Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Holy Smoke: Exotic Wood in Your Beer

By Kevin Trayner
Ace of Beers

Using wood in beer is nothing new to craft brewing, and barrel aging has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the past few years. 

Step into practically any Garden State craft brewery and you're likely to see wooden barrels. (Kane Brewing in Ocean Township, for example, has quite the rick going. Owner Michael Kane has squirreled away over 40 wooden barrels for aging beers produced at his Ocean Township brewery.)  

Using wood to smoke malt by hand is less widely practiced by craft brewers, especially when that wood is the “holy wood” of South America, Palo Santo.

But Triumph Brewing in Princeton took a shot at it.

Inspired by Palo Santo Ahumado from Dogfish Head, brewer Tom Stevenson turned in a 5.9% ABV malty ale made with about 40% pale malt smoked over Palo Santo wood. (Palo Santo Ahumado was brewed with 44% Palo Santo smoked malt, by the way.)

“I sort of smoked out the kitchen, when I did it,” Stevenson grinned – he used the barbecue smoker in the kitchen of the restaurant to smoke the malt. Burning the gray-brown and white-striped wood produces a pleasant, but not overwhelming aroma – somewhere between the earthiness of piƱon and Far East nature of frankincense. In fact, even before burning, the wood is quite fragrant.

Palo Santo, or Bursera graveolens, as Tom would properly call it, is prized for its aroma and is used as an essential oil or incense, like its distant relative frankincense. Peruvian shamans burn the wood, which is traditionally only harvested from fallen branches, to clear negative energy and remove bad spirits. 

Stevenson, a botantist by training before he ever touched a brew kettle, is keen to point out the pitfalls of using common names for plants: “Different plants can often have the same common name, and vice versa.” 

For example, Lignum vitae, the densest wood in the rain forest (part of a group of dense woods often referred to as “Ironwood”), is also confusingly sometimes called Palo Santo. (Bursera graveolens is fairly light and floats in water, and has a more aromatic nature.)

Tom's a fairly traditional brewer in some ways. But he likes to experiment with exotic flavors in moderation. Stephen Harrod Buhner’s "Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers" (a mix of anthropology, plant lore, mythology and homebrewing) inspired Stevenson to brew a gruit ale (the beer of Europe until the advent of hops). He sent a bottle to Stephen, who wrote back praising the brew.  
Exact adjectives to describe Palo Santo aroma are elusive: “It certainly has an incense-like quality,” Tom says. “Frankincense? Patchouli? I’m not exactly sure.” 

For the brewing, Tom opted for moderation in the beer’s alcohol, malt and hops, to “let the wood come through.” Dogfish Head’s version is based on a London porter, but Triumph’s appropriately named “Holy Smoke” is a simple pale ale base served in a cask.
The result's a malty, smoked ale with a murmur of incense in the background. The wood comes through slightly in the aroma, but much more so in the flavor – middle and finish, with a slight chewiness in the body. Having never tasted the DFH Ahumado, I can only compare Holy Smoke to the DFH's more popular and weightier Palo Santo Marron brown ale. And one can definitely taste that unique incense-like flavor, which I for one, have not discovered in any another beer. 

Tom liked his results and definitely plans to make another cask of the brew. After all, it’s not every day you can drink an interesting beer and cleanse negative energy as well.

– Kevin Trayner is a longtime beer writer in New Jersey and Princeton-area homebrewer.

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