More is more.
Wait. Isn’t less more? More drum ‘n’ bass and less bass and drum solos, more or less?
Oh. The topic is barrel-aged imperial stouts, not double live albums from prog-rock dinosaurs in the mid-70s, doofus. Fine.
What happens when barrel-aged imperial stouts, by definition “more is more” already, have extra Rheinheitsgebot-disapproved goodies tossed in the barrel?
It’s tough to imagine that nine years ago, this “dessert pastry,“ “decadent etcetera” imperial stout wasn’t a queueable USD $30-50 object for hundreds of people. A mid-sized brewery in a city by Lake Michigan—let’s call it “Moose Slyhands” to protect its identity—started adding logical foodstuffs like vanilla and coffee¹ to their bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout around the turn of the last decade. Initially a curiosity tentatively explored in 2009-10, current iterations of this imperial stout named after a county in Kentucky or Kansas released by “Moose Slyhand”’ are so popular…
—How popular are they?
They are so popular that many, many grown-ass adults get up early and freeze their butts off to buy these barrel-aged imperial stout variants—not only in Chicago, but from breweries all over the craft-brewing world!
“More is more” could be a believable mantra when it comes to good friends like Marc and Jon, the Beer Twins of Wrightwood, giving you a whole bunch of great beer that you most definitely don’t reciprocate. It’s certainly the case here with these two excellent barrel-aged imperial stouts from Amherst, Wisconsin’s CENTRAL WATERS BREWING COMPANY, that they sent my way.
Yet both beers—simply called “Stout” and “Cherry”—firmly plant their flags in the “less is more” ideology that should govern bass lines and drum solos. Meet Stout and Cherry, the Neu! of the bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout extended family (what’s Neu?—click here).
STOUT pours black (obviously) with active carbonation and a white head. There was a fair amount of yeast in the bottom of the bottle that was swirled and added to the rest of the beer². Stout’s aroma popped out as an enticing mix of ripe caramelized banana, charred oak (light-medium toast for you wine nerds), chocolate chip cookie, and toasted coconut after the requisite twenty minutes or so of letting it equilibrate to ambient temperature.
Roasted malt and vanilla are the dominant flavors, with tannic oak and bourbon fighting for space underneath. A few additional sips reveal crème brûlée as an additional component in the charred sweetness. The appealing aspect, as always with exciting beers, was the mouthfeel—Stout is lighter in body than most barrel-aged imperial stouts, but it’s nevertheless delicious. If there was some kind of savory treat called tres chocolates—consisting of bittersweet chocolate, roasted chocolate malt, and bourbon-spiked Spanish hot chocolate, let’s say—that’s what lingers after drinking Stout. It’s a masterfully balanced beer that’s understated, creative, and uniquely delicious. Like Neu! (the band)! (what’s Neu?—click here).
If Stout could be considered a revelation, CHERRY is an epiphany, a divine gift from the Magi of Wrightwood. A base imperial stout was permitted to rest on 75 pounds of Door County sour cherries for six months, then—lo!—a magical beer emerges, with aromas and flavors more like Rodenbach’s late lamented Rodenbach Alexander³ than Moose Slyhands’ Kentucky/Kansas county imperial stout. No drum solos. Repetitive, catchy bass lines. You Doo Right!
Cherry poured a little less carbonated and a little more beige-headed than its base beer, and there didn’t seem to be as much yeast in the bottom of the bottle². The volume on the aromas seemed a little lower, too, yet radically different—vanilla and ginjinha, the cherry cordial sold on the streets of Lisbon, plus oak and a chocolate sweetness kinda like sticking your nose into your kid’s jack-o’-lantern after they go to bed on Halloween. The initial flavor is a teeny, dark bar in Óbidos, Portugal in late December, where your ginjinha comes in a chocolate cup that is all part of the shot. The oaky caramel Rodenbach Alexander-type flavors immediately come next and are perfect meldings of cherries and oak.
In contrast to Stout, the bitterness in Cherry seems to be wood-based instead of from malt. This bitterness is contrasted with a rich sweetness of a homemade vanilla Tootsie Roll (not the weirdly plastic vanilla Tootsie Roll in the blue wrapper that’s still in your kid’s jack-o’-lantern). Notably, there’s no bourbon booziness. Could this be due to the barrels used for aging Cherry being in use longer than the ones used to make Stout? There is a note on the Cherry label stating “used” barrels, and perhaps it’s truly neutral oak—a brilliant decision (although it also states “used” on the Stout label).
The integration and harmonious balance of Cherry are intensely impressive. A perfect blend of tart, sweet, and bitter mellowness invites a leisurely session where the entire Cherry four-pack is enjoyed by you and one dear friend (you’ll need more four-packs if you invite more people). A drum beat twenty-one hours a day. Once I was blind, but now I see. Central Waters, you’ve made a believer out of me!
Less is more. —B.S.
¹ Not pooped out of a monkey’s butt, sadly. Not yet, anyway…
² The yeast added back to both beers did not seem to add much of anything as far as taste characteristics. Quick sips of the yeast slurry from both bottles (you do this, right, Dear Reader?) tasted like the beer as opposed to the yeast, like in a hefeweizen or the slurrys in the bottom of some NEIPAs.
³ Rodenbach Alexander was a young-old oak-aged blended Flemish golden-ish ale with sour cherries added to the younger batch. More importantly (selfishly), it was my partner’s absolute favorite beer from approximately 1995 until its discontinuation five years later. This is notable because we had to use her student loans to pay for all of the Alexander she drank. Rodenbach apparently started brewing it again in 2016, but we haven’t had the chance to try Version 2.0. We’re still paying off those loans.