Saturday, April 24, 2010

Review: Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron

Well, obviously I haven't had much time to update lately. Grad school tends to get busy at the end of the year, especially when you're about two essays behind where you should be. But I'm still indulging in the joys of fine drink, and I'm still capable of being surprised on occasion. Like by this stuff, for example.

With Palo Santo Marron the crazy mofos at Dogfish Head have crafted something truly grand, and also utterly ridiculous. What do I mean? Well, put aside for a second the fact that this beer clocks in at 12% alcohol. That's just silly (as much as I love strong beers, 12% is still comically high), but it's not the goofiest part. Also put in parentheses the fact that it's brewed in three massive 10,000 gallon tanks made from Paraguayan lignum vitae wood, which is hard enough to be used in cutting gems and dense enough to sink in water. This fact is even more silly, but it's still not the howler. No, much more absurd than all of this is the fact that Palo Santo Marron is a brown ale of all things. You know, the style that got you to start drinking halfway-decent beer the first time someone bought you a Newcastle. The style so hoary and venerable you get the sense that the European aristocracy quaffs it during fox hunts. That's what this beer says it is. Brown ales are almost definitionally mellow, conservative, and sensible - three things which Dogfish Head does not do well. Maybe that's why they seem to have taken particular delight in drawing moustaches on the style, first with their fantastic Indian Brown Ale and now with this.

Funny enough, though, none of this is what surprises me about the beer. That comes a lot later.

Now, I've no idea how old the bottle I have is - I bought it as a single towards the end of last year, waiting for a good time to try 'er out. I happen to have the four-pack box, too, which has a bit more history and some wonderfully rude puns ("It's all very exciting. We have wood. Now you do too.") but is otherwise fairly unremarkable. Well, I suppose there's nothing to do but try her out.

A brown ale? Really? Well, given that this stuff pours a black whose darkness is right up there with the rudest stouts I've put down, I have to question that categorization. No light passing through at all - this beast is a void, a singularity. Even the tiny little half-finger of beige head doesn't offer much relief, especially given its short lifespan (no way it's going to hold up against 12%). Only the nose reveals good reason to call this a brownie: mellow earthy English hops are right in front, fuggles or something related. But surprisingly, where I was expecting to get a mass of hops and wood, I get very little. The malts especially are tough to get a bead on: there's a little bit of a roasted tone and a dollop of acidity to it, although that may be the wood. I hope it's the wood, anyways, otherwise I'm not really smelling that at all. What I am getting a lot of, on the other hand, is alcohol. It ain't hard to estimate the caliber of this brew. I can tell it's going to slap me around a little.

Now, the taste is... confusing more than anything else. Although it's extremely rich and very striking, especially on the back end, it's rather hard to describe. Biting coffee bitterness comes right up front, which then develops into an extremely unique woody, almost burned taste. It's very, very thick and malty, although it's hard to say what sort of malts we're dealing with (or where the malt ends and the wood begins); by this point everything is so dense that it's nigh-impossible hard to isolate things into single flavors. At the back end, things begin to separate out a bit: I get more charred wood, some cinnamon, walnuts, and maybe raisins or strawberries (some kind of sour fruit, anyways). The hops that I detected in the nose add a bit of a grassy, earthy quality, but the malt flavor are the headliners here. The bitterness, which pretty much rules all the rest, surrounds itself with sour fruit and just a little bit of milk chocolate sweetness; they fuse into a very impressive (if not very complex) whole that carries through to a very long aftertaste.

Do I like the taste? Well, yes. It's completely unique, and like many DH beers I'd recommend it for novelty value alone. The problem is that as nice as it is, it just isn't as good as (say) a barrel-aged stout. For example, I prefer the Walter Payton stout - by no means a perfect beer - simply because there's a lot more going on (plus it's way less expensive). The Palo Santo Marron is a good beer - one of Dogfish Head's best - but it's just too damn simple, and in terms of taste you can do better for less.

So aside from novelty, then, why would one buy it? Well! You have to look fairly deep to see the point of this beer, but it's definitely there. You see, for such a massive and stupidly powerful beer this stuff is magnificently easy to drink. The mouthfeel isn't exactly light, but it's nothing you haven't tasted in porters with half the ABV. And speaking of the alcohol - incredibly - it just doesn't come out in the taste at anywhere near its true strength. If it weren't for the nose, which is hotter than a belt-fed Uzi, I'd put this in the 7-8% range tops. The result of all this is that I end up drinking the thing way too quickly, and five minutes later I'm thoroughly and unexpectedly sloshed.

That's the point of this beer. And that's what's surprised (and plastered) me. I'd gone in expecting a sipper of the Walter Payton variety, and it does indeed taste lovely, but that's the wrong sort of thing to compare this to. Purely and simply, this is an alcohol delivery system. It exists to get you drunk, and it's very good at its job. Sure it's expensive, and that puts it in a very narrow niche - most people who want to get roaringly drunk on beer will just grab themselves an Axe Head. But for the bourgeoisie among us who can afford it, this is the best imaginable way to leave the planet in two bottles or less. Other beers do better on taste and on value, but I can think of nothing in a beer bottle that'll get you into trouble more easily than this.

Think of Palo Santo Marron, then, as a malt liquor for the nuveau-riche. Think of it as a q-ship with hops, a hidden cruise missile aimed at your medulla. I don't think there's much space for such a beast in the world - but what little space there is, this beer fills well.

Grade: B+
Summary: A somewhat simpleminded, very malty way of getting drunk real damn quick.

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