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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Dogfish Head's $140,000 Experiment

A little over a month ago, I wrote a few tart remarks about Dogfish Head that got me in some trouble. They stemmed from an article in the New Yorker (subject of tarter remarks) describing the brewery. At its center was the description of Dogfish Head's experiment with a stongly-scented tropical hardwood from Paraguay. The beer that resulted, Palo Santo Marron, is now available in Portland, and I tried a bottle. Before we get into that, I think it's worth excerpting liberally from the New Yorker piece describing the background of the wood and beer:
On the trip in question, [John Gasparine, a Dogfish Head fan] had noticed that the local wood-carvers often used a variety called palo santo, or holy wood. It was so heavy that it sank in water, so hard and oily that it was sometimes made into ball bearings or self-lubricating bushings. It smelled as sweet as sandalwood and was said to impart its fragrance to food and drink. The South Americans used it for salad bowls, serving utensils, maté goblets, and, in at least one case, wine barrels....

And so, a year later, [Dogfish Head owner Sam] Calagione sent Gasparine back to Paraguay with an order for forty-four hundred board feet of palo santo. “I told him to get a shitload,” he remembers. “We were going to build the biggest wooden barrel since the days of Prohibition.”

Gasparine, by then, had begun to have second thoughts. No lumbermill he knew had ever cut so much palo santo, and he wasn’t sure that any could. Bulnesia sarmientoi is a weedy, willowy tree, sometimes called ironwood. It’s difficult to get large boards out of it, and even small ones can dull a saw blade. Wood experts rate a species’ hardness on the Janka scale—a measure of how many pounds of force it takes to drive a half-inch steel ball halfway into a board. Yellow pine rates around seven hundred, oak twice as high. Palo santo hovers near forty-five hundred—three times as high as rock maple. It’s one of the two or three hardest woods in the world.
Cool, right?

Errr, wait a second--is it? This is where Dogfish Head loses me. The brewery invests not just a little money into an experiment--like making a 53-gallon cask or two of palo santo wood. Instead, they go all-in: $140,000 for a 10,000-gallon tank. They've never aged beer on this wood, so its effects are a mystery; they've never experimented on beer styles to find out which are best with the wood. Some wineries in South America use it, so presumably they discussed how the tanks will age and what will happen to the wood. But really, it's a huge-ass gamble.

The beer they ultimately produced is tasty--so far the tastiest Dogfish I've tried. But damned if I can distinguish the quality the wood contributes. Inexplicably, they've made a chocolate-colored, gloppy, 12% destroyer of a beer. It pours out of the bottle like ink, pooling with little in the way of head. They've gone for a sweetish brew in an effort to draw out the wood notes (an interminable video describing the project is here), and I would describe the result as (please forgive the forthcoming oxymoron) an imperial dubbel. It is toasty warming, with a pronounced raisin character. It's tasty, but I don't know why they chose a beer almost guaranteed to disguise the quality of the tank they spent so much to build.

Here's hoping the next batch will be a lighter beer. I'd like this experiment to succeed--it's similar to a suggestion I made months or years ago that Oregon breweries use Doug Fir or Cedar tanks as indigenous aging vessels. Palo Santo is far from indigenous to Maryland, but at least it's interesting.

You might stop into Belmont Station or another good beer store, buy a bottle, and let me know what you think. I'd be interested in a larger sample size of opinion on this one.


  1. Jeff,

    I'm with you, it was a good beer, but they could have aged that thing in plywood and it would have fooled me. I didn't really pick up anything unique from the special wood. Maybe they will do a series of different beers all aged in the tanks so you can try to pick up some similarities that the Palo imparts. Hopefully the next one they do is a pilsner, that should pick up some more Palo character.

  2. Pretty reasonable, I think. Four-five bucks. I don't begrudge them that, given their costs. Hoy.

  3. I heard Beechwood was good for aging beer. Maybe Dogfish should give that a whirl.

    Jeff, I like your idea of an imperial dubbel. Then will come the double dubbles.

  4. then the trippel dubbels...

    i kind of like you trash talking Dogfish, but you didn't trash that brewery back east for building an open air fermentation room. that seems sort of risky too.

  5. Heh, heh. Iggir has a point there: Allagash is brave and admirable for their expensive gamble, but Dogfish Head is rash and foolhardy for theirs?

    Mind you, I like Allagash a lot better than Dogfish Head too.

  6. Iggi and Anon, you malign me!

    I'm a fan of both experiments, but I don't understand Dogfish's. I was surprised Allagash didn't experiment with open fermentation, too, but the explanation there was at least plausible: given the conditions of open fermentation, just "putting a bucket out" (to quote the brewrey) didn't seem likely to reproduce the conditions of the koelschip.

    But there are quite a few ways to test out the effect of wood on beer, and quite a few ways to test out different beer styles in wood. That they just went ahead with the gamble on the big tank, and then brewed a beer that would conceal the effects, mystifies me.

    But don't get me wrong--I hope the experiment succeeds. I'd just like to taste a beer that would express the character of the wood a bit.

  7. On a slightly unrelated note, it occurred to me that one of the key advantages of wood tanks--creating house character--might well be abetted in a wood so dense. I wonder what DH thought about this factor when they built the tank. On the plus side, it should allow them to experiment with different styles and even, possibly, yeasts--good for a brewery that hates to brew the same beer twice.

  8. You should consider the $140,000 a marketing expense, not a capital expenditure for the brewery. Lets face it, most breweries can brew good beer. What Dogfish head has done is given this beer a story that helps the buyer remember it, and justifies the high price. Sam is a marketer to be learned from, not a brewer to be emulated.

  9. regarding fir beer, a brewcrew member at the meeting last night had a "late-firred" ale which had a subtle foresty finish. it was interesting to contrast with the spruce (essense) old ale I had brought, which was a lot sharper.

    I recall from summer camp that young fir needles have a lot of vitamin C, so they'd probably be good to add to beer as an anti-oxidant. hmm...