A guest blog post by Bill Fishburn. You can follow Bill on Twitter @rwfishbu1.
Long-time, no-see readers! I have a special treat for you all this time around. My youngest son completed the execution of his Eagle Project last night, and to celebrate, I decided to break out one of a half-dozen bottles of Deschutes Brewery’s The Abyss 2011 Reserve. By their date label, this beer is a couple months shy of being really ready to drink, but as you will read, it is not, unsurprisingly, in any way disappointing.
The Style: Imperial Stout
WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! The next couple paragraphs are watered down beergeekspeak. If that’s not your thing, head down to where I describe this beer. The following is in large part a paraphrase of the BJCP guidelines for this style. The full set of style guidelines can be found here.
Aroma: Russian Imperial Stouts are usually very rich and comples with variable amounts of roasted grains, maltiness, fruity esters, hops, and alcohol. The roast malt character can take on coffee, dark chocolate, or slightly burnt tones and can be light to moderately strong. The malt aroma can be subtle to rich, and specialty malts such as caramel are optional, but should not dominate. Fruity esters can range from low to moderately strong, and my be very complex in dark fruit characteristics (plums, prunes, raisins). Hop aroma can be low to quite aggressive and any hop variety may be present. Alcohol may be present, but it shouldn’t be sharp, hot, or solventy. There should be no diacetyl. Balance can vary and any one aroma element can dominate; not all aromas need be present. Aging will affect the intensity, balance, and smoothness of aromatics.
Appearance: Color may range from very dark reddish-brown to jet black. Opaque. Deep tan to dark brown head that is generally well-formed, though may not be very persistent. High alcohol and viscosity may be visible in “legs”.
Flavor: Rich, deep, complex, and frequently quite intense with variable amounts of roasted malt/grains, maltiness, fruity esters, hop bitterness and flavor, and alcohol. Medium to aggressively high bitterness. Medium-low to high hop flavor. Moderate to aggressively high roasted malt/grain flavors can suggest bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate, cocoa, and/or strong coffee. A slightly burnt grain, burnt currant, or tarry character may be evident. Fruity esters may be low to intense and can take on a dark fruit character (raisins, plums, prunes). Malt backbone can be balance and supportive to rich and barleywine-like and may optionally show some supporting caramel, bready or toasty flavors. Alcohol strength should be evident, but not hot, shar, or solventy. No diacetyl (butterscotch). Palate and finish can range from relatively dry to moderately sweet, usually with lingering roastiness, hop bitterness and warming character. Again, flavor balance can be affected by aging.
Mouthfeel: Full to very full-bodied and chewy, with a velvety, luscious texture (although the body may decline with long conditioning). Gentle smooth warmth from alcohol should be present and noticeable. Should not be syrupy and under-attenuated. Carbonation may be low to moderate, depending on age and conditioning.
Overall: An intensely flavored, big, dark ale. Roasty, fruity, and bittersweet with a noticeable alcohol presence
Let’s see how The Abyss measures up…
Aroma: This is a big beer with a huge aroma profile and a whole lot of everything going on. As you’ve seen in the past, I am big on sensory stimulation, and the olfactory inputs of this beer were almost overwhelming. There were distinct dark coffee notes, like a good French Roast or Espresso Roast. Dark chocolate followed up with hints of vanilla, likely imparted somewhat by the oak barrel aging. A mild hop spiciness then made an appearance followed by low notes of dark fruit that reminded me of ripe Bing cherries. Hints of molasses preceded a subtle alcohol aroma. All of these were followed by roasted grain notes. Like I said, a lot of everything.
Appearance: The Abyss poured a very dark brown, with a thick, rocky, persistent brown head. It was visibly thick and viscous as it left the bottle. The luscious head remained present throughout the beer’s time in my glass.
Flavor: As with the aroma, there was a lot of everything going on with the flavor of this beer. It started with some huge coffee flavor followed by distinct dark (as opposed to milk, bittersweet, or unsweetened) chocolate. I detected some grain-imparted bitterness before the bitterness from the hops peeked through. Layer after layer of flavor complexity came out of this beer, especially as it warmed; the flavor show evolved and morphed into a whole slew of flavor acts. Initially, I detected hints of licorice and molasses. After some warming, those flavors gave way to more dark cherry, raisin, and especially whiskey flavors. The initially mild alcohol flavor became more noticeable with warmth, but remained in-check, never dominating the other flavors, but rather complementing and assisting them with their contributions to the experience.
Mouthfeel: In the style guidelines, the word, “luscious” is used to describe the mouthfeel of Imperial Stouts. Where The Abyss is concerned, I would say, “luxuriant”. A small sip can fill the entire palate and a large mouthful can be simply overwhelming. As it made its way through my mouth to my throat, a pleasant warming sensation played through the game of the other flavors—the telltale sign of this beer’s 11% ABV. It is a sweet, malty finish with no sign of dryness whatsoever.
Overall: In a word, I would describe this beer as complex. If you gave me two words, I would say complex and complicated. Deschutes says they brew with black strap molasses, licorice, cherry bark, and vanilla. They age 6% of the beer in oak bourbon barrels, 11% in oak barrels, and 11% aged in oak wine barrels. Many of those flavors were immediately detectable, others are more reluctant to make a showing until the beer has warmed. However or whenever they present to you, take your time with this beer. Savor it. Enjoy it. But buy several years’ worth so you can age them and be able to compare them against each other in a couple of years. If you like big, full-bodied stouts, you will not be disappointed.