I wasn’t there, but apparently, it was a sh*tshow…in the best way. People came from across the state and further away, lining up outside Burning Barrel in Rancho Cordova, CA, for a 5oz shot of what co-founder Duncan Alexander calls to the best of his knowledge the world’s hottest beer.
“We’ll stand by that flame, for sure,” he said. “If it weren’t for the $13,000 cost to get Guinness out here, we would have [gotten in the book].”
Burning Barrel put six of the world’s seven hottest peppers into one sixtel. “It was a mix we made with puree and tinctures, dosing kegs with it with gas masks on,” Alexander told me as I quaked in my boots, so much happier to be sipping on the brewery’s flagship Side Pull Pillows Czech-style pilsner than this crazy concoction. “At the end of the day, the beer was glowing red. It was like a smoothie sour of Carolina Reaper!”
On that record-breaking day, Alexander says forty people gave the gargantuan spiced gulp a go. Only twenty percent of the contestants could finish it!
“The first guy chugged it, and everyone looked at him, and he’s like, ‘Oh, I thought it was going to be way hotter,’” Alexander told me. After that, everyone started throwing back the beer. But about halfway through the line, Alexander says chaos descended.
“I just look over, and people are running to the bathroom,” he said, stressing that everyone who bought a ticket to try the world’s hottest beer signed a waiver.
At one point, when Alexander ventured into the bathroom, one man told him, “That was the best experience of my life; I haven’t felt like that since I was on acid in 1980,” he says. “Yeah, it was out of control, but we do crazy sh*t like that.”
And, yes, people go gaga for Burning Barrel’s wild n’ crazy vibe. But they have a serious side, too.
That’s the beauty of this Northern California-based brewery. At any one time, you can walk in and try one of eight or so quirky pastry sours on tap, or you can slide into a picnic table outside with your pilsner (one of our Best Beers of 2023) or English pub ale on nitro.
Burning Barrel makes beer for everyone, from the hot heads to the hop heads and all those in between.
Are We Going to Do This!?
Beer has always been a part of Alexander’s family. Growing up, the twenty-eight-year-old brewery owner remembers his dad, Jack Alexander, homebrewing with dreams of opening a brewery.
As Alexander grew older, even at sixteen, he started helping. “My parents were very strict, though,” he emphasized. “I wasn’t even allowed to sample anything at all.”
At the University of Oregon, Alexander followed in his father’s footsteps. Kind of.
During his senior year, he worked with the CEO of Hop Valley on a marketing brand project. “I just knew what I wanted to do,” he told me.
So, after graduating, Alexander moved to the mecca of craft beer—San Diego.
In the uber-competitive market, he worked in restaurants until landing a job at the craft beer app Tap Hunter.
And then Jack called.
Alexander said his dad asked if he wanted to open a brewery. “Do you want to do it or not?’” Alexander recalled his dad saying.
Didn’t take long for Alexander to respond, “I’ll do it!”
At twenty-two years old, Alexander moved home. And although he knew nothing about how to open a business, he began looking for brewery locations.
For two years, Alexander searched around Northern California. Initially, he signed a lease for a spot in Sacramento, but the old brick building meant challenging building codes to comply with and potentially long renovations.
As luck had it, his brother’s girlfriend’s dad owned a building next to a deli in Rancho Cordova. “It’s just concrete right now; nothing in it,” he told Alexander.
But the location had an extensive sewer line, lots of electrical, and a gas line capable of running a fifteen-barrel brewhouse. Everything you needed to run a production brewery. “I didn’t know much about the area, but I knew it was a growing city, so we made the leap and signed,” said Alexander. “Been a pretty good decision.”
A Rainbow-Colored Unicorn
Six years in, and like a barrel rolling down a hill, Burning Barrel has continuously picked up more steam. The brewery attracts people from all across Northern California. And not just for the world’s hottest beer.
“Every week, we have at least one brand new beer we’ve never done before,” says Alexander.
Burning Barrel brews outside the barrel (well, actually in it, too, because they do some tremendous barrel-aged stuff, but you get the idea). You’ll find folks going gaga for their over-the-top yet spot-on flavorful sours. For instance, Fresh Out the Oven V1, which perfectly mimics a peach pie—gooey crust and all (“It’s kind of like biting into the center—you get the crust with the cinnamon and brown sugar, and then the creaminess is not in your face but lingers on your palate,” said Alexander).
Burning Barrel has made a name for itself with its kooky, intensely flavored sours, but it’s not everything Alexander and former New Glory Craft Brewing brewer and current head brewer Jason Williams make.
“We’re all about creating new flavors and pushing the boundaries of what people think beer can taste like while also focusing on the classic styles really well,” says Alexander. “The whole goal is always to find something for anybody, right?”
Far from a one-trick pony, Burning Barrel is more like a rainbow-colored unicorn with at least one new beer coming out every week. On tap, next to eight crazy sours—anywhere from blueberry banana cheesecake to raspberry passion fruit cream of coconut—you’ll also find a nitro English pub ale, a German helles lager, and a Vienna lager next to West Coast, triple West Coast, and hazy IPAs.
“We’re heavy on innovation and the overall vibe and atmosphere,” Alexander said. “We want it to be comfortable for anybody, whether you’re working a corporate job and want to get beers for lunch or you just poured concrete all day and want to come out with your crew. If you live in San Francisco and want to try some new crazy beers other breweries don’t offer, make a day trip on the weekend.”
At Burning Barrel, Alexander is constantly pushing for flavor wheel perfection. If he wanted to make a Willy Wonka Everlasting Gobstopper, he’d go to the ends of the earth to find that impeccable flavor.
Whether that’s through an ingredient—like trying out different species and forms of lemon to find the perfect one to create the perfectly fresh-squeezed lemonade flavors in Berry Juiced.
Or getting ten different samples of apple puree from around the Western Hemisphere.
Or buying the cream of coconut found at most prominent tiki bars for the Island Getaway Double Jammer fruited sour because it “has like that decadent, creamy” coconut, says Alexander.
“What’s going to taste the best?” he asks. “I’ve definitely spent money on getting pallets of fruit from abroad that cost way more, but at the end of the day, that’s what we had in mind for the final beer. I would lose sleep if I didn’t spend an extra few hours … and just threw something together because it’s the easier way to do things.”
Whittling Away to Perfection
Burning Barrel never takes the easy way. And that extends to the brewery’s processes and techniques, too.
Alexander admits that it’s honestly just FOMO.
Three years ago, when he saw the brewery down the road had a slushie machine, “I had to get four,” he says.
And the only thing keeping him from buying a soft serve ice cream machine like those at Drekker? The price tag: a hefty $7,000.
Instead, he’s invested in other gadgets. Like a CellarStream, which nitrogenates beer inline, “so it’s like the perfect pour every single time,” he says. When I visited, he had the brewery’s English bitter called Pub Talk benefitting.
Similarly, when Alexander first started making lagers, he noticed LUKR Czech side-pull faucets popping up at breweries around California, including Solid Ground (which has thirty of them!) and Humble Sea. “We didn’t do lagers for the first few years, but once we started doing them, I had to have that,” he says. “They are badass.”
As is Burning Barrel’s now only flagship beer, a Czech-style pilsner called Side Pull Pillows that pours off the LUKR.
Every part of that beer has been carefully planned and executed. From the water, which Alexander says almost one hundred percent mimics Czech Plzen water to a T, to the ingredients.
Starting with all-premium pilsner malt and one hundred percent German hops, Side Pull Pillows beautifully balances a toasted pine nut nuttiness with a fresh herb-like basil backbone. Probably thanks to the hot-side additions of Saaz, Crystal, and Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops.
But Alexander lets us in on a little secret that helped this beer win gold at the 2023 Craft Brewers Cup of California: an Alfa Laval BREW 80 Centrifuge.
“The first time we centrifuged the pilsner is when we won gold,” says Alexander, noting this beer is the one he’s most proud of. “It’s cool because everyone knows we’re the more hype-IPA, sour, and barrel-aged brewery, but a lot of people come here just for our lager, so it was great to see some recognition not just for the cool beers you see on Instagram but for our really well-executed core lager beer.”
We loved the Side Pull Pillows so much that we named the pilsner one of our “Best Beers We Drank in 2023.”
From Staves to Stills
Two buildings away from the brewery, Burning Barrel has another project in the works.
Since May 2023, Alexander and his family have been working on opening a distillery. “That’s actually my dad’s lifetime dream,” said Alexander. But they opened the brewery first to get the cash flow to add spirits.
While Alexander says most folks expect them to make “cheesecake vanilla whip vodkas,” they’re going a different route.
He says they’ll serve gin with one hundred percent hand-foraged botanicals, four-year minimum small-batch whiskey, and some cool spiced apple vodka or brandies using locally sourced ingredients from the nearby Apple Hill region.
He hopes that with the distillery, he’ll be able to slow things down more.
At the brewery, Alexander likens the pace of new releases and the current beer market to celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, “Where someone’s yelling at you. … We need this, we need that,” he laughs. “And you’re like, I’m trying, I’m trying! Can I just get like a one-week break? Will you just enjoy this helles lager and stop wanting the next quadruple fruited sour!”
At the distillery, Alexander says their singular spirits, some of which will take years to age, have more of a chance to share a story.
But if Alexander had the time to step back from all their crazy releases and pause for a second from scouting out the next ten apple purees he wants to try for one beer, he might just see that Burning Barrel already has a pretty good one to tell.
Honestly, we’re just not sure it’s in his nature.
After all, there’s a new hottest beer in the world to make. Just kidding. Or not. Who knows? And that’s half the fun at Burning Barrel.
But Alexander guarantees that no matter who you are, if you visit, “You’re going to find something that you’re really going to love.”