roeselare, Belgium, had recently joined the Colorado-based brewery when it acquired a small stash of barrels to experiment with making barrel-aged sour beers. Someone scrawled “pH1,” “pH2,” “pH3,” and so forth on the barrelheads to identify them.
The resulting beer, a sour brown ale called La Folie, soon distinguished itself at the Great American Beer Festival by winning a bronze medal in 2000 and gold the following two years—long before American-made sour beers were a thing. And pH1 stood out for its unique mix of bacteria and wild yeast. “It’s a very well-rounded barrel, microbiology-wise,” Bouckaert says. “It makes a very fruity, estery beer.”
New Belgium sold off its original stash of barrels as its sour program grew and the brewery transitioned to aging in foeders. Bouckaert sent four barrels to Vinnie Cilurzo, owner of Russian River Brewing Company in Sonoma County, Calif., who agreed to forward two on to mutual friend Tomme Arthur at Port Brewing Co. in San Marcos, Calif. (Arthur went on to found The Lost Abbey.)
Cilurzo filled both his barrels with a blonde ale and didn’t think much of it until New Belgium’s Lauren Woods Salazar paid a visit. “We went back to the barrel room at our Santa Rosa brewpub and, in the same breath, Lauren was cursing Peter while also shedding tears of joy as she put her eyes on pH1,” Cilurzo says. “She was pissed at Peter for giving pH1 away, but she was also very happy it hadn’t become a planter like many of the other pH barrels had.”
Cilurzo bottled the resulting beers separately and included the story on a special label he wrote for Beatification, batch 1 – pH1. Cilurzo then used pH1 to help start Russian River’s spontaneously fermented beer program before shipping it back to New Belgium as a surprise for Salazar.
A few years later, Salazar invited Jay Goodwin and Alex Wallash, co-founders of The Rare Barrel in Berkeley, Calif., to Colorado to collaborate on a blend that included a portion of dark, sour ale aged in pH1. Salazar later surprised Goodwin and Wallash by shipping them the storied vessel that had inspired their brewery’s name.
When Bouckaert departed New Belgium to co-found Purpose Brewing and Cellars, Goodwin and Wallash knew pH1’s next move. “I was definitely surprised,” Bouckaert says. “They just stopped by and we started sipping some beers, and suddenly that barrel rolled in.”
Bouckaert had also reacquired pH2 by that point, and he placed the barrels side-by-side for the first time in more than two decades.
In October 2020, Bouckaert emptied pH1 for a final time, loaded it into the trunk of his car and drove to Side Project Brewing in St. Louis, Mo., where he delivered pH1 to brewer Cory King.
“Absolutely I was surprised,” King says. “The original pH1 batch from Russian River is one of those beers that I never had the chance to experience. Having that exact barrel here in our brewery, for us to experiment with, is a huge honor.”
King plans to first fill pH1 with a saison, “but fermented entirely with saccharomyces and none of our mixed culture, to let the barrel do its magic,” he says. “Once the cultures from the barrel are ‘revived,’ we may try to do a longer-aged wild ale.
“Then we’ll start thinking about where it should travel next.”
So the legacy continues.