Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Bourbon Barrel Stout

Central Waters Brewing Company
Amherst, WI

Style: Imperial Stout
ABV: 9.5%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (World class.)

Just under a year ago, Nigel wrote the first review for Central Waters Brewing Co. In that review for the relatively bland Happy Heron Pale Ale, Nigel went on and on as he so often does with boring, unimportant details, geographic tidbits, and random bitching. I talked about how I had heard much hype surrounding Central Waters but hadn’t been able to track it down. I then bemoaned the fact that I had finally located Central Waters, but was disappointed with the quality of Happy Heron. Even at a relatively young age, Nigel can often be mistaken for an ornery old man who rants and raves about meaningless things for no good reason for hours on end.

Fast forward a year, and my how things have changed. What was rare only a year ago is now prevalent, and a brewery that I was largely unfamiliar with is now one of my local (relatively speaking) favorites. In the past year, Nigel, with an assist from Eddie Glick on Whitewater Weizen, has reviewed numerous Central Waters brews, ranging from phenomenal (Brewhouse Coffee Stout, Bourbon Barrel Barleywine, and to a lesser extent Satin Solstice Imperial Stout) to so-so (Glacial Trail IPA, Happy Heron), to flat-out bad (Octoberfest, Whitewater Weizen). I’ve also sampled, but not yet reviewed, the decent Mud Puppy Porter, the bland Ouisconsing Red Ale, and the very good Bourbon Barrel Cherry Stout (all the Bourbon Barrel brews fall under the limited edition Brewer’s Reserve series). While Central Waters won’t crack Nigel’s Midwest Power Rankings Top 10 when voting commences in 2009, they are certainly worthy of some, though not all, of the praise that I had long heard surrounding them. A gold medal at the recent Great American Beer Festival in the category “Wood or Barrel Aged Strong Beer” for Bourbon Barrel Barleywine doesn’t hurt the ol’ reputation, either.

The key to Central Waters success, in my opinion, is balance. The standard, year-round releases are decent, but not over-the-top. This appeals to the standard beer drinker, the guy who used to (and likely still does) indulge in much of the mainstream shit that’s produced by the big commercial brewers. For a brewery located in a small town in the middle of a notoriously blue collar region like central Wisconsin, this is key. A brewbup offering nothing but unique, powerful styles at a high price would not succeed in a place like Amherst, Wisconsin. Trust me … I’ve been there. Ain’t gonna happen.

On the other hand, instead of appeasing that local audience and settling, Central Waters has gone above and beyond to appeal to the craft beer connoisseur, of which there are plenty in Wisconsin, even in such a rural region. The Brewer’s Reserve series has thus far impressed, proving that not only is Central Waters willing to go to the extreme, but they’re damn good at it. Mixing basic with extreme and providing all styles from standard reds, porters, and wheats to bourbon barrel_aged monsters allows a brewery to survive and thrive, particularly when they’re not in a typical Midwest craft beer hotbed like the Twin Cities, Madison, or the southern Lake Michigan corridor (metro Milwaukee/Chicagoland/northwest Indiana/southeast Michigan).

Keeping with that formula, Central Waters once again hit the jackpot with their latest Brewer’s Reserve release, Bourbon Barrel Stout. Anyone who has had Bourbon Barrel Barleywine and Cherry Stout will recognize the distinct notes of smooth bourbon on the tongue … in fact, my only beef, slight as it may be, is that the bourbon barrel flavor can be a bit much on occasion, making all of the BB selections taste similar at times, when there should be (and to Central Waters’ credit, often are) noticeable style differences.

Bourbon Barrel Stout pours a deep black with a medium tan head that quickly dissipates, leaving nominal lacing throughout and some stickiness on the sides of the glass. Stouts are meant to be impenetrable to all forms of light and this one is, giving me no indication as to sedimentation, though there is undoubtedly quite a bit in such a powerful, unfiltered brew. The aroma is wonderful, with all the sweet notes of smooth Kentucky bourbon coming through to their fullest. Like the BBB, there is something unique about the aroma, a sugary touch of light caramel, toffee, molasses, and vanilla that tingles the nostrils, but with an alcoholic bite. While hard to fully describe, rest assured it’s quite pleasing. Secondary aromatic notes of dark fruit (fig, black cherry, and raisin) and roasted nuts and cocoa penetrate the nostrils at various points, but are largely drowned out by the sweet bourbon characteristics.

The flavor is once again outstanding, but I’ll repeat my only minor objection: it’s not as distinguishable from Bourbon Barrel Barleywine as it should be. While imperial stouts and barley wines have numerous similarities, particularly when both are properly aged in the same type of cask, there should, in my opinion, be more differentiation between the two. You know what … screw it. They’re both flippin’ great, so who am I to nitpick? Initial sugary notes bombard the tongue, with caramel, molasses, toffee, and dark brown sugar, followed quickly by the sweeter notes of vanilla and dark fruit. Make no mistake, the bourbon barrel characteristics are present throughout, though while powerful, they don’t overwhelm to the point that they drown out the other flavors. On the contrary, BBS remains a complex and diverse drink, bringing out all of the various flavors at different points, including a roasted smokiness and warming alcoholic punch that certainly soothed Nigel on a cool January night. Smooth on the palate despite the overall complexity, a couple of Bourbon Barrel Stouts over the course of the evening will be more than enough to help a Badger, Nittany Lion, or Buckeye fan forget the embarrassment that is Big Ten football.

Overall, I was once again impressed with Central Waters attempt to go to the extreme. I’m not sure what the distribution situation is outside of Wisconsin, but the new brewery in Amherst has been cranking out the brews, making Central Waters a staple at most Badger state retailers with a decent craft beer selection. Check it out should you find it, as it won’t disappoint.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on January 12, 2009.
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