Staring into the Abyss
I graduated college and landed in the depths of the “Great Recession.” At twenty-two I found myself working a shitty part time job and with plenty of time on my hands. I listened to podcasts, sat around drinking too much coffee in overpriced coffee houses, and looking for something to do. I ended up spending a lot of time in the Central Library looking for something to occupy my anxious brain. Literature was out; I’d had enough of that in school. The news was depressing. And there were only so many Mary Roach books. So I started reading about beer.
At the time, Sarah and I were living in a severely sloping fourth floor, walk up apartment a block off West Burnside. Our living room windows looked down on the parking lot of a sports bar famous for cheap gyros. Sarah was working twelve hour shifts back then, so I’d often not see here till eight or nine at night. I started this blog to fill my time. I started capturing every beer I drank along with a few witty descriptors, and I read some more. I read Michael Jackson. I searched out his “world classics.” I perused the Oxford Companion and tried to use words like diacetyl and acetic acid in my posts.
Before I found Michael Jackson and Stan Hieronymus writing about brewing monks, before poring over the Oxford Companion to Beer and trying use diacetyl and brettanomyces is in casual conversation, I read was The Naked Pint.
The Naked Pint was written by a pair of knowledgeable ladies, Christina Perozzi and Hallie Beaune. It’s an introduction to beer and brewing and introduced me to the idea of beer styles. They described everything from Pale Ale to Saison and gave a few examples with tasting notes. Most of the beers they described were brewed in exotic locales like Bavaria or Flanders or San Diego. I scoured their recommendations for something closer to home. And there, among the top Imperial Stouts from around the world, was the Abyss from Oregon’s own Deschutes Brewery.
The descriptions sounded so delicious, the adjuncts so unusual. Cherry bark, blackstrap molasses, licorice, vanilla, and some of the beer was even aged in wine and bourbon barrels? Wow. Black Butte Porter may have been Deschutes’ flagship, but The Abyss was their calling card for the hardcore. It was rare; it was critically acclaimed; it was expensive. When I finally saw I bottle at the grocery store, I balked at the price. Seventeen dollars for a single bottle of beer? I could get two six-packs of Black Butte for that price (2011 was a magical time).
Our ramshackle apartment was less than a mile from Deschutes’ Portland brewpub. The brewery’s log cabin aesthetic stood out in the condo-filled restaurant-rich Pearl District. It was big, but cozy. We weren’t exactly regulars, a broke twenty-two year old can only afford so many fifteen dollar burgers, but when parents were in town, or a birthday needed celebrating, it was fun to visit Deschutes and sample some new beers.
It was at the Deschutes Pub that I bought my first bottle of the Abyss. It was spring, well past the official November release, but someone at the pub found a few extra cases in storage. I rushed down and bought a bottle. Every bottle from Deschutes’ Reserve Series is labeled best after, not best before. It’s a subtle way of encouraging people to stock up. That’s exactly what I did, figuring I could open it and have my own vertical tasting. I didn’t open that first bottle for three years, and it was great. When the 2012 release party rolled around the next fall, I was there.
While it didn’t necessitate blocks long queues, the Abyss release was always a big event at Deschutes. The pub was packed with nerds taking copious notes. I had my own little notebook, and a vertical flight of five samples. They ranged from bold and boozy, to mellow and fruity, with notes of tobacco and leather. I even picked up a hint of balsamic vinegar in the oldest vintage. I walked home with three more wax dipped bottles.
Last week, I finally opened the last of those bottles. It’s been a solid six years since it was released. After all that time in my closet, the beer has changed. What used to come off as dark roast coffee now tastes like the crust that forms on the bottom of the oven. There’s no barrel character to speak of, but that’s not surprising. It’s incredibly drying on the tongue. There’s none of the richness I’ve come to expect in an imperial stout.
Even more than the beer has changed, the world of beer has transformed in the last six years. The Abyss was one of the original barrel aged imperial stouts, but it’s been eclipsed. In 2012, less than a quarter of the beer was actually aged in barrels. Last year’s release was only fifty percent aged in barrels. These days, a barrel aged beer is a barrel aged beer – all the beer is literally aged in barrels.
Deschutes have tried to follow the Bourbon County model, releasing variant bottles like holofoil Pokemon cards. Cognac Abyss, Tequila Abyss, Scotch Abyss – but the novelty doesn’t justify the significant upcharge. There are so many good beers out there, for far less money. But what is a brewery to do? A beer that was edgy ten years ago seems dated now. The only way to keep the brand vibrant is to mix it up.
Personally, I haven’t purchased a bottle of the Abyss in three or four years. I can still walk into the grocery store down the street and find a bottle of the Abyss from 2018, and it will probably be very good, but it won’t have the same effect it did when the options were fewer and the beer was rarer.
So The Abyss remains a relic of an earlier age, a precursor of the beers to come. Then, the addition of cherry bark and vanilla added a new layer of interest. Now, pastry stouts made to taste exactly like the adjuncts used to brew them. Then, aging a beer in whiskey casks was innovative, and dangerous. Now a barrel aged beer is commonplace and have the kiss of bourbon in every sip. The Abyss was unimaginable in 2006; it was a revelation in 2012; But today, it’s just… meh.