Voodoo Brewery is one of the most creative breweries out there, constantly pushing the boundaries of neckbeards’ taste buds. The brewery has climbed from the brink of bankruptcy, to cult-like status, and are known for their innovative Barrel Room Collection—one off beers, like the 13.5% ABV imperial stout Black Magick, that have a robust black market surrounding them. They’ve also recently undergone an Employee Stock Ownership program to avoid the inevitability of a corporate buyout.
Located in Meadville, Pennsylvania, Voodoo was founded by Matt Allyn in 2005. While the beer officially began flowing a little over a year later, it wasn’t until Matt enlisted two additional members to his team, Curt and Matteo Rachocki, that Voodoo began to take off. Each member of the team brings their own distinct personalities, styles, and skills to the party, and together they’ve created the Voodoo Brewing Company we know and love today.
While their beers range from IPAs, like Good Vibes, to stouts that reference “South Park,” one thing is for certain, the guys straight up enjoy what they do. Although the recent departure of Matt Allyn will change their original dynamic, Matteo and Curt aren’t wavering from the path the three started together years ago. With a new location in Homestead, and the announcement of an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), the two Rachocki brothers are making sure the future of Voodoo is a bright one. I sat down with Curt and Matteo to discuss the joy of Miller Lite, working with siblings, and why the hell they named a beer ManBearPig.
Paste: What beers or breweries influenced you when you first got into beer?
Curt: I wouldn’t say any beer in particular. However, I would say that there are beers that have helped shape some of the beers I make stylistically. Going to college in San Diego afforded me the opportunity to be exposed to some of the best IPAs in the world; Pliny and Nelson have had a direct influence on two beers I currently brew.
Paste: Tell us what drove you to join Voodoo with Matt Allyn?
Curt: I came on board at Voodoo in the fall of 2010. The brewer at that time was leaving to pursue another opportunity and Matt was looking to replace him with someone who had a more formal background in brewing science. Matt had already begun training someone else for the position when I just started showing up and volunteering. Over the course of a few weeks, I outworked the other guy and was eventually offered the job. It’s funny to think back about that now; there was a point in time when I had the only set of keys to the building long before I was officially hired.
Paste: Very few people are able work with their sibling. Tell us how working together has helped you to be successful at Voodoo.
Curt: When Matt first hired me, he confided in me how dire our financial situation was. He thought there was a legitimate possibility that I would only have a job for 30 days or so. In that first month, it was quite a shock to the system to see just how bad off we were. Every day something else was getting shut off; the water, gas, or electric. I was even served papers by the sheriff’s office that lien holders on our equipment were beginning the process of repossession. It didn’t take me longer than the first day on the job to realize that we desperately needed someone with strong business acumen to help dig us out of the tumultuous situation we were in and I only knew one person I trusted to do it, my brother Matteo. Since day one, we’ve trusted each other unequivocally. We don’t dabble in each other’s business and I think that’s been paramount to our success. That being said, we do rely on and seek each other’s opinions frequently. The underlying trust, confidence and fear of failure we have in each other is undoubtedly a large part of the reason we’ve been able to accomplish everything we have here thus far. It’s pretty amazing to take a step back sometimes and think about just how far we’ve come.
Paste: Recently you expanded to a second location at Homestead. What prompted you to open a second location in Pittsburgh?
Matteo: To be honest, it was the next logical step. It all began with some research into the recent liquor law changes here in Pennsylvania. We noted the “GS” license “loophole” and decided to go for it. Pittsburgh was the closest big city by the brewery and we always wanted to have a pub there and expand that market. It was the perfect launching pad into growing our business. Pittsburgh has been great to us and we love being in Homestead and watching the changes take place there every day!
Paste: Will the same offerings be available at both locations, or are you planning to focus on specific styles at each location?
Curt: Most of the offerings are the same at both locations, with a few exceptions. Good Vibes is only regularly available on draft in Meadville while H2P is only at the Homestead location.
Paste: Are there any additional plans for expansion?
Matteo: Yes, we have some big things planned for 2016 including the launch of our second Foodoo truck and more. We also plan to open another pub. We hope to do it this year but we’ll see how the build out goes. Look for that info to drop on Facebook when we know more.
Paste: Each of your barrel room releases have featured very unique beers. What drives the ideas you have for your barrel room collection?
Curt: What ultimately impacts the beers I brew that go into barrels is largely predicated upon the varieties of barrels that are available to me at that time. If it’s a new variety of barrel that excites me, that’s a good candidate for a batch of Black Magick. Others, when I find out they’re available, I’ll design a beer that I think will work well with that specific barrel’s qualities and characteristics or maybe throw a beer that we already make into it if I think they’ll work well together.
Paste: This past month you released your first batch of Black Magick in three years. Is there a specific reason why you waited this long?
Curt: No, there wasn’t a specific reason. It was more just the way things fell in line with barrels we had access to, the brewing schedule and time and space constraints.
Paste: Can we expect to see additional variants of Black Magick this year? If so, are you able to say what barrels you are thinking of using?
Curt: Now that wouldn’t be much fun, would it?
Paste: You just released a beer called Manbearpig. Can you tell us about the inspiration and how the idea for that beer came about?
Curt: If it isn’t quite obvious by this point, South Park is probably my favorite TV show. I remember seeing that episode nine years ago when I was homebrewing and thinking it would be awesome to make a beer that incorporated a man, bear and pig aspect to it. Once I officially started here, I began to think about it in a lot more detail. I knew by that time that I wanted to use maple and honey bourbon barrels to age the beer in, but also knew at that point the first problem with this idea was the financial hurdle we’d have to overcome to fill barrels with a raw product in hope of getting a desirable product we could sell and in turn, fill and reuse the barrels. The ManBearPig project was one of the first things I mentioned to my brother when he became involved and like he’s always done for me, he gave me the ability to make this crazy idea a reality. We were able to work closely with two local purveyors of the finest honey and maple syrup to accomplish the first part of this project. Not only were we able to procure the maple syrup from Howles Family Maple Products, but they were also able to package the finished barrel-aged products for us, a hurdle we may or may not have overlooked when I filled the barrels originally. Since I aged the syrup and honey for over a year, I had plenty of time to develop a recipe that I was confident would work well with and compliment the flavors from the two different barrels. Admittedly, it was my original intention to incorporate bacon into the recipe, but later settled on house smoking some Munich malt with Applewood and hickory to impart some of those same flavors. This was a bit unnerving for me as Rauchbier is about as far from my favorite style as you could possibly be. Alas, I settled on a recipe I was confident in and racked it into the barrels. Knowing MBP would be a once in a lifetime kind of thing, I wanted to make sure its packaging was indicative of its uniqueness as well. I hand drew the MBP logo and described the vision I had of the label to our own Tom Ness, who did an amazing job making my vision come to fruition. To top it all off, it seemed only logical to dip the bottles in beeswax.
Paste: You recently made the change to sell your Barrel Room Collection (BRC) beers through a pre-sale method. What prompted you to make this change?
Curt: I started this system with our BRC III release in March of 2015. This was done primarily to help place these beers in the hands of our local, faithful patrons as much as possible. With BRC I and II, we had people coming in from as far away as California and Texas to buy our beers. Although incredibly humbling, I wanted the people who pay our gas and electric bills the other 364 days of the year to have the first, best access to these limited offerings. It also allows us to throw a great release party with plenty of barrel aged options on tap without completely overwhelming our staff and forcing our customers to wait in endless lines overnight and in the pub the following day.
Paste: Many people aren’t aware, but you have an Employee Stock Ownership Plan at Voodoo. What prompted you to go this route?
Matteo: It was a combination of reasons. Our original investor group (including Curt and I) felt it was the direction we wanted our company to go in. Our employees are our most important asset and they work so hard we wanted to give them something extra to show how much we value them. We have the best team here and we don’t want them to go anywhere. It also helps eliminate a lot of the risk of these corporate buyouts and mergers you see happening, which we wanted to avoid.
Paste: Do you have a guilty pleasure beer?
Curt: I believe every beer has its place and time. People think brewers don’t drink cheap beer. But we do. Sometimes a Miller Lite tastes pretty good on a hot August day on the golf course. Plus, it’s triple hops brewed. Although I’m not 100% sure exactly what the means, it’s something we’d like to look into as brewery one day.
Paste: What’s your favorite beer you have released and why?
Curt: It has to be ManBearPig. Considering all the logistical and financial hurdles we had to overcome before we ever even brewed the beer, let alone the sheer amount of time that elapsed from the conception of the idea to the finished product, it would be hard to pick something else. I think in some sort of convoluted way, that beer is a microcosm of just how far we’ve come in the time I’ve been here. I have a lot of pride in that one.
Paste: If you could brew a collaboration beer with any brewery, who would it be and what would you brew?
Curt: It would be hard to pick just one (or two) when so many inspire me. For nostalgia’s sake, I’d go with Russian River and Alpine, that would be the ultimate collaboration, those two breweries in particular have shaped so much of my IPA brewing philosophy, not to mention the affinity I have for Russian River’s wild ales, Supplication in particular.
Paste: If you could change one thing in craft beer today, what would it be and why?
Curt: The one thing that has become a big issue for us over the years is the black market sale of our beers, either through one of the online sites or these new “auctions” people have begun running on Facebook. It’s not fair to the brewers that people are profiting off our hard work, but furthermore, it’s illegal. I can only hope that the same amount of attention that’s been paid recently to wine and bourbon is carried over to beer in this regard.
Paste: Recently, Matt Allyn announced that he will be leaving Voodoo. How has this decision impacted each of you?
Curt: Obviously when you lose a figurehead and face of a brand it can be a tough obstacle to overcome. We were fortunate that we put ourselves in a great position a long time ago to be prepared for a change like this. With Matteo running the business and myself the brewery, that we’d be able to handle it in stride.
Paste: This has already been a big year for both of you at Voodoo. What else does 2016 have in store at Voodoo?
Curt: Truthfully, at the end of the day, I think all we can hope to do is keep making beer we like to make and hope people are interested in it. As for the rest, you’ll just have to wait and see.
Jason Stein is a New York-based beer nerd. You can find more of his writing on NYC Beer Society.