If there’s one universal truth in the world of craft beer it’s these days, it’s that you, the drinker, will never be able to try all the good beers out there. No matter how many great beers you sample, there will always be more. This is the gift that the explosion of the industry has presented us with; an almost unlimited variety of choice, where new beers and new breweries are circulated into the fold so quickly that it is difficult if not impossible to keep up, provided you live in the right place.
Chicago, undoubtedly, is one of those “right places,” these days. I live downstate, but whenever I’m able to visit Chicago, I can always be sure I’ll come back with a variety of new brews. Thankfully, some of these beers are even headed to central Illinois now. With the first downstate opening of a Binny’s Beverage Depot package store, a number of “Chicago-only” breweries are now available in my neck of the woods.
One of these ale factories is Central Waters Brewing, which produces beer from smack-dab in the center of Wisconsin, in a small town called Amherst. They were a complete unknown to me prior to my five-day Wisconsin Beer Voyage, a year and a half ago, and only recently has their beer become available in Illinois at all.
Central Waters wasn’t one of the breweries I visited on my tour, but it was one of the most regularly mentioned by greater Wisconsin-area craft beer fans, despite the fact that I didn’t go anywhere near Amherst. In general, I repeatedly heard that this was a place producing very solid, down-to-Earth beers that were either solid representations of their styles or even world-class ones. I made a mental note then to try any Central Waters beers I saw, but I only ended up having a few during the course of the trip.
I was happy, then, to run into a variety of Central Waters brews during my trip to the Binny’s, which even included their most hard-to-get and highest rated brew, the Bourbon Barrel Stout. A few weeks later, I’ve tasted them all, and have organized some basic thoughts below. Short version: The brewery has earned its good reputation.
Happy Heron Pale Ale: Plenty hoppy for an APA, with a solid backbone of bitterness. Definitely a hop-forward example of the style with classic, pine/citrus aroma profile. Almost “IPA junior” in flavor. A quintessential American pale ale that is right up my alley. I would keep this in my fridge all the time. 3.5 hops
Ouisconsing Red Ale: Smooth and easy-drinking with a very creamy mouthfeel, but none of the hops of the Happy Heron. Flavor profile reminds me of a lower-gravity Scottish ale, like a 60 or 70 shilling. A little bland, just not really my thing. 2.5 hops
Satin Solstice Imperial Stout: A very interesting beer. At only 7.5%, it’s not quite as strong as what most Aleheads would think of as an “imperial” stout. The aroma is strongly grainy, with something that is reminiscent of rye malt. In flavor, it’s quite roast-forward and not too overly sweet, allowing you to tilt it back with abandon. This is a drinking man’s imperial stout–“sessionable,” if such a thing exists. Lew Bryson would probably punch me for saying that. On the lighter side for the style but dangerously drinkable and full of roasty goodness. I’m getting some more of this right away. Plus, isn’t “Satin Solstice” an awesome name? 3.5 hops
Glacial Trail IPA: Light-bodied and floral, with flavors of biscuity malt and herbaceous hops. Not really as hop-forward as the pale ale was, more “English” in its presentation. Only okay, something is a little astringent here. 2. 5 hops
Slainte Scottish-Style Ale: It says “Scottish-style,” but at 7.5% (oddly, the same as the imperial stout), this is clearly a Scotch ale/Wee heavy. This has a complex depth of malt flavor, with tons of dried fruit, prune and raisin notes. I think I even got some grape? This is joined by warming alcohol, and the overall effect is pretty rich. Within style, this is pretty much exactly what I think a Scotch ale should be. As such, I don’t see how I can really give this less than a perfect 4 hops.
Bourbon Barrel Stout: I’d heard very good things about this beer on several occasions, so I was quite curious to try it. At 9.5%, it’s quite a bit stronger than the brewery’s other imperial stout, and as such it doesn’t seem to be the same base beer. Flavor-wise, there is a lot of sweet, oaky, bourbon flavor. Of the barrel-aged beers I’ve had recently, this one really accentuates the bourbon, but in a very smooth, not harsh way. This is still oddly drinkable. A bit less intense in character than a Founders KBS, if you’ve had it. It’s difficult to rate, because I feel like I’m losing any “stout” quality that is under the bourbon, and I feel strongly that there should be “a beer in there, somewhere.” Still, it tastes good. 3 hops
So there you go, a very strong lineup of brews that are for the most part quite accessible and tasty every-day drinkers. The Happy Heron and Satin Solstice especially are things I definitely expect I’ll be getting some more of. If you’re anywhere near the Chicago area or in Wisconsin, I recommend you check them out.