Four times a year, the handsome blue four-packs with the profile of the heron appear, quickening the pulse of Wisconsin’s beer geeks.
It’s Central Waters time.
While the brewery in Amherst, near Stevens Point, has a solid stable of year-round offerings, it’s the Brewer’s Reserve series of bourbon barrel-aged beers that really jump out of the beer cooler.
Named simply Bourbon Barrel Stout, Bourbon Barrel Cherry Stout, Bourbon Barrel Barleywine and Bourbon Barrel Scotch Ale, these beers are the reason aficionados from coast to coast know the name Central Waters and are the primary selling point for the bottle shops in Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa that stock its beer.
Most craft beer drinkers prefer local options, so when a brewery from a state over tries to compete, it had better bring its A game, said Ryan Findlay, Central Waters’ sales manager for Illinois, Iowa and the southern two-thirds of Wisconsin. Central Waters’ A game is the Brewer’s Reserve beers.
But Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota will have to get in the car to pick up Central Waters’ latest bourbon barrel beer. Bourbon Barrel Cherry Stout is the most limited of the Brewer’s Reserve series, and the only one to hit shelves only in Wisconsin.
Central Waters made only 90 barrels this year, Findlay said, in part because it’s labor-intensive, even more so than most bourbon barrel beers. Brewers have to hand-pack 75 pounds of Door County cherries into every bourbon barrel using funnels, and then wait for six months while the fruit and barrels do their work, soaking their aromas and flavors into the base imperial stout. (The other Brewer’s Reserve beers age for about 12 months.)
Bourbon Barrel Cherry Stout has been made since 2006, and in its rookie year it won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in the Wood- and Barrel-aged Strong Beer category. Let’s take a closer look.
Bourbon Barrel Cherry Stout
Style: Imperial stout aged with cherries in bourbon barrels
Brewed by: Central Waters Brewing, Amherst
What it’s like: Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Stout with a shot of merlot.
Where, how much: Brewer’s Reserve four-packs usually go for $13-$14, and the limited Cherry Stout dropped late last week, so if you want it and see it, don’t hesitate.
The beer: Cherry Stout pours a deep mahogany brown that’s not quite the inky black of some imperial stouts. The aroma is strong with bourbon notes from the barrels, though an alcohol note and the cherries become more evident as the beer warms. The tart cherry flavor is overlaid on the classic bourbon barrel stout flavor profile — oaky, vanilla notes accenting a somewhat chocolatey base beer — and while it’s not overwhelming, it completely transforms the takeaway of this beer to something almost like a red wine.
I cracked a year-old bottle from my cellar with the hopes that all those various flavors would jell together just a little better with some age. Although that wasn’t the case, it was an interesting exercise: The cherry notes, which I expected would be amplified, were not, but they were shifted to the back end of the swallow.
Booze factor: Bourbon Barrel Cherry Stout weighs in at a not-to-be-trifled with 10 percent ABV, a half-percentage point higher than Central Waters’ “regular” Bourbon Barrel Stout. It’s a sipper.
The buzz: Central Waters, which made about 11,200 barrels of beer last year, is planning a fair amount of changes to its lineup in 2015. The year-round portfolio will see the addition of Honey Blonde Ale, a longtime favorite at the brewery’s tap room. It replaces Shine On, an amber beer that pays tribute to Central Waters’ commitment to sustainability. Findlay said that change was imminent, though it may take some time Honey Blonde to surface in the Madison market.
Central Waters is also looking to release a beer in the 22-ounce bomber format on a more regular basis. Six releases are planned for this year: Space Ghost hot pepper stout in late January, Brewhouse Coffee Stout in March/April, La Petit Mort barrel-aged weizenbock in June/July, a beer to be determined in late summer, Headless Heron barrel-aged pumpkin strong ale in October and Rye Barrel Chocolate Porter in December. Headless Heron was a big hit despite its relatively late release this fall, and the Rye Barrel Chocolate Porter was one of the best beers I had during Madison Craft Beer Week last year, so I’m glad to see it’ll be hitting wider release.
One beer we won’t be seeing again anytime soon is Peruvian Morning, the fantastic but star-crossed bourbon barrel coffee stout that was discontinued last spring after its second consecutive recall due to infection. Central Waters has hinted that Peruvian Morning, or something like it, could return to the Brewer’s Reserve series, but Findlay said it won’t be this year.
The next big thing for Central Waters — as with a lot of breweries — is sours. It recently opened a 6,000-square-foot building dedicated to barrel aging, which gives that program plenty of room for the next few year, Findlay said. The 2,000-square-foot barrel building behind the brewery that had housed all those barrels will now be dedicated to sour beers, sequestered away so the microorganisms will sour only the beer they’re supposed to. Central Waters’ sours so far — Exodus, Plums Were on Sale, Boysen in the Woods — have been few and scarce but remarkable, so it could be only a matter of time before these exciting beers reach a wider audience.
In the meantime, let’s try not to take those bourbon barrel beers for granted.
Bottom line: 4 stars (out of five)