In 2008, the New Yorker Magazine profiled John Gasparine, a woodworker in Baltimore, Maryland. On his suggestion, the Dogfish Head Brewery, in Delaware, had built a fermenting tank entirely out of Palo Santo wood —from Paraguay— sweet and aromatic, and one of the hardest woods in the world.
Hugh Sisson, owner of Baltimore brewery Heavy Seas, read the piece and was intrigued by the possibilities, if not only of Palo Santo, but of creative uses of wood in brewing. (Heavy Seas —like Dogfish and other 'craft' breweries— already ages some of its beers in oak barrels which previously have contained bourbon, other spirits, or wine.)
Sisson met with Gasparine and introduced him to Steve Marsh, the cellarmaster at Heavy Seas.
Marsh has overseen Heavy Seas' cask ale program since 2005, growing the brewery's inventory of firkins (10.8 gallon stainless steel casks) from two to nearly 300 today, and winning Heavy Seas numerous plaudits, including a silver medal at the Great BRITISH Beer Festival, the world's most prestigious cask ale festival and competition.
Marsh and Gasparine hatched an idea. What would happen if wood planks were introduced into a vat filled with fermenting beer, rather than aging already fermented beer in a wooden barrel? The question became a three year partnership.
The two experimented with different woods, all of which had been specially heat-treated for commercial purposes. They tried out different sizes of planks and wood chips; they used different malts and hops; they fermented beers in different batch sizes with different yeasts. Marsh chuckles when describing the size of the spreadsheet they built.
The end result has just been released. Heavy Seas calls it PLANK I.
PLANK is a series of beers showcasing unique wood ageing treatments to add flavor and nuance. Our first offering --PLANK I-- features an English Style Olde Ale matured with specially treated Poplar wood planks. Look for a subtle, "roasty" wood character <...> There will be new PLANK offerings from time to time Alc./Vol. 8%.
To learn more about the beer and the process, I interviewed Steve Marsh. Next ... the rest of the story.
- On 7 June, Plank I was released in northern Virginia in three nearly simultaneous cask tappings: Evening Star Cafe in Del Ray, Eventide in Clarendon, and Fire Works, in Arlington (Court House area). Photos from Eventide: here.
- Caveat lector: As a representative for Select Wines, Inc. —a wine and beer wholesaler in northern Virgina— I sell the beers of Heavy Seas.