Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Bourbon Barrel Barleywine

Central Waters Brewing Company
Amherst, WI

Style: Barley Wine

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Outstanding within its style.)

Pair With:
Everyone remembers the three “Bs” we learned during our youth, the three most important things we need to sustain us in our adult life: beer, bucks, and booty. As a Beer Dork, I’ve moved beer into the top spot, though others argue that having bucks is more important (they would be fools). Granted, having lots of bucks is vital when trying to purchase said beer (or when trying to purchase booty, as former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer can attest), but in Beer Dork Land, the beer rules (I won’t argue with anyone who says booty is as important, though I would counter that beer typically leads to booty, so it’s kind of a “chicken or egg” scenario).

The three “Bs” also work well with my latest beer review, as the most important “b” is broken down into its own three “Bs”: bourbon, barrel, and barleywine. If you aren’t following me, this is likely a good time to hit the back button on your browser (three more “Bs”!), as anyone who doesn’t know the importance of bourbon barrel aging in making good beer is likely not a friend of Nigel. Considering the orgy of flavors that are created through this process when utilized in stouts and porters, I can’t wait to see what it does to the already über-complex barley wine.

Not only am I excited about this due to the fact that it’s a bourbon barrel-aged barley wine, but also for the fact that I can once again try Amherst, Wisconsin-based Central Waters, a brewery that I’ve long wanted to familiarize myself with but never really had the opportunity. A couple of months back I was able to track down some of Central Waters flagship brew, Happy Heron Pale Ale, but wasn’t terribly impressed. An alert reader from Wisconsin who is familiar with Central Waters sent me an e-mail verifying that I had in fact sampled one of their weaker offerings. I trust his judgment, particularly since he was attending Central Waters 10th Anniversary bash that weekend; clearly he knows his stuff when it comes to this brewery, and I certainly appreciated the input.

I’m hopeful that Central Waters is expanding their distribution, as the latest trip to my favorite craft beer retailer in Milwaukee led to the discovery of three offerings in six-pack form (Happy Heron, Mud Puppy Porter, and Ouisconsing Red), as well as individual bottles of Bourbon Barrel Barleywine. Bourbon Barrel Barleywine is supposedly an updated version of one of Central Waters all-time great brews, the barrel-aged version of the barley wine with the moniker Kosmyk Charlies Y2K Catastrophe Ale. Considering the uneventful apocalyptic year 2000 passed us by eight years ago, this is an update that was long overdue. I’ve heard that the recipe for BBB is basically the same as Kosmyk Charlies barrel-aged, though the aging process has been increased by a few months … I’m not sure if this is fact or fiction, so don’t quote me on it.

Bourbon Barrel Barleywine pours nicely into my snifter-style glass; it’s super cloudy, with sort of an apricot/caramel hue that is completely impenetrable to the human eye. A nice quarter inch foamy head bubbles up initially, which quickly settles into a mild creamy lace. The aroma is powerful as you’d expect, though not necessarily typical of a barely wine. I’m chalking it up to the barrel aging, as there is a pleasant, unique woody aroma that hits the nostrils at first (I would assume these are oak barrels being utilized, so this isn’t a huge surprise), quickly followed by the sweet and sugary aromas that typically characterize heavily malted craft barley wines. Sweet caramel and molasses is in perfect synchronization with a plethora of dark fruits, most notably plum, fig, and raisin. A nice touch of bourbon comes through as well, combined with an alcoholic zip typical of a brew that is undoubtedly extremely high in ABV.

The flavor is also unique, though I’m convinced of one thing right off the bat: CELLAR THIS! As we all know, barley wines can be cellared for a significant amount of time, as the various flavors and aromas associated with this complex brew often change over time and the stronger, sometimes hard to tolerate aspects mellow a bit. BBB is very good right away, but I think aging it would elevate it from very good to amazing. It’s a tad too sweet, a tad too thick, and a tad too spicy when enjoyed fresh, so a few years of mellowing would help it tremendously. Ultra-creamy malt blows you away at the outset and doesn’t let up until the last drop leaves the glass (by the way, if you have more than one of these in an evening, you’ll likely not remember that last drop … I’m not sure of the ABV, but I’m guessing its well over 10 percent). Pleasant flavors of caramel, toffee, and molasses combine with huge amounts of dark fruit, making this very thick and very sweet. The bourbon barrel process leaves a nice imprint on the flavor as well, as earthy, woody tones are very detectable, as is a noticeable hint of bourbon. Alcohol is also present, but not nearly to the point that it could be given the monstrous ABV. It contains all of the flavors you would expect a barley wine to have, with the pleasant addition of the bourbon barrel but the noticeable subtraction of any trace of hops (while barley wines aren’t necessarily meant to be hoppy, I prefer mine to have at least a minor hoppy bite). Extremely thick and powerful, BBB is a sipping beverage for sure, as it will likely take you at least an hour to finish a 12 oz. bottle. Huge body and high alcohol make it a bit rough on the palate and the thickness and flavors leave a significant aftertaste.

Ultimately I give this a solid four-mug rating, although I’d be surprised if I cracked open a properly stored 2008 version in 2011 and it didn’t rate a five. It’s very good initially, but has the potential to be great. Central Waters distribution is still quite limited, though they are slowly expanding throughout Wisconsin; should you see this at a local retailer, it’s worth the four bucks for a 12 oz. bottle. While it may not be the best barley wine you’ll ever have, it’s a worthy example of a wonderful style. I look forward to sampling more Central Waters brews in the future, as they have properly impressed Sir Nigel.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on March 23, 2008.
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