Almost four years ago exactly, on March 23, 2013, Pennsylvania-based Voodoo Brewing Company held a beer release that would forever change their perception as a brewery: Barrel Room Collection I (BRC). Before the BRC, Voodoo had only released two barrel-aged beers, both of which were their stout—Black Magick in 2009 and 2011. Back then the hype wasn’t there, as Black Magick saw distribution, allowing those who were actually seeking it out to make their purchases by the case. There was simply too much supply to create a demand.
This all changed with the introduction of the Barrel Room Collection, an idea that came with Voodoo’s first expansion of their barrel program. On the night of March 21st, over 36 hours before BRC I was to be released, the line had already begun to form. Head brewer Curt Rachocki recalled walking out of the brewery Thursday night to find someone sleeping in their car. That same person would get up Friday morning to wait in-line until Saturday morning for the release. While Rachocki was somewhat humbled by the sight, he says, “none of us were very comfortable with anyone waiting outside for that long, especially considering how unpredictable the weather can be in our area.”
The large crowds caused problems; Over 200 people in the pub at once resulted in long wait times, poor service and lots of unhappy customers. Additionally, the advanced notice was attracting beer nerds from all over the country, taking the product out of the hands of locals. It was clear something had to change.
Starting with BRC III, the beers as well as the timing became a complete surprise. Details were kept under wraps; even employees weren’t aware of the exact beers or announcement date until only days before. Finally, when the beers were announced to the public, those interested in purchasing had to travel to the brewery and sign-up in person to pick up their beers a few weeks later. Rachocki states that, “by not announcing the release ahead of time, it allows our locals and regulars the best access to our most highly sought after beers. It seemed only fair that those people who keep our lights and gas on in February be rewarded for their patronage and not some guy from California who has never had one of our beers nor stepped foot in any of our establishments before.” Rachocki is describing the scene during the BRC II release.
Fast forward to 2017. This Saturday, March 11, Voodoo will release the five brews that make up BRC V, each of which have spent more than 20 months in barrels. While there has been some debate over the right amount of time for a beer to spend in a barrel, Rachocki has always felt that given how big and complex his base beers are before they even go into oak, 14-20 months is the perfect range to achieve the depth, nuance, and complexity he’s looking for. With all of that said, let’s get into what you can expect from this year’s Barrel Room Collection. Keep in mind, these beers completely sold out when the bottles were announced at the end of February. But maybe you know a guy.
The first of the series is a Belgian Quad, using the same base as last year’s BRC, but this time, Rachocki chose to blend four different barrels together as an experiment to see if he could pick out the individual barrel characters from a large palate of flavors. He feels that the “more you work with the same barrels, the more you know what your individual palate picks up from each.” He continues, “so using two barrels that we’ve used before—Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill—and two new ones—Old Forester and Woodford Reserve—it was of interest of me to see what was familiar and expected and what was new.” Rachocki also wanted to see how some of those flavors are expressed in a lighter bodied beer such as a Quad, and how those flavors interacted with the Belgian esters present in the base beer to create new and potentially unexpected flavors. As one would expect with such an experiment, the blend of barrels surely produced a complex cornucopia of flavors. “It might be one of the most complex beers we’ve ever put out, every sip unearths a new layer of flavors,” Rachocki says. “Some of those familiar flavors are there, vanilla, caramel, toffee, bourbon … But it is some of the more unexpected flavors that can take the stage and impress at times. I pick up coffee, honey, dark berries and cherries, plum, nuttiness and even some floral characteristics among other things that stand out.”
This cult favorite is finally making a reappearance for the first time since the BRC II release, after spending 20 months in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels. “I have said this before, the two treatments of Tenacious Wee from that second release are two of my all-time favorites and this new batch doesn’t disappoint,” Rachocki gushes. He decided to choose Woodford Reserve for this year’s release because he felt the sweet and nutty aromatics and vanilla, toffee and light maple notes of the barrel would pair extraordinarily well with Wee’s caramel sweetness. While those who have had the original batch of Tenacious Wee will find similarities, Rachocki notes that, “where those first batches were probably a little more barrel forward, this batch in the Woodford barrels really seems to meld all the flavors of the beer, bourbon and oak together pretty seamlessly. I love how cohesive all the flavors are in this batch, it’s so smooth and easy to drink but also rich and complex at the same time.”
The idea for this beer originated from one of Curt’s favorites, Founders Breakfast Stout. Years ago, in order to pay a proper homage to that very beer, Curt decided to brew a lighter version of Breakfast Stout, creating what would become Breakfast of Champions (BoC). However, ever since that first release of BoC, Rachocki knew he was due to make an imperial version eventually.
When asked what exactly he likes about how the beer turned out, Rachocki had trouble picking his favorite. “It’s incredibly complex and layered. You get hit right away with huge coffee flavor and aroma that leads into the body of the beer with dark and roasted malts and finishes with bourbon and dry dark chocolate. I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out.”
Now let’s turn to the beer that started it all back even before the BRC was a thing, Black Magick. Having aged the base in four different barrel previously, it has become a challenge for Rachocki to find a new barrel to fit the brewing schedule. For this occasion, he happened to just get lucky as this batch of Black Magick was actually destined for other barrels when he got the call that these Old Forrester barrels would be fresh and available. Rachocki notes that the Old Forester barrels provide a different taste than the baker’s chocolate and cocoa nibs he gets from the Buffalo Trace barrels. Instead he gets a “super-rich, decadent chocolate taste with a lot of vanilla oak character.”
Last but certainly not least, we have the only beer in the series which is not entirely new. While the time spent in barrels is different for this release, Black Magick, aged in Buffalo Trace, was released not once but twice before. Rachocki first released this beer before he made changes to the Black Magick recipe for the BRC I release. “What I liked most about that first BRC batch in 2013 was how great it was right out of the gate, the chocolate and vanilla flavors were so rich and prominent. I also wanted to see how more extended aging affected Black Magick itself, so the only fair way to do that was to revisit a barrel treatment we had done previously,” Rachocki says. “I don’t like releasing the exact same beer more than once because there’s just too much out there to experiment with, whether it’s time, a different bourbon barrel or different barrel treatment all together, there’s just too many variables you can change, I don’t see the point, at least for now.”
Rachocki lucked out when fresh barrels arrived at the brewery, and just six days after being drained, they were filled with a batch of Black Magick that is surely not to disappoint. “I always had a target length of two years in the back of my mind and I pulled it out two years to the day. This batch is so smooth and rounded, the extra time in the barrel did it well.”
The fifth installment of the Barrel Room Collection is due out on March 11th. If you haven’t been able to secure yourself an allocation, we suggest you try to find a friend who has. Also, look for Voodoo to be pouring at upcoming festivals including this weekend’s Huna Day and Mikkeller’s Copenhagen Beer Celebration in May.
Jason Stein is a New York-based beer nerd. You can find more of his writing on NYC Beer Society.