I guess the first thing that I need to address is the name, Velvet Merkin.
And to address the name, we need to address the base beer, Velvet Merlin. Velvet Merlin was the original Velvet Merkin.
This was a recipe that Matt Brynildson is unsure of its exact origins, but it is old. In fact there is a chance the recipe came from his homebrewing days. As the story goes, they needed to name this Oatmeal Stout they were brewing. I am not sure about this, but I am guessing the Velvet part of the name came from the smooth creamy texture Oats provide in a beer.
And the Merkin part?
That’s just an obscure funny term. Brynildson stated, “I came up with this fanciful name, because I thought it was hilarious. I never thought it would leave the tasting room walls.” Apparently Matt Brynildson got quite a kick out of watching that beer win award after award. Not just because it is great to win awards, but the fact the presenter had to say Merkin in front of large crowds.
In 2010, Firestone Walker decided to bottle Velvet Merkin. And during this process they jettisoned the Merkin and changed it to Velvet Merlin. Merlin was just slightly less controversial than Merkin.
I think the guys around the brewhouse had a certain attachment to the Merkin name though. Because it wasn’t long before a bigger, barrel aged Oatmeal Stout was blended into anniversary beers, and silently showing up on tap in the tasting room.
As the natural progression happens, you brew a beer for the tasting room and for blending, but people love it. Really love it. Eventually these brews are considered for bottling. I guess the fact that Velvet Merkin was now part of the Proprietor’s Reserve Series, and had a much smaller distribution allowed it to keep its name. I am glad it did.
When I first heard that Firestone Walker was going to be bottling Velvet Merkin I was very excited. For one, I love Oatmeal Stouts. But more importantly, I love Firestone Walker. Some would say I love Matt Brynildson, but I am not comfortable with that four letter word having never met the man.
But while we are on the topic, let me profess my love for a minute. Brynildson is the King Midas of beer in my opinion. Whatever he touches turns to Gold. And by Gold I am not only referring to financial success at a brewery, but the vast accumulation of Gold Medals at festivals like the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup.
Brynildson also was named brewer of the year at three different breweries, SLO Brewing, Nectar Ales, and Firestone Walker. FW has become my favorite brewery since they came to Maryland just a couple short years ago.
I might be wrong about this, but I feel like FW doesn’t try to push the boundaries of style. They seem comfortable with the conventions of a traditional beer, but they just seem to want to make it the best it can be.
Some may be cursing at the screen saying Union Jack & Double Jack are not traditional IPAs. And in the English sense, that is correct. They are certainly an American Style IPA, but what I guess I am getting at is that they do not use gimmicky ingredients; they aren’t trying to invent new styles of beer. They are just making good, I mean great, beer.
Upon looking at the specs of Velvet Merkin it is noticeable that it is only 8.5% ABV. Usually barrel aged beers are stronger. This will be Firestone Walker’s first release of a barrel aged beer below 10% ABV.
“With barrel aging, it’s easy to gravitate toward higher alcohol beers, because the higher the alcohol, the better the chances that the beer will remain stable in the barrel over time,” Brynildson said. “But we’ve gotten more and more comfortable with putting lower alcohol beers in the barrel, and there’s this interesting synergy when you do that.”
He continued, “Alcohol plays a huge role in the flavor profile of a barrel-aged beer. When you dial the alcohol level down, all sorts of other flavors come to the surface. With Velvet Merkin, the base beer begins with this dark chocolate and roasted coffee character, but after a year in the barrel, it comes out like milk chocolate with creamy vanilla undertones. You still get some of the classic bourbon barrel notes, but the lower alcohol level really allows this unique milk chocolate quality to come to the surface.”
Now for the tasting.
Velvet Merkin is shipped in a box like many of the other beers in Firestone Walker’s Proprietors Reserve Series. I have found that some of the beers in the series are boxed while others aren’t. I am not 100% sure why some are and some aren’t, but it seems that the boxed beers are Barrel Aged and more suitable for aging.
Upon opening the bottle I could immediately smell chocolate milk. It really had a lacto quality in the air, similar to what you might smell with a Sweet Stout. I poured dead center into a tulip glass to get as much of a head as I could. I was pleasantly surprised to see a large dark tan head appear. Of course I think at this point I was forgetting it was 8.5%. (Higher ABV lowers head retention) The head settled down to a thin film on the glass, but was still much more significant than your average barrel aged beer. The color at 80 SRM is very dark, Firestone Walker calls this color, Newgate’s Knocker. FW is one of the few breweries that names the colors of their beers, much like an auto maker does.
As I mentioned, there is a smell of chocolate milk in the air. But once you dive into the glass, the milk smells are overpowered by rich chocolate and coffee. The smell alone is intoxicating. More nosing will reveal vanilla and bourbon notes. I did find it interesting that the bourbon notes weren’t as forward here in the nose as they are in most barrel aged beers. Coffee and chocolate definitely took center stage.
The taste is a continuation of the smell. Lots of chocolate, coffee, vanilla, and bourbon. All the flavors are pronounced and balanced. Like many Firestone Walker barrel aged beers, you can guide your tastes and focus on the different flavor layers and tastes. Each layer is deliberate and complex, and this makes the first sip as rewarding as the last. The taste is not cloying at all, which can be difficult when barrel aging an oatmeal stout. Rather the sweetness is just a component.
The mouth feel was possibly the most rewarding thing about this beer. Most barrel aged stouts have an ABV north of 10-12% and have an almost oily mouth feel. Thanks to the lower ABV there is more carbonation and a lighter body. However, the oats provide a creamy smooth texture as well.
This beer has many similarities to a expertly crafted chocolate mousse. Like a mousse it has layers of chocolate and coffee with an inherent lightness. This beer is possibly the most drinkable barrel aged beer I have tasted.
Velvet Merkin was released this past Saturday at a release party at the brewery, and should start hitting shelves in October according to Firestone Walker’s web page. It generally takes a little time for beers to make it across the country to Maryland, but keep your eye out for this. Only 3500 cases were made, and I imaging they are going to be hard to get.
Firestone Walker Velvet Merkin – $16.99 (22oz bottle)
ABV: 8.5% IBU: 33 Color: 80 SRM
Malts: 2-row Pale, Roast Barley, English Dark Caramel, Medium Caramel, Carafa Malt, Oats
Hops: US grown Fuggle
Aging: Aged for one year in barrels from Four Roses, Heaven Hill and others
Availability: Available while supplies last in CA, NV, OR, WA, AZ, CO, MO, Chicago, MA, NJ, NY, VA, PA, DC, and MD.