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Beer Reviews

Palo Santo Marron

Dogfish Head
Milton, DE

Style: American Strong Ale
ABV: 12.0%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Outstanding within its style.)

Pair With:
I recently wrote a review for Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale, a unique, tasty take on a classic English style. In that review I mentioned the immense amount of ingenuity coming from the folks in Milton, Delaware, and some of their balls-to-the-wall takes on brews, from standard styles to ancient treats. Then, like a complete jackass, I mentioned that I had not sampled most of those creative concoctions.

Well, in keeping with my theory of “shit or get the fuck off the pot,” I thought perhaps I should put my money where my British-accented mouth is and actually try one of those creative monsters. Sounding like a great beer is one thing, but actually tasting like one is another.

Enter Palo Santo Marron, which I believe means “fermented malt-type beverage of a thick consistency packaged in a brown bottle” in Portuguese. But then again, I don’t speak Portuguese. Regardless, Palo is another Dogfish Head experiment, this one a “brown ale” that is aged in palo santo wood barrels, a tree native to Paraguay, which is not to be confused with Portugal. Checking in at a whopping 12 percent ABV, most classify this as an American strong ale, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s big, it’s brown, and it’s aged in barrels of the “holy tree,” which is the literal translation of palo santo. It’s apparently a popular wood in South American wine-making communities, so the transition to beer should be interesting, particularly given Nigel’s fascination with Paraguayan wine.

The real key to this is the fact that it’s aged in wooden barrels. Honestly, I couldn’t care less if they use palo santo, palo verde, poison sumac. Over time, I’ve become a huge fan of barrel-aged, dark brews, and the brown ale is a prime candidate for barrel aging. Tame on the outside, a little wood fermentation can turn this lamb into a lion, as evidenced by the fact that my favorite local brown ale is Tyranena Rocky’s Revenge, which also undergoes some barrel aging. Just as Kramer commented about Kenny Rogers Roasters chicken in an episode of Seinfeld, “it’s the wood that makes it good.”

With the highest of expectations, I pour my bottle of Palo Santo Marron into my official chalice. That pour reveals a brew that is menacingly black, with the slightest of auburn tinges. A decent, dark tan head of about an inch on the pour quickly dissipates, leaving a slight lace on top and a sticky ring on the sides. While too dark to detect much sedimentation, I’m guessing there’s some there.

Aromas are plentiful and powerful, but they do have a downfall. Huge amounts of thick, sugary malt in the form of caramel, toffee, and molasses are joined by a nice amount of roasted barley and obvious notes of wood. On top of that, a pleasant waft of vanilla comes through at times. As for that downfall? Alcohol. MASSIVE aromas of alcohol choke out the plethora of other aromas at times, which quickly brings you down after an aromatic high. While I understand this is a 12 percent ABV monster and hints of alcohol are going to be unavoidable, it does get to the point at times that your eyes start to water and your sinuses clear (perhaps a good thing during allergy season). But, fortunately, it’s not a constant aroma of alcohol, so when it politely stays in the background, Palo is a fantastic aromatic treat.

Flavors are phenomenal, but unfortunately the same problem emerges. When the complexities of the various flavors are present, it’s incredible. But when the alcoholic zip bites the tongue, all is lost, and that happens on more than one occasion. A symphony of flavors are at work, starting with a thick, sweet, sugary malt reminiscent of caramel, toffee, molasses, and dark brown sugar. A beautiful, subtle roasted profile comes through next, giving it a wonderful touch of roasted nuts and smoked peat, but not enough to drown out the other flavors, which can often be the case with smoky flavors. Can you taste the wood? Sure, and it’s a pleasant taste, sort of a sweet, woody undertone that permeates throughout. Even a touch of spice, mainly in hop form, but also in the form of vanilla and a hint of cinnamon is present as well. Wonderfully complex, you say? Absolutely, but again … it can bite you in the ass at times. The alcoholic zip is always there, which is to be expected, but at times it steps up and takes over, making an incredibly complex brew briefly one dimensional. While these moments are few and far between, the fact that it happens both in the aroma and flavor is enough for me to reluctantly drop this down to a four mugger. Full bodied and at times rough on the palate, Palo Santo Marron is a monster in every sense of the word, and one 12 ounce bottle is a session unto itself.

While I feel somewhat guilty for rating a phenomenally complex and tasty brew only four mugs, Palo Santo Marron did have exceedingly high expectations, and any shortcomings weighed heavily. My criticism is by no means meant to drive one away from Palo; on the contrary, it’s fantastic beer that I’d recommend to anyone, even given the steep price tag (expect to pay $15 for a four-pack). Dogfish Head has once again hit the jackpot on a unique, experimental style, and if this doesn’t do it for you, there’s always Paraguayan wine.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on September 24, 2009.
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