Here at DRAFT, we love pulling beers from the cellar and comparing them with fresh-brewed versions to see how—or if—they’ve developed and improved over the years. But brewers, tricky bastards that they are, often add extra wrinkles like changes in barrels or fermentables to their annual-release ales, making them even more interesting to taste side-by-side.
So it is with Dark Arts.
Asheville, North Carolina’s Wicked Weed Brewing released the first edition of this barrel-aged imperial stout in 2014. That year, it was brewed to come it at 15% ABV, aged in bourbon barrels and spiked with Brettanomyces yeast. An ABV of 15% seems high—and it is. But it was also chosen deliberately: The alcohol content of beers made in North Carolina is capped at 15%. (The limit was raised from 6% in 2005.) Dark Arts was the first beer made in the state to reach that cap.
In subsequent years, the Brett and high gravity stayed, but the barrels changed. The 2015 edition was aged for about a year in tequila barrels; last year’s batch spent time in rum casks.
So what difference does an adjustment in barrels (and two years in the cellar) make? Quite a big one. Yeast and bacteria have done their work in Dark Arts 2014: While the sip leads off with notes of cocoa nibs, smoky whiskey, dry oak, vanilla bean and hints of toasted coconut, the swallow shifts toward a surprisingly high tart cherry acidity before flavors of burnt, crumbly toast and prunes wash in. It’s a sharp flavor, very different from the decadent sugars it displayed when fresh, but there’s zero hint of the substantial ABV—a feat in itself.
The 2016 batch, however, is still loaded with sweetness. Initial sips are like bites of a dessert blending rich vanilla, brown sugar, milk chocolate and baked dry graham crackerlike malts; bitter orange peel and sweet cherry emerge later to give the impression of an Old Fashioned. Things shift back toward rum again at the swallow, with soft charred malt and funky citrus lingering like a dark-chocolate-covered orange. The Brett plays a minor role here, just a soft pineapple character that merges into the fruity rum—smart pairing there. It needs a year to chew through some of the malty sugars, dry this monster out and impart more of its own flair.
With the oldest vintage of Dark Arts tasting a little dry and tart and the newest still coming across a bit sweet and underdeveloped, the sweet spot can likely be found between the two. If you’re sitting on a bottle of the tequila-aged Dark Arts 2015, pop it open soon.