Monday, March 16, 2009

Review: The Abyss (Deschutes)

Reviewing The Abyss is the beer equivalent of reviewing Kind of Blue or Hamlet: it is a work of such surpassing mastery that, really, what can you say?

To understate the case, The Abyss is thoroughly pleasant to drink.

Deschutes Brewery first released this wildly popular imperial stout in 2006. One of the first and best breweries to come out of Oregon, Deschutes had already earned plenty of respect with well-made, well-balanced session beers such as Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Black Butte Porter.

But, as Deschutes’ founder Gary Fish said recently in another publication, people were starting to say things like: “Black Butte Porter – that’s my dad’s beer.” So Fish unleashed his brewers to do something special.

The Abyss is an imperial stout. The designation “imperial” is not a mere marketing gimmick. There is much more going on in The Abyss than in a standard stout.

Deschutes brewed The Abyss with licorice and molasses, aging 33 percent of it in oak and oak bourbon barrels for the better part of a year. The 2008 reserve was released in November.

After a tragicomic quest to obtain a bottle the usual ways, Soggy Coaster broke down and bought The Abyss, which comes in a 22-ounce bomber bottle dipped in black wax, on eBay for almost $30. (See my earlier post, “Chasing The Abyss: A Personal Essay”). A bit crazy, maybe, but why should it be? A lot of people do not hesitate to drop $30 on a bottle of wine.

Soggy Coaster enjoyed The Abyss along with a dinner of potato gnocchi in a tomato sauce with Swiss chard and mozzarella (made with care by Ms. Soggy Coaster). The Abyss would also be fantastic with a steak – you just need something substantial to stand up to the beer.

The Abyss has one of the strongest aromas that Soggy Coaster has ever smelled in a beer: a thick soup of vanilla, licorice, coffee, alcohol. It feels reverential, like the musty smell from a very great and very old book.

The Abyss pours a completely opaque black. A nice, tan medium head lingers for a bit before receding.

The taste keeps the promises made by the aroma. There’s vanilla, licorice, coffee and some hop bitterness in a viscous stout body, ending with a pronounced alcohol kick (The Abyss is 11 percent ABV). Different flavors emerge at different times; one sip will taste strongly of licorice, the next is fumy booze. The substantial alcohol might ruin a lesser beer, but The Abyss is so rich that it blends in perfectly. My notes say: “bottom of the glass had a much sharper licorice taste – the monster hiding in The Abyss.”

Of course, The Abyss is not the only entrant in the category. Soggy Coaster has had the chance to try a decent range of imperial stouts this winter, including Oak-Aged Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide Brewing in Denver (9.5 percent ABV, 75 IBUs), Rogue Imperial Stout and Victory Storm King Imperial Stout. All were very good; Soggy Coaster has yet to meet an imperial stout he doesn’t like.

Alone among Durango breweries, Carver Brewing also makes an imperial stout. An unfortunately now-past seasonal offering, Carver’s imperial stout was on tap in January. It was damn good and Soggy Coaster looks forward to its return next winter.

The Abyss does not lack for laurels: it is currently ranked the third-best beer in the world on Beer Advocate, a sort of crowd review site. It also won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. It has become so popular that its release in Portland literally draws crowds. Stores often sell out of The Abyss the same day they get it.

Few beers come close to matching The Abyss in brewing mastery and complexity. The taste comes in waves, steamrolling the drinker into noticing a different flavor with every sip. Fortunately, the 2009 reserve is already aging in oak barrels. With The Abyss, Deschutes has achieved its masterpiece. Soggy Coaster has no choice but to award his first A+.

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