Deschutes' The Abyss

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Beer: The Abyss
Brewery: Deschutes Brewery
Style: Imperial Stout
ABV: 11 percent

The philosophizer Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

I'm no historian, but I'd be willing to bet old Freddy came up with this bit of deep, philosophical pondering while poring over a bottle of Deschutes' The Abyss. At 11 percent ABV, the stout is most assuredly a monster, but it's also bottomless pit of flavor, the spelunking of which allows one to both lose and find himself.

2011 marks the sixth release of The Abyss. In years past, the brew's been crafted using copious amounts of brewer's licorice and blackstrap molasses, with a portion aged in plain oak barrels as well as oak bourbon barrels. For 2011, vanilla bean and bark from cherry trees have both been added to the ingredient list, and the beer was aged in the following proportions: six percent in bourbon barrels, 11 percent in oak Pinot Noir barrels, and 11 percent in standard Oregon Oak barrels.

Also in years past, QC issues reared their ugly head -- specifically in the 2009 bottling, when several of the oak barrels used to age the beer became infected with souring bacteria, contaminating a number of bottles. While the flavors lent by the bugs weren't entirely unenjoyable (think sour cherries dipped in dark chocolate), brewers took steps to ensure they never found their way into the brew again. Each batch is now pasteurized before packaging.

In appearance, the Abyss lives up to its name. Bottomless, void-like and abyssal would be good descriptors -- the darkness of this beer seems to absorb light around it. Poured into a snifter, a fizzy head the color of cardboard rises up from the inky depths slowly. Sticky foam lingers at the edges, surrounding some oily residue.

Begin to lower yourself into the Abyss with the aroma, which boasts one of the most complex, roasty, coffee-heavy noses around. Massive amounts of espresso beans and dark chocolate blend with equally impressive helpings of licorice and molasses. Peanuts, lightly toasted bread, vanilla, caramel and red grapes provide a sturdy foundation.

As the oily, medium-bodied brew begins to swathe your tongue, imagine yourself being lowered deeper and deeper into the darkness. At the top of the crevasse, massive dark chocolate and espresso bitterness reigns. Drop another level and the barrel-aged characters become far more apparent: oak, vanilla, a teeny bit of bourbon, blackberries and hints of well-made red vino. A few more feet down, you'll find that the beer improves tremendously as it warms -- sweet plums emerging amidst light roast coffee, black licorice and toasty wheat bread. At the lightless floor of the Abyss, acrid charred flavors march in slowly after the swallow and linger nicely between sips. There's a great balance of sweet and roasty flavors here, and every sip reveals new dimensions.

While superb now, the Abyss is one of the stouts that benefits most from cellaring -- in fact, Deschutes prints a "Best After" date on each bottle dated a year after packaging. Over time, the harsher edges of the brew will soften, allowing old aromas and flavors to merge while new ones appear. You should be able to find bottles of Arizona shelves beginning this week, so buy a second bottle to try at this time next year, and see if you can find yourself in the abyss. 

Food Pairing Suggestions:
Steak! A cut of flank steak has big, beefy flavor that's a nice foil to the chocolate and espresso in the beer. Put a nice char on it to mirror the oaky, roasted notes in the brew. Caramelized onions and mushrooms will add sweet and savory notes, respectively, that also match up beautifully.

Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer.

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