Central Waters is, I don’t mind admitting, a brewery with which I’ve become acquainted from a “top-down” sort of approach. What does that mean? Simply this: I went to a local beer store just a couple of months after moving to Madison, Wisconsin, determined, as we all are at some point in this process, for Founders KBS. I whiffed, repeatedly, until some exasperated clerk suggested I give the Central Waters barrel-aged series a go. And I did, picking up singles of Bourbon Barrel Stout, Bourbon Barrel Barleywine, and Bourbon Barrel Cherry Stout. Some eight months later, I was standing in the mud at Central Waters, waiting to pick up bottles of Fifteen.
I didn’t need to pre-order those bottles. One year later, Central Waters started doing online sales for their anniversary series and other special release. Sixteen lasted a good week or more; Seventeen, roughly a day; Eighteen, the last one I purchased, was still somewhat forgiving at five minutes. Today I’m sitting with co-owner Anello Mollica, a few weeks before their 19th anniversary party. The accompanying beer? It lasted all of 30 seconds. I ask Anello if they’ll just throw the 20th anniversary beer into a fire and sell tickets to smell the fumes. It’s not a good joke, and he probably won’t remember it. But he gives a sympathy chuckle anyway.
“Nobody expected this,” he says. It’s a snowy, messy December day, and the brewery isn’t open, except for production. “We figured it might be something we could hang our hats on for the future, but we never expected that it would get to this level. Especially,” he adds, “when we started doing barrel-aging in 2001, we never dreamed that it would take up 30% of our volume.”
That number, that 30%? It’s important, particularly in context. Central Waters has the fourth or fifth largest stock of oak barrels in the country. The only other breweries that match or exceed them? Goose Island, New Holland, Firestone Walker, and Founders. And that company gets even more mind-boggling when you consider that, though Central Waters and Founders have the same number of oak casks, Founders’ total brewing capacity is 200,000 barrels per year. Central Waters? 15,000 barrels per year.
Anello relates this fact to me in a way that suggests he’s long past being astounded by it, but something in his expression indicates that he is, at least, still a little dazed. It may have something to do with the initial scale.
“When we started our barrel-aging program,” he says, “we just had a handful of bourbon barrels. So we made the beer, put it out, and we sold every drop we had. Every bit of profit that we made off of that beer, though, we reinvested back into the barrel program. And we’ve been doing that for 15 years now.”
Which is why Central Waters essentially has an airplane hangar dedicated to housing their barrels. When Anello takes me back there, there is scant space to walk around, let alone fit even more product. Somehow, though, they’ve found a way to continue growing the program, adding variety with rye whiskey barrels and even a handful of tequila casks. Two draft-only beers, The Promise (a barleywine of sorts) and Bloody Sunrise (a golden strong ale with agave and blood oranges) have already come out of these barrels.
The street cred for such a long-tenured barrel program is obvious. But there are other, more practical advantages for having been around so long. Bourbon barrels used to be gotten with a song and a handshake. Now, thanks in large part to so many more breweries experimenting with bourbon barrels, plus the rise of single malt production outside of Scotland—mainly in Japan—they are at a premium.
“We used to be able to get them for $25 apiece,” Anello says. “Now, they typically run about $190.”
On top of that, they’re difficult to get. But Central Waters has been buying barrels for over 15 years now, affording them a leg up in some respects.
“We have strength in buying power, so that definitely helps,” Anello says. “And we’ve learned a lot about quality from each one of them.”
They’ve also learned the importance of thinking ahead. Making beers like the Bourbon Barrel Barleywine—which some of the crew is barrel-sampling during our walk-through—requires not only time, patience, and the willingness to tie up capital, but a finely tuned palate in order to come up with a consistent product year after year. Blending is key, a face that becomes apparent when I ask about the process involving their anniversary beer.
“Generally speaking,” he says, “we only make one stout for that beer, and we call it Fat Elvis. We’ve only ever sold it unblended, once, when we made Ardea Insignis, an imperial stout that we aged in 25-year-old bourbon barrels for three years. So we age that base beer in barrels, then taste along the way to see which ones are going to go into the final blend, and which ones we’ll use for other projects. And of course we record those blends for inspiration on future releases; so, for example, Nineteen has some 1414 (the original anniversary recipe) in it, some un-spiced Space Ghost, etc. But never Satin Solitude, never Bourbon Barrel Stout. Those are completely different recipes.”
He adds that the end-goal for Fat Elvis is to eventually release the beer, but in a series of variants: cocoa nibs, vanilla beans, etc. I see many crashed Brown Paper Tickets servers in the future.
Though Central Waters’ barrel program continues to pay dividends and yield new projects on the regular, the core portfolio has remained stalwart, solid. Honey Blonde, Wisconsin Red, Satin Solitude (formerly Satin Solstice), and Mudpuppy Porter can be relied on to fill SKUs and maintain a consistent stylistic undercurrent for the brewery; plus, there’s that other 70% of sales to account for.
Still, Anello recognizes the importance of listening to the market; a brewery plunked down in the middle of nowhere doesn’t get to celebrate a 19th anniversary without keeping a finger on the pulse of the drinking culture. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that the IPA niche in their lineup has seen a fair bit of turnover.
“We moved into this building,” Anello says, gesturing around their nearly all-solar, all-wind powered facility, “in 2007, and started brewing Lac du Bay. It was malty, bitter; a very English-style IPA. So we switched after a while to Glacial Trail; we wanted to keep it pretty malt-focused, but definitely hoppier.”
Early this year, however, the brewery will bid farewell to Glacial Trail in favor of a new IPA, so far labeled simply “Experimental IPA.” So why the turnover? It’s not that Central Waters doesn’t know how to wrangle hops—HHG pale ale, brewed for and with their friends in the bluegrass outfit Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, was a hit upon release, and a mainstay on draft lines ever since the brewery was able to tap into a steady stream of Citra and Mosaic hops; Summarillo, an Amarillo dry-hopped lager, is easily one of their best beers. Anello’s answer is simple.
“It’s hard to stay current,” he says. “I mean, we like [Glacial Trail] a lot, but when sales of a certain brand go down year after year, you kind of have no choice but to do something different.”
That holds true for another great Central Waters beer, one that the brewery brought back from the dead seemingly out of nowhere: Kosmyk Charlie’s Y2K Catastrophe Ale, the base beer for Bourbon Barrel Barleywine. The last time this beer came out was 2013, after being brewed pretty consistently since 1998.
“It was the first beer we put into barrels after we did Bourbon Barrel Stout,” Anello tells me as I sip on a tulip of the raisiny, caramel-laden barleywine. “For a long time, we released it alongside the bourbon barrel-aged version every year. But eventually the barrel-aged beer would sell out, and the regular barleywine would just sit there. We let this current vintage mature in the kegs for about two full years; it might be the last time we make it, though.”
Which would be a shame. But Anello has the benefit of over two decades in this industry, which gives him valuable insight and perspective. He’s seen trends come, go, and come back around again. Regardless, he knows the industry has changed for good in at least one sense.
“The days of the large regional brewery are over,” he says, “at least in terms of starting a new one. I mean, let’s be honest: it’s still not that hard to start up a brewery. It’s not that hard to find $2 million investment capital; craft beer is still sexy, but it’s not immune to the laws of commerce.”
He’s right. There are currently thousands of craft breweries in the United States and this is still a fairly young industry, one that is finding out exactly how much it’s going to have to answer to consumers with regards to quality, portfolio, etc. As well, smaller breweries with a 10-barrel (or smaller) brewhouse are beginning to buck the trend of traditional three-tier distribution, getting the beer from the brewery to the consumer themselves, as fast as possible.
“It’s changed the way people make beer,” Anello says. Even at Central Waters.