Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Happy Heron Pale Ale

Central Waters Brewing Company
Amherst, WI

Style: American Pale Ale
ABV: 5.2%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Recommended)

I’m not sure why it took so long, but it’s finally here. Nigel FINALLY has his dirty English hands on some Central Waters, the tiny brewery in equally tiny Amherst, Wisconsin (and formerly of the even tinier Junction City, Wisconsin). Given my current status as a Milwaukeean who doesn’t get north too often (it is the dead of winter, after all), on the surface it wouldn’t seem too surprising that I have been unable to locate this small brewery with limited distribution. But alas, the saga of my quest for Central Waters is far more long-winded than that.

Until September, Nigel lived in the cesspool known as Oshkosh, which is in the Fox River Valley about 50 miles south of Green Bay, 60 miles north of Milwaukee, and an hour east of Amherst. There’s virtually nothing in between, so it would seem like a good place for Central Waters to distribute (though the beer IQ in Oshkosh is a notch below retarded, so it’s probably a good choice to stay away), but they didn’t. On top of that, there’s a Tanner family estate in Minocqua, which is in the far northeastern part of the state. When traveling there, Nigel drives through Amherst and Stevens Point, yet never located a place that sold Central Waters (OK, I never actually stopped in Amherst, as I’m still not sure where the town is despite the signs that claim you’re in it). On top of that, Minocqua is a tourist mecca and has some stores that stock various Badger state microbrews to appease the out-of-staters, yet there’s no sign of Central Waters. And, if that’s not enough, Nigel grew up on the actual waters of central Wisconsin, just north of Madison and 60 miles south of Central Waters headquarters, yet our central waters have no Central Waters.

Despite all of these seemingly great opportunities, somehow I had never once seen a Central Waters brew, nor did I know anybody who had even so much as heard of them. Some of the craft beer blogs have numerous references to Central Waters, mostly from various Wisconsinites in the Madison area, the Green Bay/Fox Valley area, or the central state (Stevens Point, Wausau, Wisconsin Rapids, etc.), and the talk is largely positive. I’ve long wanted to find Central Waters brews, but until now I was unable to.

This changed this past weekend when I visited my hometown to unload crates worth of Christmas decorations and other miscellaneous crap into the Tanner family storage facility. The route from there to Milwaukee goes through Madison, and on the return trip I decided to make a slight detour down the Beltline to Steve’s Liquor. Had I known that I would find Central Waters in addition to the Lake Louie that I was initially in search of, I would have planned better and made a bigger haul. But, alas, I had planned on picking up three sixers and thus ended up with two Lake Louie and one Central Waters. There were three or four different selections of Central Waters at Steve’s, and I honestly had no idea what to get since I had done no research whatsoever due to the fact that I wasn’t expecting to see them. Thus, I did what I normally do which is select the style that fits me best (read: hoppy) and hope that I made the right decision. We shall see, but I’m not sure about this “Happy Heron” thing; I’ve seen many a heron in my day, but I can’t recall any of them looking terribly happy. For the most part they looked like they were sick of standing in a foot of mud and eating raw fish …

After a browse of the Central Waters web site, I found a number of styles that I would have preferred to try over Happy Heron, since APAs tend to be tame. There’s a Bourbon Barrel Stout that sounds intriguing, as well as the Lac Du Bay IPA (I’ve driven over that damn lake hundreds of times) and the wonderfully named Mud Puppy Porter. The, uh … timely Kosymk Charlie Y2K Catastrophe Ale (I’m sure that was a cute name EIGHT FLIPPIN’ YEARS AGO), a barley wine, and the Satin Solstice Imperial Stout also caught my attention. I’m not sure if any of these were available at Steve’s (I’m assuming the IPA wasn’t, or I would have picked that instead), but I’m wishing I had known of their existence prior to my visit. Instead I ended up with a very average pale ale that has me wondering what all this hype was about.

Happy Heron pours with a nice, creamy head of about an inch that slowly dissipates, leaving a clingy, creamy lace at the top throughout the drink. A deep golden brown color with a reddish tinge, there is a slight bit of sedimentation that makes this a nice looking pale ale in the glass. The aroma is fairly weak, with hints of grassy pale malts and a citrusy zip of grapefruit and orange zest. There’s a tinge of sugary sweetness in it as well, mainly a mild toffee zip that helps balance the largely earthy aroma. While you can detect some hoppiness, it’s a secondary player to the malt and I can’t really put my finger on what types are utilized.

The taste is fine … that’s about as excited as I can get. It’s a decent American pale ale, but there’s nothing about it that would distinguish it from the hundreds of other similar offerings in the category. Light, bready malt flavors hit the tongue right off the bat, with a slight citrus tinge. The malt increases as the session continues, with the breadiness giving way to a grassy, earthy flavor that is hard to pinpoint as to its exact origins. While there is a hoppy zip in the background, it’s again hard to distinguish who the lead actor is (I’d assume Cascade since it’s so common in APAs, though the overwhelming earthiness may say otherwise). It’s equal parts grassy, earthy, sweet (caramel and toffee), roasted, and bitter, but ultimately it’s just kind of there; nothing offensive, but nothing much to enjoy. Medium bodied and relatively smooth on the palate, the overall tepidness of Happy Heron might make it a session brew (at 5.2 percent ABV, it won’t blow you away), but I could only drink a couple before I grew bored with the experience.

The bottom line is this: Happy Heron won’t ruin your day, but it won’t put the same creepy smile on your face that the ridiculous looking bird on the bottle has. There is no other word to describe this other than average, and I certainly hope that all the hype I’ve heard surrounding Central Waters on various blogs means they have far better offerings than this. Should you locate Central Waters brews, I’d suggest giving something else a try and hope it rises above the realm of average.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on January 25, 2008.
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