Central Waters brewmaster Paul Graham has just introduced Exodus, a bourbon barrel-aged beer made with Door County cherries. The beer took over 18 months to ferment before he felt it was ready to be released. Exodus probably won't be around long, though, since the brewery is releasing just 1,500 hand-corked 750 mL bottles to all of its distributors in and out of Wisconsin. It's expected to show up in Madison beginning next week.
What is it? Exodus from Central Waters Brewing Company of Amherst, Wisconsin.
Style: Exodus is a wood-aged sour beer. Wood-aged beer can be found across a range of styles. Because of that, many are considered hybrids or even experimental beers. Exodus is similar to a red ale before it is placed in the barrel. Wood-aging imparts unique flavors and aromas like vanilla and oak, and the beer will also get some flavor from the previous contents of the barrel. In the case of Exodus, the barrels were once used by Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, Kentucky, to make bourbon. To create complex tart and sour tones, brewers may also introduce wild yeast and even bacteria.
Background: Central Waters brewmaster Paul Graham has been working on Exodus for over four years. Although the brewery has made a handful of bourbon barrel beers over the years, Exodus is the first in its new long-term barrel aging program. Time and dedication to leaving beers in wood barrels for over a year are what set Central Waters apart from many other breweries. Graham and his partner Anello Mollica even built a separate barrel house capable of storing 500 oak barrels at a time, which is where future editions of Exodus and other special beers are cellared.
Much of what goes into Exodus is Wisconsin-grown. The beer is made with 94% Wisconsin barley produced on a farm just two miles away from the brewery. Another distinctive component, Door County Montmorency Cherries, comes from Seaquist Orchards of Sister Bay. A bed of cherries is placed in each oak barrel before it's filled with beer and then aged for 18 months. After that it's bottled and allowed to continue fermenting for another five to six weeks before distributors pick it up.
The beer gets some of its distinctive flavor from the addition of wild yeast and bacteria. Homebrewers will recognize the assertiveness of Brettanomyces, while Lactobacillus and Pediococcus add sharp-tartness to the beer.
All 1,500 of the 750 mL bottles were personally hand-corked by Graham, part of a three-person team that filled and packaged the beer for an entire day back in October. Bottles of Exodus are expected to sell for around $12. The beer ends up at around 5% ABV.
Only a few select draught beer venues are expected to offer Exodus on tap in Madison; these are yet to be announced. If you miss its release, Central Waters put another batch of Exodus into oak barrels on October 28. Graham says he's doubled the amount of Exodus for the second vintage. But don't lie awake at night planning your next purchase strategy; with 18 months to ferment, it's not expected to be available until mid-2013.
Central Waters will celebrate its 14th anniversary in January. "It's crazy to think I'm brewing Exodus for 18 months down the road, when 10 years ago I was questioning if I'd be in business for the next 18 months," laughs Graham as he thinks about how far his current brewery has come since its humble beginnings in a rundown 100-year-old building is the small town of Junction City, 20 miles west of its current location in Amherst.
- Aroma: A fruity whiff of cherry, with a hint of oak-woodiness. There's also a light and complex blend of earthy, barnyard-and-horse-blanket aromas (considered a good quality in beers made with wild yeast).
- Appearance: Deep copper color. Since it's bottle conditioned, initially it pours clear, but near the bottom of the bottle it becomes hazy. A medium, rocky, tan head with tints of white-reddish bubbles.
- Texture: Medium bodied and bubbly.
- Taste: First sip offers strong tart cherry flavor. Over the course of a glass you'll notice some undertones of caramel malt and some oak barrel character.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Lightly dry, with faint tones of vanilla and oak. There is also some very light sweetness that hints at the bourbon that was once in the barrel.
Glassware: Serve this beer in a snifter with an inward flare to the lip that will focus the aroma under the nose. Swirl the glass often to release its assertive fruity character.
Pairs well with: Exodus is a beer to appreciate on its own. Share a bottle in small snifters with friends before a meal. Its tart cherry qualities and dry finish will cleanse the palate and stimulate the appetite.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Consensus: This beer has just been released and the current vintage has yet to receive many reviews, but earlier tests of this beer have been evaluated as B+ (very good) at BeerAdvocate and 86/34 (overall/style) at RateBeer.
The Verdict: Exodus is a special treat, especially for those who enjoy the unique flavors of a wood-aged sour beer. It's not intensely cherry-sour; rather, it's assertively tart. And that extra month of time in the bottle to self-carbonate adds another dimension. There's also a nice malty background that softens the harsh fruity esters of wild yeast and bacteria. Those familiar with, and expecting, a sour Belgian-style Flanders Red Ale might be a little disappointed.
While Exodus isn't overly sour, its flavor is much more complex with its cherry and oak tones. And I can't help but admire Paul Graham, or any brewer, for being able to leave a beer alone for 18 months to age and avoid the temptation of drinking it.