Brewery tours are something fun to do when you are on vacation or in a new city, but it’s not something I do much of anymore. I blame part of this on having two kids, neither one of whom could give a care about Daddy’s need to know what is chilling in the fermentation tanks.
The other part gets blamed on breweries themselves for a couple of reasons. Smaller brewery tasting rooms are usually located on the edge of the brewery floor itself and with the brewers milling about, you are just as likely to talk to one of them while just having a beer as you are to get a peek at what’s going down in the brewhouse.
As for the tours themselves, very few of them are good. Unless you get the brewmaster or someone involved with beermaking at the head of your group, the tour feels very rehearsed.
Back when I blogged about beer, from time to time I would try to get a private tour through the marketing department so I could write a post and see what was going on beyond the clearly marked path for the general masses that passed through every half hour. It was on one of these tours that I got to see one of the coolest rooms in brewing: the barrel room at Dogfish Head Brewing Co. in Milton, Del.
Now, plenty of breweries have barrels, but not like Dogfish Head. Behind a passcode-secured door were massive floor to ceiling barrels. Three were constructed from oak. Two barrels nearby, one with 10,000 gallons capacity and the other 6,000, were made from a Paraguayan wood from the Palo Santo tree. This is where the brewery’s Palo Santo Marron ages before bottling.
Both Palo Santo barrels were built at a cost of $140,000 and were each 10,000 gallons. During my visit, former DFH Brewmater Tim Hawn told me the barrels were moved during a brewery expansion in 2013 and one would not go back together. The result was losing 4,000 gallons of capacity.
It’s a beer as beautiful as the vessel in which it ages.”
These towering wooden structures were humbling in size and offered a tantalizing aroma of spice and timber. It was a peaceful, sense-stimulating refuge from the bustling factory floor.
Palo Santo comes from the same family of trees as frankincense and myrrh. The wood is naturally oily and odoriferous. It’s also extremely dense and resilient. It will sink in water and, as Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione tells it, bullets fired from a .38 revolver bounce off the side of the tree. Homeopaths and alternative medicine practitioners use it for stomach aches, rheumatic conditions, and relaxation. It has a specific effect on this high-alcohol beer from Dogfish Head.
This is the type of beer that you cannot judge on the first sip. Let that first mouthful wash over your palate and set the stage for further investigation. Upon further review, you will detect vanilla as well as some wood and smoke notes upfront, the latter courtesy of those wooden barrels in Milton, Delaware. The bridge is full of caramel with the faintest flavors of chocolate, before transitioning to a smoky aftertaste with a boozy warmth.
The nose follows the palate with big aromas of wood and smoke. It’s a full-bodied beer with an alcohol construct and carbonation that heats whatever it touches. A steady stream of bubbles feeds a thick brown foamy cap, which sits on top of the blackish-brown brew.
Dogfish Head’s IPAs, the 60- and 90-Minute to be specific, pay the bills, but the experimental or risky beers like Palo Santo Marron cement the brewery’s status as a pioneer in craft brewing. It’s a beer as beautiful as the vessel in which it ages.