Interview: FiftyFifty Brewing co-founders Andy Barr and Alicia Barr

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Craft Beer California

Alicia Barr and husband Andy Barr spent more than a decade working together at Hewlett-Packard, left the tech world and headed for the mountains to launch FiftyFifty Brewing in Truckee. On December 19, the Barrs appeared at Santa Monica’s Library Alehouse to help promote the launch of Los Angeles distribution with several rare bourbon barrel-aged beers. We met on the patio and the couple shared several hop and malt-inspired insights.

How did you end up in Truckee?

Alicia Barr: We both grew up in the north Central Valley in California. We met in Roseville, while working at Hewlett-Packard. His family has had a house up in Truckee, for probably 20 years now, that we used to vacation to every weekend in the summer. We’d going skiing a lot in the winter, and finally we realized, instead of just traveling up here all the time for the weekend, we’d love to find a way to live up there full-time, because it’s such a beautiful area, lots of outdoor activities, away from all the hubbub. That’s what finally prompted us to move that direction.

At what point did you know you’d make the career change?

Alicia Barr: After being in corporate suburbia for about 10 years, we realized we wanted out of the rat race, we wanted out of the corporate life, the suburban life, and we came up with a three-year plan to quite, move to the mountains and figure out some kind of business to do. We realized pretty quickly that we really loved beer and food. Every time we went on vacation, we would always look for a local brewery to go to. We wanted something career wise that was much more directly involved with people, versus sitting in a cubicle for 40 hours a week, 50 hours a week, plugging away at a computer. So after two years, we decided we were close enough. We sold everything, quit our jobs, and moved up the hill to start a brewery.

Had you brewed at that point?

Andy Barr: We were home brewing, but not super extensively. We’d done a little bit of catering, because there was a restaurant associated with it also. The real goal was to start a manufacturing brewery up in Truckee, and we had no commercial experience at all.

Did you replicate any of your homebrews commercially?

Andy Barr: No, not even close.

Alicia Barr: We knew just enough to be dangerous. We knew the basic process, but we quickly realized that brewing something in a five-gallon pot, on a stove, in your kitchen, is a lot different than brewing a 500-gallon batch consistently, over and over again, so we hired a brewer who had the experience and background to do it on a commercial level, and then we could focus on running the business end of it.

Is the original brewer still with you?

Andy Barr: Yes he is.

How did you decide how to hire him?

Andy Barr: We solicited resumes.

Alicia Barr: We found him on the internet.

Andy Barr: Yeah, we found him on the internet. We got lucky. He’s one of the top brewers in the country. Timing just worked out. He happened to be transitioning out of the Allied Trade, working for a malting group. He previously brewed in a number of breweries, with a small stint in the malting group, and he was transitioning back into breweries when we happened to be soliciting resumes…We got 15 resumes overnight. Basically, he was the cream of the crop. It just happened to work out. He was originally from the California area. He was looking to move back and move back into a small start-up.

Alicia Barr: He was out in the Midwest when we found him.

Andy Barr: His name’s Todd Ashman.

What was the very first homebrew that you made, and how did it turn out?

Andy Barr: Cranberry porter. It was a holiday beer. It was a porter that we racked on cranberries for awhile. It was actually quite good.

Alicia Barr: The carbonation had some issues.

Andy Barr: We struggled with the bottle fermentation.

Alicia Barr: The first batch we did, we probably lost a third of each bottle just to foaming at the top because we over-carbonated it, but flavor wise, it actually turned out quite good.

What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work at FiftyFifty?

Alicia Barr: We’re looking for a team player. We left the big corporate world for a reason, and that was to have more of a mom and pop, family feel. We like to call our restaurant a big, dysfunctional family. We’re all good friends as well as business partners together, but most of these people who love the beer culture, are really into the craft idea…We’re not pumping out mass volumes of something on the bland side. We’re trying to do something really unique and innovative, and somebody who really embraces the teamwork concept of working altogether to achieve a common purpose.

Andy Barr: That would be the H.R. answer, because she does H.R. for us. We do want to do something different. We want to do it with somebody who has a novel approach, also has a lot of passion, is interested in doing something different, and also hopefully somebody that we can get along with.

What does a beer have to be in order for it to fill your tanks?

Andy Barr: It has to taste good. We’ve won numerous GABF awards, etcetera, but we do brew beers that pay deference to traditional style guidelines. The only that really matters is, if it tastes good, it is good. It has to taste good. We’re such a small brewery. We’re going to do less than 1000 barrels again this year, because, basically, our physical infrastructure is tiny. We do bigger beers. We do higher cost beers to produce, but it has to be interesting, and you know, people have to like it. But also, if we have nine beers on, they’re all going to be different. I don’t expect everyone to like ‘em all, but they have to be good for what they are.

Alicia Barr: I think another thing we really strive for with each beer is balance. We’re not going to brew anything extreme just for the sake of being extreme. There’s an intent to everything. When we’re going for big malt, we still want some hops to balance that, so you’re not just completely overwhelmed by malt, and vice versa. I think that’s been kind of a trademark for a lot of our beers. We really strive for, whatever style it is we’re doing, there’s supposed to be certain elements to it, but overall, it has balance, so it’s very enjoyable for that style. We’re not going to do something just for the sake of saying, “We did that.” There’s got to be more intent to the flavor and the balance behind the beer.

What’s your top selling beer, and why do you think that’s the case?

Andy Barr: Our top selling beer is probably our IPA, Rockslide IPA. It’s pretty aggressively hopped, 70 IBUs, so it’s not over the top, a really nice dry hop, real nice floral aroma. IPAs are very popular these days. Even up in Truckee, they’re very popular.

Alicia Barr: Especially on the West Coast.

Andy Barr: It’s probably our highest in-demand beer. I think it’s the trend, and it’s also just a really quality beer. It’s a double IPA that’s big in a good way. You can have a pint or two and you don’t have palate fatigue because it’s not out of balance so it beats you up. It’s really interesting.

How do you go about naming your beers?

Andy Barr: That’s the hardest part of the business.

Alicia Barr: It is. We thought opening a beer, that would be one of the funnest things to do, to name everything, to name the business itself, but that ended up being one of the hardest challenges. Sometimes we’ll throw it out to staff, see what comes back. Sometimes we’re inspired before the beer even starts. Like Donner Party Porter is one of our classics. Before we even know that we were going to open a brewery, it was like, “If we open a brewery someday, we’re going to have a Donner Party Porter.” That was the easy one. The rest, drunken brainstorming sessions or sometimes it just comes to you. Sometimes Todd, our brewer, has something in mind that happens to fit very well. Each beer kind of has its own process of getting named, in various degrees of difficulty.

Andy Barr: We certainly do not have a well defined corporate identity that says, “Names follow under this type of identity.”

Alicia Barr: It’s the woman that has to put it on tap that day, sometimes.

What was the most recent beer that you brewed, and what was your approach?



Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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