Yeah, a lame title to be sure, but is style even relevant anymore? I mean, to the extent that a brewery undertakes to brew a particular style, we should probably acknowledge that. But, at what point does a style designation cease to even mean anything? Yes, we can say that a Pilsner is a light, lean lager made with soft water and, generally, Saaz hops. But what is a light, lean lager made with hard water and Saaz hops? What about a dark, lean lager made with soft water and Saaz hops (dunkelpils anyone? mmm … can someone make that beer for me please?!?)? What about a light, lean lager made with soft water and Cascade hops? You get the idea.
Should the designation "Imperial Pilsner" even exist? Sure, to the extent that it is descriptive, it provides a useful function; it tells you that the beer is like a Pilsner, except that it isn't lean, and probably has a lot of Saaz hops. But, really, when does it stop being a Pilsner and become a maibock? Or a blonde dopplebock?
Which brings us to today's beer: Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron. I have a love-hate relationship with Dogfish Head; some I love (120, Midas Touch), some I hate (punkin', aprihop). And DFH's approach to brewing has been well-documented. I have no qualms with DFH and the way they approach the brewing process; in fact, I encourage it. The bigger problem is how do you fund this type of brewing? It seems that charging premium prices for a love-it-or-hate-it brand simply results in people not buying it until a general consensus forms about the beer, generally from fanboys of said brewery – in which case, you run into the "groupthink" problem. So, there needs to be a way to sample at a low price; thankfully, many retailers pull out singles of DFH beers, but not all do – which means I need to spend $7-15 on a 4-pack (or 6-pack) to find out if I even want one.
Alright. What does all of this have to do with the Imperial Pilsner problem I was talking about? Well, we use "styles" to cue to consumers what to expect in the bottle. So, by calling my beer an "Imperial Pilsner" I'm cueing to the consumer that my beer is like a Pilsner, but it's "bigger". We'll leave "bigger" undefined since there doesn't really seem to be any real industry standard for what "Imperial" means other than "bigger". However, there is a disconnect because the "style" 'Imperial Pilsner' doesn't mean anything – and in fact makes not only zero sense at technical level, it makes negative sense. The whole purpose of a Pilsner is that it is a light, refreshing beer; by making it 'Imperial' you destroy its entire purpose. So, we see that stylistic conventions have cropped up over centuries of use to denote not only characteristics of the beer, but also the function of a beer. If you make a light lager that is "bigger" we, traditionally, call that a Maibock (though, to be fair, that implies a spring release). But we can also call it a "blonde doppelbock". Heck even "Weiss Bock" or "weisbock" if it contains wheat. So, really, might "Pilsbock" be a more precise designation? We can quibble over extreme technicalities in the brewing process; but the sheer fact that New Glarus released a proper pilsner as its Unplugged should be an indication about whether the things we generally think of as pilsners abide to proper convention in the first place.
So, again, circularly, what does this have to do with Dogfish Head and the Palo Santo Marron? Well, I'm glad we've finally gotten around to it. The front of the label identifies it as "Malt Beverage Aged on Palo Santo Wood." To most people this doesn't really mean anything, unless you happen to know what Palo Santo Wood is. That story is beyond the scope of this article, but the New Yorker article I linked to above covers it in some detail. In fact, the fact that we don't know what Palo Santo Wood is makes the point even better, because it forces the consumer to seek additional information. On the bottom of the label we see "12% ABV" which is, obviously, pretty high. On the side we see the following text:
An unfiltered, unfettered, unprecedented Brown Ale aged in handmade wooden brewing vessels. The caramel and vanilla complexity unique to this ale comes from the exotic Paraguayan Palo Santo wood from which these tanks were crafted. At 10,000 gallons each, these are the largest wooden brewing vessels built in America since before Prohibition. It's all very exciting. We have wood. No you do too.
Ignoring the "marketing speak", and just purely looking for cues as to whether you'd want to purchase this beer or not, there is some stylistic guidance:
Brown Ale. Conveniently in big letters and bolded. That gives me a style to wrap my head around. I know what a brown ale is. Sometimes nutty, sometimes caramel-y, sometimes roasty, and low-hopped; it is a lean to medium-bodied, sessionable ale popular in the fall and winter. It's typically from 3-6%ABV.
12% ABV. Well, this seems to contradict "Brown Ale" somewhat, so I'm pretty confused again. I'm starting to think maybe it's more of a porter, or stout ("big" brown ales)
Vanilla and Caramel. OK, tasting notes. I get the idea.
Yet, really, the only thing that the beer in this bottle shares with a "brown ale" is a slight roastiness, the color brown (sort of), and the use of ale yeast. A commenter on our post about the New Glarus Alt made some interesting statements: "What's in a name, you might ask, but I'd respond by asking what happens when someone who isn't really familiar with Altbier tastes this, and reading numerous rave reviews, accepts it as what an ideal Alt should be? When presented with the real stuff, not only will this person not get it, they won't even understand what it is that they're supposed to get. … I'd argue that the whole concept of 'style' as it's typically used is fundamentally misguided, but if you're going to use terms with very clear, historically established meanings to describe your beer then don't make it completely unrecognizable to anyone who's actually familiar with these terms." While I gave New Glarus' Alt a pass, primarily based on what a different commenter had noted: "From an online article at the german beer institute website 'many Altbier makers have now revived the Sticke tradition, by making a deliberate 'mistake' occasionally as a surprise. They let their brewmasters 'loose' to give them a chance to play with their ingredients and create a free-style, strong Altbier.'" Though one does have to consider that this 'mistake' theory presupposes a "regular" altbier exists in the first place – in this case, it does not. Moreover, as it has subsequently come to my attention, even the Sticke tradition is generally not as "loose" with the style; as evidenced by the German Beer Institute's definitions: "[Sticke Alt's] typical alcohol level by volume is about 5.5%—sometimes higher—compared to the 4.7 to 4.8% of a regular Altbier. The Uerige brewpub also makes an even stronger Sticke, called a Doppelsticke, at about 8.5% alcohol by volume."
So, perhaps "Doppelsticke" might have been more appropriate; but if New Glarus had stuck that on a label no one would have any idea of what is in the bottle. Though, as our commenter pointed out, by labeling it "Alt" it's still true that no one has any idea what is in the bottle. In the case of this "brown ale", perhaps "Imperial Brown Ale" would have been closer, but really, why bother? Why not just add some more descriptive terms to the side and be done with it rather than shoehorn a beer into a style that doesn't do the beer any justice?
Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron
Appearance: dark, dark brown with ruby tints on the edges; a light, brown-ish head
Aroma: vanilla and coffee with a light grassiness; a slight scent of coca-cola
Flavor: soft, oily and sweet, more chocolate than coffee and little of the vanilla aroma comes through in the flavor; a slight booziness, with a finish like a cross between wine and coffee; the oils just coat my mouth and refuse to allow the flavor to finish
Body: soft and heavy but burly; like a sumo wrestler
Drinkability: every time I drink one and as it goes through temperature changes, a new flavor comes forward; way too filling and high-octane (12%+ ABV) to be sessionable, but would compliment any number of meals
Summary: If my wine rack would hold 12oz bottles, this would be great to just keep on hand and open on occasion; I tend to stay away from Dogfish Head – the prices are too high to justify the risk, but every now and then one gets hit out of the ballpark and makes me want to drink more and more DFH beers; anyone that meets me knows that I'm a big fan of the 120 (and the 90 – though less-so of the 60) and the Midas Touch, but I've had quite a few DFH beers that just haven't been my cup of tea – though I've been told that it's possible that their beers just don't travel well and many styles are infinitely better at the pub. To which I would say, "then keep them there." Nonetheless, I found this one to be very enjoyable.