There are dozens of great breweries in Michigan and Wisconsin, but Amherst, Wisconsin’s Central Waters Brewing Co. definitely has a tendency to fly under the radar. Perhaps it’s their labels, which are a little old-fashioned, or the fact that the product is coming out of a small town that isn’t close to any major population centers.
Whatever the reason, they don’t quite get the respect they deserve for their world-class, everyday beers such as their Happy Heron Pale Ale or Mudpuppy Porter, which can stand alongside comparable beers from breweries like Founders and Bell’s. Moreoever, their barrel-aged series has earned national attention and acclaim, especially the bourbon barrel stout, which has been compared favorably even to offerings such as Three Floyds Dark Lord. That’s some impressive company.
The Bourbon Barrel Barleywine is another ale from Central Waters that has a big wave of positive press behind it, but for me this 2014 bottling couldn’t quite back up the praise. The aroma is incredibly rich and boozy, intensely sweet in a way that’s reminiscent of molasses or further caramelized brown sugar. There’s lots of dark, dried fruit—raisins, prunes and plum, and a spiced note like smashed clove. Put it all together and it’s a bit like a fruitcake soaked in spiced rum.
The bourbon comes out to play on the palate and the alcohol is immediately present, warming as it trickles down the throat and all the way into the chest. This is a strong and heady brew for sure, heavy in body and with a mouthfeel like motor oil. The oak comes through in a big way, providing the mild sour tang of most barrel-aged beers, which reinforces the fruit flavors—here presenting primarily as sour cherry. Bitterness is also fairly high, but it doesn’t stand any chance of matching the overwhelming waves of sweetness present between the malt and barrel flavors.
This is absolutely decadent beer, a boozy sugar bomb that throws away any attempt at balance and embraces the intensity of its malt and fruit flavors. The alcohol is hot and you’re going to feel every bit of its 11.5% ABV. It might make a great beer to sock away for some special night 8-12 months from now, but drinking it right now, it’s a little overwhelming. Save this one for later.
Brewery: Central Waters Brewing Co.
City: Amherst, Wis.
Style: Bourbon barrel-aged American barleywine
Availability: Limited, annual release, 12-ounce bottles