The phrase “cellar door” is one that has long intrigued students of the English language. Drinkers of a certain age will likely recall its memorable use in the plot of the film Donnie Darko or as the title of a terrific 2004 album by John Vanderslice. A 2010 essay on the phrase in the New York Times Magazine noted that “[a] subjective poetic argument for the phono-acoustic superiority of the phrase is easier to make.” Meaning it’s a phrase that’s evocative and beautiful without an easy quantification as to why, which might explain why it’s been used as the name for a beer that eludes easy classification. Stillwater Artisanal’s Cellar Door is a wheat ale made with white sage. The combination that could delight or bewilder, depending on the brewer and the taster.
Much like the ineffable aesthetic qualities of the phrase that gives this beer its name, the design of the can opts for a charming minimalism, with aquamarine dots on a deep purple background. While many a craft brewers opts for a clever or irreverent label design, Stillwater opts for something more restrained. That color scheme is in sharp contrast to the beer within, though, which has a hazy, light-golden color to it and a foggy quality that allows limited translucence.
How you feel about the presence of sage in beer is a likely indicator of whether or not this is a beer that you’re going to enjoy.”
Cellar Door has a smell that’s both floral and earthy. That smell creates a contradictory experience: There’s a bright sunflower-like smell present, but underlying is something deeper and danker, a kind of robust smell of soil. Imagine the exact moment when the brightness of summer shifts into the more reserved mode of autumn—that’s the odor that comes to mind here.
Cellar Door is an unexpectedly bracing beer. The underlying flavor is the familiar and refreshing one that comes from drinking a wheat ale. The wild card here is the presence of white sage, which hits the tongue and takes things in a very different direction. The sage flavor is present without being overwhelming; at the same time, it’s hard to mistake sage for anything else, but the balance of tastes is carried off well. There’s a slight aftertaste, but it doesn’t leave behind the impression that one’s been snacking on raw sage for hours.
How you feel about the presence of sage in beer is a likely indicator of whether or not this is a beer that you’re going to enjoy. Much like an herbal liqueur, sage takes this beer to places where you might not expect a beer to go. I happen to like the taste of sage quite a bit, and I think the way it blends with the wheat ale flavors works particularly well in this instance. I have a harder time imagining a delicious porter or stout brewed with sage, for instance—though I’m happy to be proven wrong. Cellar Door takes a number of risks, but the result is concise and sublime.