FIRST RELEASED IN 2008 to commemorate Deschutes Brewery’s 20th anniversary, the Black Butte XX Porter followed hard in the footsteps of another epic Pacific barrel-aging program: North Coast Brewing and perennial limited releases of barrel-aged Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. The result (according to a keg of Old Rasputin XII sampled in 2011) ranks among the world’s most divine brews. Deschutes is not easily outdone, however, and in the ensuing years have elevated their own ritual to a level that defies comparison. For their 25th ‘birthday’ in 2013 they deliver the strongest and most bitter Black Butte yet: at 11.3% ABV and 64 IBU, the XXV is a heady undertaking that combines several styles’ worth of tricks into a beer as obsidian and monolithic as its namesake.
First, the adjuncts: dates, figs, and cocoa nibs in the brewing, black currant added thereafter. Then, the aging: bourbon barrels for 20% longer than any previous iteration. Finally, the blending: not just between barreled and un-barreled versions, but also a small proportion of soured old ale akin to the English porters of old. After all this one struggles to fathom how Deschutes might raise the stakes for their next birthday. Perhaps the cache of 25 years called for something especially outrageous, and next year’s XXVI might see Deschutes scale back a notch. That wouldn’t be a mistake.
Rich in aroma and flavor even straight from a chilled keg, Black Butte XXV looks every ounce of a barrel-aged imperial porter. In direct sunlight (on a late summer afternoon in Sheffield’s cozy beer garden) a hint of translucent brown can be seen beneath the scant tan head, but otherwise the pour is opaque like a loaf of liquid pumpernickel. The mouthfeel is a hearty medium, round, moderately viscous, and not especially bready, though. Added fruit and cocoa nibs in particular take precedence over a foundation of roasted barley. The progress of aromas and flavors follows much the same order as listed above, all preceding a stiff dollop of bourbon heat and robust barrel char in the finish. The latter is especially critical for balance, as hops are hardly anywhere to be found despite the rather high IBU. Chocolate is especially aggressive towards the middle of the palate; cutting this back by about 20% would have yielded better balance. Carbonation is fairly good for such a thick beer (likely aided by tap dispensation) but could still have been sustained for longer, especially if this beer is meant to be aged.
Though doubtlessly among the most dazzling porters on the planet, a fresh Black Butte XXV is a touch too much. Though the comparison is crude, a base imitator might mix root beer, microwaved amaretto, and a squirt each of prune juice and vanilla extract into a full tin of Hershey’s chocolate powder. Luckily, the capable veterans at Deschutes extract from that morass a beer of considerable worth, and XXV is far more refined, articulated, and less cloying than any sleepover suicide sugar slush. Nonetheless, it’s likely best to follow the advice on the label, which projects into 2014 not for its ‘Best Before’ date, but rather ‘Best After’.
Served: On Tap (Sheffield’s Beer & Wine Garden, Chicago)