Beer in Holy Wood
One of the boldest steps in the wood-aging of beer comes from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware. The iconoclastic company has installed the biggest wooden fermenting tanks built for the North American brewing industry since before Prohibition: 10,000-gallon tanks (322 barrels) crafted from palo santo (Spanish for “holy wood”), an exotic hardwood from Paraguay.
Like the distantly-related frankincense, palo santo (Bulnesia sarmientoi) is a highly aromatic, resinous wood that has traditionally been prized for incense and medicinal use. John Gasparine, a wood flooring expert and fan of Dogfish Head beers, encountered the wood in South America. Hearing that a few artisanal wineries in Chile and Argentina aged wine in palo santo casks, he carried samples back in his luggage to share with the brewery.
Intrigued by the spicy, caramel aromas of palo santo, the Dogfish Head team began designing a beer that would play off those flavors effectively. Ultimately, brewers Mike Gerhart and Brian Selders and owner Sam Calagione settled on a strong brown ale, 12% alcohol by volume, brewed with chocolate, crystal and black malts and some wheat; hopped with Warrior, Glacier and Palisade hops; and boosted with natural brown sugar.
Dogfish Head committed to the construction of the huge tanks: at a cost two to three times that of oak, the palo santo represented a major investment. When the brewery’s representative visited Paraguay to confirm the wood’s identify and quality, his local hosts demonstrated the remarkable density of palo santo by firing at the trees with a .38: bullets literally bounced off.
Until Dogfish Head obtained permission to age beer in palo santo, this wood had only been imported to this country as flooring and for use in incense. Now it has a new life nurturing Palo Santo Marron, the first beer aged in holy wood.
Julie Johnson Bradford
Julie Johnson Bradford is the editor of All About Beer Magazine, the oldest American publication for people who love beer.