Last night, a great friend of mine, a winemaker and bon vivant and terribly well-traveled academic type, sent me a Facebook message that said, “I’m drinking a Deschutes Abyss. I don’t know what this stuff is but it’s not beer.” I didn’t even ask if he liked it. That would have been inviting one of those fascinating but very time-consuming dialogues that he and I have had periodically, ever since I started working in his Bainbridge Island, Washington, wine shop, back in the fall of 1998.I didn’t have time to discuss it but I know, beyond doubt, that his very acute palate picked up on one aspect of this fascinating, paradigm-altering ale that has had me mesmerized ever since that first vintage, in 2006: complexity.
And, I have to admit that my pal was right: The Abyss really is not beer…at least not in the sense that most people have in mind when they utter the word. The continuum of “beer” does, technically, encompass the entire panorama of fermented beverages, ranging from insipid, flaccid grain-water like BudMillerCoorsPabst and other lowest-common-denominator adjunct Pilsners, following a twisted route with many side roads, eventually leading to near-profound beverages like Westvleteren 12, Rochefort 10, Heady Topper…and The Abyss. But most people’s instant mental image is something translucent, fizzy, lighter, and fairly straight-forward…and that is not this. This…is black mystery, intimations of danger, a sense of Uncharted Territory and Exotic Pleasures of the type that used to send men off on Quests.
And exactly none of that is exaggeration.
This is now the eleventh edition of this ale I’ve tasted, the seventh time I’ve reviewed Deschutes “The Abyss”, and maybe the seventh time you’ve read one of these and thought, “This bastard is obsessed.” I don’t blame anybody for thinking that. I am obsessed with this stuff. I absolutely am, and the main reason is the one stated above: a startling and very un-beer-like complexity that lets my wonky, hyper-analytical side play endlessly, while my tongue and brain are luxuriating in simple, tar-black, bittersweet pleasures.
In the wine world, complexity is pretty much the ballgame, to those of us who appreciate wine as something beyond conversational lubricant, a food complement, or a companion in our boredom or contemplation. Complex wines are fascinating wines and, more often than not, the best-tasting wines. In beer, because the culture of American craft brewing is still in its relative infancy (and because complexity in the beers America mindlessly swilled for over 100 years, the BudMillerCoorsPabstEtc, is a ridiculous notion), there has been such a universal, festive celebration of just the mere fact that we average American Joes are able to drink beer that WE make(!) and which tastes like something more than watery grain tea, we haven’t yet explored those layers of concepts like complexity and nuance and terroir to any great degree. But that doesn’t mean that those traits are not present in beers and they may be on display in The Abyss to a greater degree than in any other celebrated, iconic American ale.
What has always knocked me sideways is that Deschutes is capable of such deft and almost magical skill in crafting this beer that it makes spinning plates on sticks or juggling chain saws look like making the morning coffee. There are literally a hundred or more things that could go wrong in making The Abyss. In fact, one of those did go awry at Deschutes, several years back, albeit not in The Abyss: a new type of chocolate, to be used in making another dark beer, refused to melt and just coagulated into truffle-like lumps, causing the brewers to have to dump an entire batch. Another early attempt was hampered by not breaking down licorice into smaller pieces, so that it, too, wound up in clumps the size of baseballs. But Deschutes’ brewers have always rolled gracefully (okay, there was some grumbling) because they know that you learn from mistakes and that there is no greatness without experimentation. In The Abyss, despite the fact that it is tweaked every single year, their learning curve is tackled and adherence to the basic concept of this beer is now free from most potential pitfalls.
So…what’s so great about it and how is that achieved? Actually, the basic concept is pretty simple: take the flavors that nature gives you and turn your amps up to eleven. A barrel-aged Imperial Stout normally contains flavors of chocolate and licorice and coffee and molasses and vanilla and cherries and wood and grace notes galore, even in a fairly ordinary one. Deschutes takes the basic elements and enhances them; boosts these flavors with judicious infusions of…blackstrap molasses, cherry bark, Italian licorice, vanilla beans, and three different barrels used in aging. The coffee and chocolate flavors are amplified by use of black, chocolate, and black barley malts. But the balance that The Abyss always displays is the real trick. Grace notes are flavors that occur from the interplay of primary flavors and from the natural secondary flavors that are present in almost all growing edibles. Deschutes brewers – brewmaster Veronica Vega and brewer Jake Harper – have to know what’s going to happen in this incredibly complex interaction of the malts, barrels, additives, yeasts, and hops…and yes, The Abyss IS adamantly hoppy. EIGHTY IBUs worth in its last few incarnations. Hops are tricky little things, to begin with. They want to make things bitter, where malts work at creating sweet. A nice compromise is wickedly hard to achieve and MOST brewers’ Stouts never quite get there. In The Abyss, the chocolate leans to bittersweet, which complements the hops perfectly, as does the natural black coffee flavors. The barrels, with their new Oregon oak, wet Bourbon, and Pinot Noir flavors and tannins, moderate this tsunami of bitterness, and the incredibly rich, sweet malts are pulled back artfully, like a swath of satin draped off the shoulder of a beautiful woman; revealing just enough to enhance the mystery, while concealing anything inappropriate.
As if managing all that were not enough of a challenge, it’s a given that combinations of that many organics are going, to some degree, to do their own thing, no matter how clever and careful the brewers may be. Purity of ingredients and good judgment – maybe the most basic of Deschutes’ enhancements – are essential and The Abyss is one of only a handful of American beers I’ve ever tasted which has never shown one single off-note. Is that just luck? Well, maybe. Luck certainly enters in. During a previous visit to Bend, while eating at Deschutes’ Bond Street Pub, I spoke with one of the brewers as I tasted a small pour of their titanic 2007 edition of this ale and asked him how the hell they had been able to turn out four of these behemoths (this was in 2009) without so much as a tiny mis-step. “We’re pure of heart,” he chuckled, “I’m kidding but, in the back of my mind, I may not be. We make this with love. Sounds corny but it’s worked four times.”
This 2016 edition is one of the three best I’ve tasted, yet, and I have tried all of them, several times each. That 2007 is still Top Dawg, and the 2012 and 2010 left permanent marks, but this 2016 stands with any of them. In a couple of years, it’s been a large tad more sweet and I liked that a lot but prefer big American Stouts a bit more dry. This suggests sweetness while finishing dry, bitter, and achingly complete. If Deschutes abruptly eschewed their endless pursuit of perfection and chose to just stand pat on this recipe for The Abyss, I would be just fine with it. Even if they did abandon their primary operating principle – “Mess With Success!” – (that’s not really it; that’s just what I like to call it. It’s really “Bravely Done!“, which is sorta the same idea.) those sneaky little grace notes would still take each one in a slightly different direction. So, the rhubarb, bay leaf, rosemary, raspberry jam, horehound, Red Vines, and pipe tobacco that I find in this one would change but its basic bones would still be this stunning, this balanced, and this beautifully, deeply delicious. 100 Points…again
I’m going to get back to my winemaker friend and ask him what he thinks, as soon as I find a two-hour window to devote to the discussion that will inevitably ensue. I have, on a couple of very rare occasions, gotten emails from people who have tasted it and said, “Meh“, but I also have to accept the fact that some people love Pop Tarts, some adore frozen pizza, some swear by Bourbon & Coke, (shudder) and a surprising number habitually swill Budweiser and claim to like it. In short, I have to accept bad taste, while not understanding it at all. Being a winemaker doesn’t guarantee a golden palate. One noted Walla Walla winemaker swears by Chick-Fil-A, which is, to me, the same as eating those dinosaur-shaped chicken-product nuggets they sell at CostCo. No accounting for tastes, I guess. So…let’s see if Mr.Smarty Pants, Washington winemaker, really has good taste..or if it’s just his wines…I’ll let you know…