OREGON’S DESCHUTES BREWERY enjoys the uncommon position of brewing not one but two benchmark dark ales. The first is their flagship Black Butte, a sessionable porter whose barrel-aged imperial counterpart is released perennially to considerable acclaim. Yet it is the second spot of dark topography that has earned Deschutes more reverence: The Abyss. First brewed in 2006, the beer has since become the main event among Deschutes’ winter releases and one of the nation’s preeminent imperial stouts.
Suitable to its name, The Abyss is profoundly black in the glass with an oily dark tan head and dense viscosity, reflecting substantial additions of black strap molasses. Some small carbonation is visible but overall it remains quite subordinate to the unabashedly full body. While one oughtn’t make too much of appearances, in this case the right first impression was absolutely mandatory: ‘the abyss’ is too perfect an appellation for it to be used frivolously.
In aroma The Abyss it is nearly as sluggish as it looks, burbling with roasted grains, vanilla and coffee beans, smoke, dark fruit (cherry bark was used in the finish), charred oak, and perhaps a little tobacco leaf. Hops are hardly a factor, with virtually all the bitterness in the beer’s flavor more evocative of roasted malts than alpha acids. But there is still substantial depth, not least from the bourbon, Oregon oak, and pinot noir barrel-aging. This unexpectedly silky combination filters into every aspect of The Abyss without overwhelming its basic flavors. A fairly prominent roasted grain character is foremost on the palate, supported by some remaining molasses sweetness and a dash of dried fruits (albeit less than the cherry had implied in the aroma). The pinot character is rather understated and could perhaps have been a notch stronger, but chances are these characteristics will wax over time as the barrel flavors fuse and the beer’s slightly over-burnt malt edge is toned down.
Even now, though, there is plenty to enjoy. Many beers that try to be so forward with these flavors end up stumbling over themselves—bodies too stuffed, black malts too aggressive, etc.—but The Abyss clearly has a robust foundation for aging and plenty of alcohol kick (11% ABV) to see it through. In fact, after becoming accustomed to its roasted profile the beer has an unexpected clarity that makes it seem almost a little one-note at this early stage.
But Deschutes knows this—that’s why the beer comes with a ‘Best After’ date instead of ‘Best Before’, much like the Black Butte XXV. So take this assessment with a dose of salt (or malt, as may be more apropos), and return to this vintage in 2015 for a more mature assessment.
Served: On tap (Skyline Loft, FoBAB 2013, Chicago)