If Boston Beer's Jim Koch is the affable everyman, Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione is craft beer's closest thing to a rock star. Outside of a brief television run on the Discovery Channel show "Brewmasters", Calagione's fame is mostly confined to craft beer circles. A 2008 New Yorker profile in which Calagione travels to the Paraguayan jungle added to the brewer's aura while introducing "extreme beer" to the masses.
As much as folks in today's craft beer industry hate the term, Calagione is known for his beer extremes. When I met him at a beer event during the winter, Calagione relayed a story from 1999, when his "World Wide Stout" was the strongest beer in the world.
"We had the record for about two weeks," Calagione said without bitterness. "And then Jim came out with his beer."
Samuel Adams "Millenium", a precursor to "Utopias", overtook the title of world's strongest beer at the time at around 21 percent alcohol by volume. Koch laughed at the story and the downplayed the record, which has since been surpassed.
"I was proud to share it with Sam," said Koch. "He's not only an amazing personality and entertainer, he's also a really good brewer.
"His beers are good. I've never had a bad beer. He even made a malt liquor. I don't think he ever released it. He sent it to me in a brown bag. That was one of my favorite beer experiences. Dogfish Head Liqueur de Malt."
The Dogfish Head offering I reviewed this week is not the strongest beer in the world, but at 12 percent ABV, it's nothing to sniff at. "Palo Santo Marron" is a brown ale aged in a 10,000 gallon vessel constructed from hard, oily Palo Santo wood from Paraguay. According to Calagione it's the largest wooden vessel constructed since Prohibition. It cost $140,000 to build.
“If Dogfish were a publicly traded company, I’d have been fired for building this,” Calagione told the New Yorker.
"Palo Santo Marron" pours oil-slick black with very little head or carbonation. Dogfish calls this a brown ale, but the beer is so dark it obscures the other side of the glass. Roasted chocolate and coffee wafts up from nose.
The mouthfeel is thick, like drinking a milkshake. It's viscous -- you might say oily. There's a lot to the flavor profile. Up front is chocolate and coffee, but vanilla quickly pokes through. There's also a bit of an herbal quality to this, though the beer is mostly sweet. It's a sipper; with this beer more than maybe any other I realize just how much of a difference there is between this brew and one of 8 or 9 percent ABV. This is decidedly a winter brew. At $17 a four-pack, it's an expensive one. Someone's got to pay for all that wood.