This, for me, is an Occasion.
Let me explain:
For the past twelve years, I’ve been answering one question repeatedly, all in response to one three-line capsule review I wrote for a European newspaper in 2007. I said this:
“Deschutes new Imperial Stout, “The Abyss”, raises the bar on the American style of inky, opaque, ‘enhanced’ Stouts. This titanic ale uses an artful range of subtle adjuncts to amplify and enrich the natural flavors that occur in all great Stouts. The result is mind-boggling in its depth, scope, and intensity; literally THE best liquid I have ever put into my mouth.”
In 2007, I was mainly reviewing wine. I wrote the above snippet because I was given the beer and asked what I thought. I had been a beer critic for almost two decades before my day job dragged me into involvement with wine, so it was nice to make a brief return and astounding to taste The Abyss.
Within two days of that review – which didn’t even appear on an American web page – I started hearing from wine people; friends and acquaintances I knew from the wine trade and more than a few total strangers. “When you say ‘best liquid’, I assume you are not including wines in that, right? I mean, this may be a fine beer but no beer will ever be as complex and flavorful and sophisticated as a great wine. Surely you wouldn’t suggest that?”
I got this basic query from so many people that I eventually wrote the following and used it as a form letter in response:
“I mean exactly that: the most complex, the most balanced, the most flavorful, the most complete and most sophisticated liquid I have ever tasted. That does, very much, include wines. And if you have not personally sampled this ale, you shouldn’t be asking that question.”
That was twelve years ago. To this very day – just this morning, in fact – I have continued to get pointed challenges to that statement but it has remained just as true, and even more so, as I taste thousands more beers.
So, one might assume that Stouts are my favorite style of beer. Not so. My favorite beer genre is – and has been for over 25 years – Barleywine.
Barleywine is…problematic. Most people, even many who are otherwise beer-savvy, know almost nothing about Barleywine. Can’t even tell you what it is. Many have never tried one and even more people are simply (and somewhat irrationally) put off by the whole idea. #1 comment I have received about Barleywine, in the past 28 years…
“Eww, why would I want a beer with wine in it? That doesn’t sound good!”
#2 with a bullet: “What the fuck is Barleywine?”
I have, from time to time, wished that the name had never been invented, because Barleywine is a DAZZLING form of brewed beverage. Its close spiritual cousins, the Scotch Wee Heavy and the Belgian Quad, share some of the same flavor traits but both come with baggage. The Wee Heavy exists in a well-established brewing tradition of Scottish ales and hews to that devoutly. They are malty but rarely hoppy and hover about 7 to 10% ABV. Belgian Quads are even more laden with cultural trappings, utilizing those flambouyant, fruity, spicy, tropical yeast strains and a more refined malt character than the wild ‘n’ wooly Wee Heavy.
While this is not true of all Barleywines, the best ones are really balls-to-the-wall strong, malty, deep, and noticeably boozy. They frequently smell and taste like a Cognac or a Brandy and run in excess of 11-12% ABV.
I am just fascinated by the whole concept and would much rather sit home and drink one great pub-pint of a great Barleywine than go out to a brewery or pub and put away two or three pints of even the best beers. I keep a local collection of taplist links on my laptop and check them every Thursday and if anybody within fifteen miles of me is pouring a BW, I just hop in the ol’ Volvo and go have one.
Historically, not many disappoint me. Lately, several have and I’m pained to admit that, given that three of the best I’ve ever tasted come from right here in Washington state, all the current fails come from here in the Western end of WA. Those three Best are Boundary Bay Brewing’s titanic Bourbon Barrel aged “Old Bounder”, Old Schoolhouse Brewer’s Reserve, and Holy Mountain Brewing’s incredible “Hand of Glory”. The three fails will, of course, remain anonymous.
So, the release of any new Barleywine from a Pacific Northwest brewery is News, around my place, and one from what is inarguably the best brewery in this region made me dance across my dining room like a damaged Hotpoint dryer.
About two months ago, Deschutes Brewery of Bend, Oregon – incidentally, the makers of The Abyss! – announced a new Barleywine…a BLACK Barleywine! If classic Barleywines are rare, then black ones are the Asian Javan rhinoceros. The original Honus Wagner baseball card. An intact Guttenberg Bible. A moon rock. I’ve tasted SIX, in 40 years of looking, and the last one wasn’t good. But the idea…the idea is unimpeachable. A Barleywine with the roasty character of a Stout and the boozy intensity of both? Slap me with a bathmat and call me Sally! If someone ever DID make that idea work, the sheer delight of it might just make me spontaneously achieve satori and vanish in a flash of White Light.
Deschutes just did. I have not vanished, so far, but I’m staying away from open flames.
Deschutes “Black Mirror” is a variation on their original Barleywine, “Mirror Mirror”, that is aged in red wine barrels (Oregon Pinot Noir) and shows that lineage as a big, forward fruitiness that plays nicely off its chewy, toffee-ish viscosity. “Black Mirror” is given additional eleven months barrel time in 98% Kentucky Bourbon casks and 2% new American oak. It goes to a tawny brown color in that time and takes on a Cognac-like intensity and depth that is literally jaw-dropping. I tasted it first while standing in my kitchen and I actually had to grab my quartz countertop and steady myself. The shock of tasting it was that immediate. It takes the ideas of the term “Barleywine” that I value most and stacks them up as a framework and then piles on licorice and dark caramel and roasted nuts and BIG mocha and, of course, forward Bourbon whiskey, all underpinned with fistfuls of grace notes like white pepper and stewed apricots and leather and Tootsie Rolls.
This stuff is wickedly, even dangerously, easy to drink. It will help, in a big way, to appreciate it if you have a good background as a Barleywine freak but it is by no means necessary. And I don’t use that “dangerously” lightly or figuratively. It is so easy to drink that you could absolutely mistake it for one of your go-to muscular ales, decide to toss back two or three pints, and wind up running naked down a quiet residential street while parents clutch frantically at their children’s eyes. This bruiser weighs in at 13% ABV, which is about what the average bottle of European red wine is packin’, so you have to ask yourself, “Would I knock back a full bottle of Guigal Cotes du Rhone and then try to operate a forklift?” (Unless you’re a backwoods psychopath, that answer had better be “No!”) (Even though we all know people who would.)
But the real nutshell take of this is that Deschutes “Black Mirror” is flat-damnit one of THE two or three most frankly delicious American Strong Ales – of any description – that most of us will ever taste. Out of the bazillion Strongs I’ve tasted, I can only think of The Bruery “Black Tuesday”, Lost Abbey “Angel’s Share”, Hair of The Dog “Matt”, the aforementioned Boundary Bay Barrel-Aged “Old Bounder”, and, natch, The Abyss really come close. And on odd-numbered days, I might still say The Abyss is the best thing I’ve ever tasted…but on the even numbers, I might just say it’s this stuff.
“Black Mirror” is one of those works of brewing genius that steps out and announces itself as such in undeniable terms, instantly. And because it comes from Deschutes, rather than some less experienced brewery operating under the “Even a Blind Pig Finds an Acorn, Now and Then” Principle, you know this was no accident. It’s crafted, rather than hatched, and repeatable…and I pray that this is not just an experiment that stands as a one-off and haunts me straight into my grave.