The smell hits you first.
The unmistakably pungent aroma of yeast and hops and beer. That odor I used to crinkle my nose at as I rode past Miller and the Red Star Yeast factory in downtown Milwaukee as a kid. A young girl standing next to me looks up at her parents and plugs her nose. (Why is a child here? Nevermind, it's Wisconsin.)
It's obvious the Central Waters Brewing Co.'s tap room is in a working brewery, and I like it.
Located in the small central Wisconsin town of Amherst (population less than 1,000), Central Waters' headquarters looks like any other nondescript storage building in farm country. A large, white silo sits adjacent to a wide, single-story building with gray siding and a low-slope blue roof.
But behind the building is one sign this thing is not like the others. Two large solar panel arrays soak in the bright, late winter sun.
I've been wanting to visit Central Waters for a while. I pass the brewery, just off Highway 10 about 20 minutes east of Stevens Point, on the numerous trips I make to my parents' cabin up north. But the brewery's tap room is only open Fridays and Saturdays from 3 to 9 p.m., with tours offered just once each day at 5 p.m., making a visit difficult to schedule around a weekend trip to the North Woods.
So when I stayed at a friend's farm less than 10 miles away last weekend, I jumped at the chance to finally tour and taste at the brewery.
When our group of seven arrived just before 5, the small tap room — at the entrance to the brewery and flanked by fermentation tanks — was packed. I tried to discern who were locals and who, like us, came for the tour. No matter, we were all there for the beer.
I bellied up to the bar and chose from more than a dozen beers on tap, opting for one of my favorite Central Waters offerings: the Bourbon Barrel Stout. Slight notes of bourbon and vanilla with chocolate and coffee flavors combine for a wonderfully smooth, dark beer. It tastes even better on its home turf.
Co-owner Anello Mollica recommends trying the bourbon barrel beers (other varieties include a cherry stout and scotch ale) when visiting the brewery — if they're available. The taps are constantly changing. "What I find is even people who think they don't like dark beers love these beers," he said.
The brewery's barrel-aging program, in fact, is in the top 10 in the country, according to Mollica. "People recognize Central Waters for that," he said.
And not just your everyday craft-beer drinkers. The brewery has won three golds at the Great American Beer Festival for its barrel-aged beers, and last year won the classic porter/stout category at the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer in Chicago.
This year the brewery is aiming for 2,000 barrels of aged beer. Overall, Mollica said Central Waters is operating at 100% capacity and is on pace to produce 14,000 barrels of beer in 2014. That's nearly three times what the brewery produced its first year in the Amherst facility in 2007, and a far cry from the 750 barrels it was producing in its first facility in Amherst Junction 15 years ago.
Two home brewers opened Central Waters in 1998, at a time when the craft beer industry was essentially falling apart, Mollica said.
"Everyone thought we were crazy for starting in the bust of the late '90s," Mollica said, "and it was a long road. Up until about 2005 or so, our wholesaler wouldn't even think of talking to us. They had no interest in distributing craft beer at all."
Contrast that with today, when wholesalers are fighting over distribution rights for craft breweries before they even produce an ounce of beer, he said.
Mollica was among the brewery's first four employees during those early years, along with Central Waters' other current owner, Paul Graham, and the brewery's two founders. Graham bought the brewery with a partner in 2001, and in 2006 Mollica bought out that partner.
The following year the brewery moved to its current facility in Amherst, and in 2009 became the state's first green-powered brewery, installing 1,000 square feet of solar panels to heat water used in the brewing process and radiant floor heating in the brewery. Three years later they added a 20 kilowatt PV array that supplies 20% of the brewery's annual energy needs. Central Waters' Shine On Ale honors this switch to solar power, and a portion of all sales go to the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.
"Overall what we're looking to try to do is shrink the environmental footprint of our product," Mollica said. That includes using bottles purchased from the only EPA-certified glass bottle maker in the country, energy-efficient lighting and only about half of industry average of water.
Those efforts earned the brewery recognition as a Green Tier business by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2011 and Green Masters status — the only brewery in the state to achieve that — in 2013.
Central Waters also works to source ingredients locally. Briess Malt & Ingredients Co. in Chilton supplies their malted barley, and Central Waters has worked with Briess to source some of the barley from a farm just five miles from the brewery. Central Waters makes sure to incorporate some of that Wisconsin barley in every batch of beer.
As the clock struck 5 during our visit, brewery employee Chaz Self — sporting a handlebar mustache and earlobe plugs bigger than a quarter — shouted for all to grab a beer and gather in a corner of the tap room for the official tour.
Over the course of an hour — with another break for beer — Self went over the brewing process, the history of the company, barrel-aging and bottling, and happily answered questions along the way. We got a look at the mash tuns and fermentation tanks — named after characters from "The Big Lebowski" — the bottling area and the brewery's newest addition, which is currently storing bourbon barrels that do not fit in the barrel storage area adjacent to the main building.
I'm a veteran of Milwaukee's brewery tours (Lakefront, MKE, Miller), and Central Waters' was one of the most informative I've been on. Our tour guide provided interesting details about the company, the brewery equipment and ingredients, instead of just telling me for the umpteenth time how beer is made.
And while there were no free samples like on Milwaukee's tours, I was happy to pay for a pint of good Central Waters brew straight from the source.
How much it will set you back: Tours are free, and beers in the tap room cost $4 for a pint, or a smaller pour for specialty beers like the Bourbon Barrel Stout and Exodus, the brewery's first sour beer.
Getting there: Central Waters Brewing Co. is about two hours northwest of Milwaukee via Highways 41 and 45.
More information: For more about the brewery, see centralwaters.com or call (715) 824-2739.
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