Heavy Seas brewmaster on Plank III, Maryland's best beer of 2014

Maryland's best beer of 2014 gets its flavor from a pimento tree

The robust flavor of Heavy Seas Beer's Plank III -- the Belgian-style Trippel recently named "Best of Show: Best Overall Maryland Beer" by the Brewers Association of Maryland at the Comptroller's Cup competition -- comes from a pimento tree. 

“It’s the wood that they use in Jamaica to smoke or cook jerk chicken or jerk goat,” said brewmaster Christopher Leonard on Wednesday. “Nobody has made beer with this wood before, as far as we know.”

It was a risk of Heavy Seas to use the foreign wood in its beer-aging process, but on Saturday at the Maryland Brewers’ Harvest event in Fells Point, it paid off. Out of 192 entries from 23 state breweries, Plank III was named the top Maryland beer of the year.

The winner was decided by more than 40 judges, according to JT Smith, executive director of the Brewers Association of Maryland. The Beer Judge Certification Program certified the event. Reckless Ascension IPA from Columbia’s Push American Brewing Company came in second, while Heavy Seas’ Gold finished third.

Plank III is part of a beer series that began four years ago, Leonard said.

“The idea was instead of putting beers in [wood] barrels, let’s put planks of wood into the tank,” he said. The Heavy Seas production team was interested in how "fresh wood" -- untreated wood that had not been used in other alcoholic production like bourbon making -- would affect the flavor of beer.

After Heavy Seas founder Hugh Sisson suggested using the particular Jamaican wood, Leonard began experimenting. He settled on a Belgian-style Trippel because he had plenty of experience brewing it, and the white pepper and clove spices from the yeast gave it bold flavor. The goal, Leonard said, was to provide a fully satisfying experience in a small amount of beer. 

“It’s not a beer to go to the beach with,” Leonard said of Plank III, which is 8.5 percent alcohol by volume. “It’s a fantastic beer to have with food – spicy food and funky cheeses. … It’s more of an experience than it is for drinking.”

Adding the pimento, also known as allspice, wood was tricky, he said. Early on, Leonard used similar quantities of wood that had been used to make the other two Plank beers, and the results were “extremely potent” and “somewhat overpowering.” 

“It made the beer almost undrinkable,” he said.

Leonard only needed 15 percent of the total wood he initially expected to use, and while the other two Plank beers aged for six weeks, Plank III needed only 14 days. “Just enough to get a hint and a whisper” of the allspice flavor, he said. 

While Leonard and Heavy Seas appreciate the recognition from the Comptroller’s Cup, the brewmaster also downplayed the win a bit, saying luck and subjectivity play factors in judging. (“We take it with a grain of a salt,” Leonard said.) He was most happy about the reaction Plank III was receiving from first-time tasters at the event.

“The results, I think, help introduce people to the beer, and that’s what we’re really excited about,” he said. “Folks were coming up to the booth, asking, ‘What is this beer?’” 

Bars serving Plank III include Rowhouse Grille (on cask during Baltimore Beer Week - Oct. 10-19) in South Baltimore, Liam Flynn's Ale House in Station North and Max's Taphouse in Fells Point. For those looking to take some home, Bo Brooks' Lighthouse Liquors and Loading Dock Liquors, both in Canton, have it for sale.

Still, Heavy Seas winning first and third place overall this year are signs the Baltimore brewery is succeeding from a taste standpoint.

“For my team, it’s a great sense of accomplishment that we’re doing things right,” Leonard said.

Here are the full results from this year’s Comptroller’s Cup: 

Best of Show - Best Overall Maryland Beer

Gold: Heavy Seas Beer, Plank III
Silver: Push American Brewing Co, Reckless Ascension IPA
Bronze: Heavy Seas Beer, Gold
Honorable Mention: Flying Dog Brewery, Gonzo Imperial Porter

Category - Gold/Blonde Ale

Gold: Heavy Seas Beer, Gold
Silver: Pub Dog Brewing Co., Blond Dog
Bronze: Brewer's Alley Restaurant and Brewery, Kolsch-Style Beer 

Category - Gold Lager

Gold: Heavy Seas Beer, Small Craft Warning
Silver: Ruddy Duck Brewery, Helles  
Bronze: Barley and Hops, Highway to Helles Maibock
Honorable Mention: Gordon Biersch - Rockville, Czech Pilsner      

Category - Belgian Ale

Gold: Heavy Seas Beer, Plank III
Silver: Heavy Seas Beer, Holy Sheet
Bronze: Union Craft Brewing Co., Royal Farmhouse IPA
Honorable Mention: Milkhouse, Dollyhyde Farmhouse

Category - Porter/Brown Ale

Gold: Brewer's Alley Restuarant and Brewery, 1812 Double Brown Ale
Silver: Barley and Hops, Stonewall Stogies
Bronze: Oliver Brewing Co., Dark Horse

Category - Stout

Gold: Pub Dog Brewing Co., FUBARK
Silver: Heavy Seas Beer, Peg Leg
Bronze: Monocacy Brewing Co., Brewtus
Honorable Mention: Brewer's Alley Restaurant and Brewery, Barrel-Aged Oatmeal Stout

Category - Pale Ale

Gold: Monocacy Brewing Co., Riot Rye Pale Ale
Silver: Flying Dog Brewery, Classic Pale Ale
Bronze: Union Craft Brewing Co., Duckpin Pale Ale
Honorable Mention: Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farm, Goldie's Best Bitter

Category - Marzen/Okotberfest/Vienna/Dark Lager

Gold: Heavy Seas Beer, Cutlass
Silver: Pub Dog Brewing Co., Fest Dog
Bronze: Gordon Biersch - Rockville, Schwarzbier 

Category - Amber/Red Ale/Hybrid-Alt Bier

Gold: Gordon Biersch - Rockville, Brewer's Select Altbier
Silver: Heavy Seas Beer, Winter Storm
Bronze: White Marsh Brewing Co., Something Red 

Category - Wheat Beer

Gold: Pub Dog Brewing Co., White Dog
Silver: Brewer's Alley Restaurant and Brewery, Hefeweizen
Bronze: Jailbreak Brewing Co., Made Wit Basil
Honorable Mention: Gordon Biersch - Rockville, Hefeweizen 

Category -  IPA

Gold: Push American Brewing Co., Reckless Ascension
Silver: Gordon Biersch - Rockville, Brewer's Select Belgian IPA
Bronze: Pub Dog Brewing Co., Imperial Dog
Honorable Mention: Jailbreak Brewing Co., Big Punisher 

Category - Specialty/Experimental

Gold: Push American Brewing Co., Meyer Lemon IPA
Silver: Heavy Seas Beer, Siren Noire
Bronze: Union Craft Brewing Co., Barrel Aged Chessie
Honorable Mention: Heavy Seas Beer, Great’ER Pumpkin

Category - Specialty Fruit

Gold: Jailbreak Brewing Co., Berry'd
Silver: Pub Dog Brewing Co., Pumpkin Ale
Bronze: Flying Dog Brewery, Bloodline
Honorable Mention: Full Tilt Brewing Co., Fleet Street Raspberry Wheat

Category - Barleywine/Strong Ale

Gold: Flying Dog Brewery, Gonzo Imperial Porter
Silver: Full Tilt Brewing Co., Patterson Pumpkin
Bronze: Gordon Biersch - Rockville, Brewer's Select Barleywine

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