Arguments over how long a beer should age are one of the main causes of strife here at the DRAFT offices (that and whether yetis actually exist, but that’s a topic for another blog post). Thank goodness, then, for Deschutes Brewery, who for more than five years now has made our quibbling moot by printing a best-after date of one year after packaging on bottles of its sought-after Abyss imperial stout.
But this year, Deschutes disturbed our fragile peace by adding two “remarkably limited” Abyss variants—one aged in cognac barrels, the other in rye whiskey barrels – into the mix. For how long should these new brews be aged? Should they be aged at all? We popped a couple of them open to find out.
The 2015 Abyss – the “regular” version released late last year—is by no means rudimentary. The whole batch is crafted with brewer’s licorice, blackstrap molasses, vanilla beans and cherry tree bark, then half of each batch goes into oak—21 percent in bourbon barrels, 21 percent in wine barrels and 8 percent in plain old oak—while the other half is aged in stainless steel. The result in a fresh bottle is surprisingly fruit-forward; vinous notes of wine and grape skin meld with Red Vines and vanilla in the complex aroma. The flavor is bizarrely drinkable for a beer of this strength, as soft vanilla undertones round out the edges of bitter dark chocolate and molasses. It’s tasty, assuredly, but could use some time to stratify and develop deeper malt flavors to balance the intense fruits.
The two “Remarkably Limited” variants released earlier this year take the base Abyss—the portion aged in tanks, not oak—and throw the whole batch into barrels that once held either rye or cognac. We opened the Cognac edition first and noted immediately that the subtle roast of the standard Abyss had been traded here for the liquor. In the nose, pronounced cherry and orange peel meld with higher alcohols atop cocoa and vanilla. The tangy flavor flashes with cherry, raisin and an almost tart blackberry note. With the character of the barrels so pronounced and the malts so muted, we wondered if this beer would improve with time at all.
Wary of popping our bottle of the rye-aged Abyss too soon, we decided to call Jake Harper, one of Deschutes’ brewers, for advice.
“The rye is a little hot,” Harper says. “Those barrels were freshly emptied. If I were going to age one longer, that would be it. I’ve dug into some older vintages of the standard Abyss that were closer to that when they started out, and they tend to age better than others. The ones with more higher alcohol character at the beginning seem to hold up better after time.”
Case closed. The Rye Abyss is going in the cellar. In fact, Harper recommends aging all three versions of the beer for at least a year.
“I like the 12- to 18-month mark for the regular Abyss,” Harper says. “The cognac’s got some interesting liqueur characteristics and almost some tartness. That would be something interesting to note for a year down the road to see how that progresses.”
Whenever you choose to open them, we recommend drinking your Abysses side-by-side. The beers contrast each other nicely—the fruity sweetness of the cognac-aged Abyss emphasizes the roasted malt and smooth vanilla of the standard edition, and vice versa. We also recommend enjoying the rye- and cognac-aged versions while you can—Harper says the “remarkably limited” offerings will be completely different next year.