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.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

And then FU Sandy poured

FU Sandy tap
Yep, FU, Sandy
It doesn't take long to kick a freshly tapped keg when it's pouring for a good cause. 

Bars and packaged goods stores with growler stations were doing just that Saturday, selling pints and jugs of the hybrid wheat-pale ale, FU Sandy.

Flying Fish brewed FU Sandy, its first new beer for 2013, to help raise money for hurricane relief. And has been noted since the announcement in December, the brewery will steer all proceeds from the beer to a Jersey-based charity to be chosen from suggestions offered by Twitter and Facebook followers of the brewery. 

All 86 kegs of Sandy are long gone from the Somderdale brewery, dispatched into the hands of the bars and stores that got one each; many of those establishments followed the brewery's request to tap the beer on Saturday, but some did so the day before; others will feature FU Sandy at later dates. Check here for the the list. (Glassware and shirts will continue to be available.)

Denise at the Office pours Sandy
Whatever the case, when the beer was tapped, business was brisk, with lines for growler fills. 

At Spirits Unlimited, a Sandy line
At The Pour House, the keg kicked around 2 p.m. The bar in Westmont in Camden County put the Facebook shout-out up around noon. The Pour House's faithful promptly did the rest.

Then there was the Passion Vines store in Somers Point, an Atlantic County shore town not far from where the center of the storm made landfall but did considerably less damage (that's because it's the northeast quadrants of hurricanes that are the worst: storm surge and sheering winds).

Over in Toms River, in central Ocean County, two kegs of FU Sandy were flowing across the street from each other: at the Office Lounge & Restaurant and the growler station inside Spirits Unlimited, in a plaza across busy Route 37, within sight of the Office's parking lot. 

Both locations were symbolically fitting, given that Ocean County's barrier islands got shredded by Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29th and the hurricane-nor'easter's full-moon high tide.

A lot of repair work is taking place up and down the coast (such as Belmar's boardwalk repair getting under way last month), and there's been plenty of progress. But the tracks of the Star Jet roller coaster rising from the surf in Seaside Heights still make you think you're staring at the ruins of a civilization. Rebuilding the boardwalk reminds you otherwise. 

FU Sandy growler
A fill for the cause
Perhaps its fitting to also take a moment and remember those still displaced from their homes ruined by Sandy. In either case, that's where FU Sandy comes in, a little help and a resonant name.

And at the Office, a lot of people were saying "FU Sandy," promising to kick the keg before the afternoon was done. By 3 o'clock, the bar had already run out of the commemorative pint glasses that were also for sale.  

Located just off the Garden State Parkway's exit 82, the Office is a Toms River fixture. It's within walking distance of the county courthouse, a proximity that makes it the Ocean County Bar's bar. It's a place that's a bit ahead of its time, too.

Back in the mid-1980s, long before it featured the respectable craft beer lineup that it has today – and well before New Jersey had its wave of craft breweries – you could get Bass ale in bottles, a huge contrast to what was the norm then. 

Office beers include Jersey beers
The Office is also known for its signature quirk of handing cash-paying patrons $2 bills and 50-cent pieces back as change (nowadays dollar coins, too).

Thomas Jefferson looked up from a 2 in the stack of bills parked in front of Anthony Petrocelli, an Office regular who sipped a pint of FU Sandy in a logoed glass, one of two he would later take home. 

A phys-ed teacher in Asbury Park, Anthony lives in Toms River (his uncle is Rico Petrocelli, Bo-Sox shortstop and third baseman: two homers in Game Six of '67 Series, a .308 hitter in that classic Reds-Red Sox '75 matchup).

Anthony's sister, Aurora, a banker and new mom, also lives in Toms River, only she can't return to her home on the east side of town. The storm surge that rode over Barnegat Bay sent 4 feet of water through her place. An uncle of Anthony's with property in Point Pleasant Beach to the north is in the same displaced situation. 

Anthony Petrocelli: FU Sandy 
So Saturday afternoon found him at his regular bar, for reasons well beyond thirst and college basketball on the bar's TVs.

"A friend of mine works here, and she told me they were getting a keg of FU Sandy," Anthony says. "So I said I'm going to come here and have a beer or two, get a couple glasses, give her one, I'll take one, and help support all the victims."