Quick Take: While initially disappointing, Abyss ultimately won me over as a subtle but layered exposé on the stout. It’s a beer that seemingly requires a high level of contemplation and analysis, which means the non-beer obsessed will likely admire it (or outright dismiss it) more than truly enjoy it. While I am thoroughly impressed by what Deschutes has crafted, I can’t say I would choose to drink this over other highly-rated stouts.
Brew Facts: Deschutes provides the complete list of ingredients that goes into Abyss on their Web site for those that want to clone it (here). While they don’t layout the timing of the hop additions or the exact recipe, it is a major key for any homebrewer that wants to unlock some homemade Abyss. Bottles of Abyss, like most big ABV Deschutes beers, comes with a best after date, which I plan on taking advantage of at some point with a bottle from 2013.
Appearance: Unsurprisingly, this pours out printer ink black and forms a two finger-sized head the color of leather wrapped mahogany. The carbonation isn’t enough to retain the foam which quickly bubbles into the ether, leaving drooping ribbons of lace. Abyss earns its name, eating light like yeast eats sugar with a heart, nervous system and epidermis darker than an eclipse. Just another way of saying “dark beer is dark.”
Aroma: Before the head dissipates, I pull a sniff and my brow wrinkles, head cocked to the side like a dog that can’t figure out the mystery of his own farts. I don’t think I fully understood what kind of beer this is until I got a nose on it. My anticipation of anise, molasses and buttery vanilla, an anticipation fostered by the inclusion of black strap molasses, vanilla bean, and bourbon barreling in the brew (though only 6% was BB-aged, but my mind latched onto it anyway), was quickly brushed aside.
What I got was all 11% of the wine barrel in the form of vinous red grapes along with the smell of toast and percolating coffee. As it warms, the aroma opens to peaty porter, tobacco, brown sugar and malt. A dose of tangy dark fruits blankets the proceedings with cherry/berry sweetness.
Taste/Mouth Feel: A sip annihilates any remaining preconceptions I have about Abyss. It’s not often that a beer completely subverts my expectations, but then this is the first time I’ve had Abyss. The casual backhand with which this beer slapped my preconceived notions into the dirt had my brain reeling. Once I shook off my confusion and realized Abyss isn’t a thick, rich boozy stout, I could actually start tasting it.
This deepest of dark motor oil stouts has a drinkable mouth feel that borders on thin. A vinous tang laced with tannins consistently dominates the taste profile as this beer shifts through a cornucopia of dark stout flavors. At colder temps, this is sweeter malt/molasses and darker coffee roast. As it warms, the tobacco comes through as does the dark chocolate and licorice. Further warming finds it more caramel sweet, with a long, lingering dark char, woody tobacco, chalky cocoa, and some tingly booze. This is insanely layered, like drinking your way through the stout-centric part of a beer tasting wheel.
Final Thoughts: While initially disappointing, Abyss ultimately won me over as a subtle but layered exposé on the stout. It’s also one of the more temperature sensitive beers I’ve ever had and makes you work to appreciate it. I would recommend drinking this chameleon of a beer cold and letting it warm through its layers over the course of an hour. If you drink this one primarily warm, you’re missing out on the full experience.
The level of contemplation and analysis Abyss seems to require makes it a beer the non-beer obsessed will likely admire (or outright dismiss) more than truly enjoy. I am thoroughly impressed by what Deschutes has crafted and it’s one I will have again, but I can’t say I would choose to drink this over other highly-rated stouts.
On Draft Follow-Up:
To test my theory of taste/temp sensitivity, I stopped off at a local bar that somehow got a keg. It was served in a snifter at a level of subarctic and I sniffed and sipped it every ten to fifteen minutes over the course of an hour as it warmed. Even with the complexity of the beer, I can’t say that I saw significant differences between the bottle and the draft. I included my tasting notes below.
10 minutes in:
Aroma: Roast coffee and red wine
Taste: Coffee, vinous red wine, sweet malt, char, dark chocolate
15 minutes in:
Aroma: Astringent vinous quality, creamy cherry and dark chocolate
Taste: Mouth feel is a little syrupy, the wine still prominent, bakers chocolate, and tangy, bitter char
25 minutes in:
Aroma: Wine backs off, and is replaced by cherry and roasty barley
Taste: Stronger taste of malt, dark chocolate sweetness, tobacco, and leather. The wine shifts to the finish, blending with an ashy quality
35 minutes in:
Aroma: Dark cherry and sweet malt
Taste: Chocolate, cherry, roasty barley and a creep of boozy heat
40 minutes in:
Aroma: It levels off and maintains the cherry and malt sweetness
Taste: It levels off similar to aroma with cherry chocolate blending with roasty barley. Notes of coffee, tobacco, and char back way off
45 minutes in:
Aroma: No change
Taste: No change
By the 40 minute mark, further warming had little effect on the flavors and aroma. The beer didn’t so much transform into something else as it gradually adjusted the emphasis from malted coffee, red wine and tobacco to a chocolate cherry/berry and roasted barley. The alcohol did become fuller, filling the nostrils a bit on sips and mixing with the astringent tannins of the wine.
If there is one thing this second go around made me realize, it’s that the molasses strap and bourbon barrel never surfaced enough to make much of an impact. I think both tied into the chocolate malts and sweeter elements, blending into the overall experience. In a beer like Abyss, I think I would notice the absence of these qualities more than their presence if that makes sense. A good beer any way you can get it and one worth trying for any fan of beer.