Plunge into the Abyss

With an International Beer Challenge win and a listing among Playboy's top 10 beers to its name, Oregon brewery Deschutes is in high demand.

Ben McFarland gets his nose into an elusive snifter

You may not have heard about this year's winner of The International Beer Challenge and, unless you're jolly lucky, you certainly won't have tasted it. Nor, sadly, are you likely to.

Dark, strong (11 per cent abv?!) and incredibly complex, Abyss from the legendary Deschutes Brewery in Oregon is as delicious as it is tantalisingly elusive.

Getting your mitts on a bottle of Abyss is like finding a M alteser in a black hole. For a start, Deschutes doesn't distribute its beers on this side of the Pond and even if it did, Abyss is so good the Americans certainly wouldn't let it leave.

In the US, Men's Journal magazine recently named it the best stout in the world while Beer Advocate, the beer boffin's bible, listed it in its Top 20 American beer s. When the 2007 version of Abyss was unleashed late last year, cases rushed out stores' doors and online beer geeks are seriously flashing the cash to get some.

Entered into the IBC by the American Brewers Association as part of a widespread effort to raise the profile of the States ' hugely exciting craft beer culture, Deschutes' Abyss wowed the judges.

"It ticked all the right boxes for me," says Zak Avery. "Although it was very dark and heavy, it was balanced. It was big without being brutal and had a wonderful unctuous, bittersweet quality that made it interesting but not cloying." Another judge, Glenn Payne, describes it more succinctly : "As a celebration of the brewer's craft it would be hard to better."

Darker than a coalminer's worst nightmares, Abyss pours with the viscosity of port and a brunette, bouffant foam. Autumnal fruits, prunes and shortbread nuzzle in the nostrils, while beneath the bubbles lies a shimmering coming-together of flavours: rich coffee, tones of bitter butterscotch, pistachio nut and more than a hint of citrus-spiced chocolate. The finish, mellowed by maturation in oak bourbon casks, is deliciously dry and linger ing. It's a phenomenal beer and it's little wonder so many hanker after it. Abyss's victory strikes a blow for the dark side at a time when many boutique brewers are being all sweetness and light.

Dark beer is what Deschutes' success is built on. It may now be the sixth biggest craft brewery in the US and the second biggest in Oregon, but it began life as a small brewpub in downtown Bend in 1988, during the embryonic days of America's beer revolution.

While other pioneering brewers were dabbling with India pale ales and British-style bitters, Deschutes went roastier and toastier in the shape of a traditional porter. "Our main flagship beer is Black Butte Porter and a lot of our history is based on a dark beer which makes us different," says Deschutes founder Gary Fish. "It's the leading selling porter in the country and has changed the way American drinkers think about dark beer.

"A lot of industry pundits found it very hard to believe a dark beer could sell so well and be the focus," he adds. " We worked hard for nearly two decades to make people realise you shouldn't judge a beer by its colour. It's very popular with women."

What also distinguishes Deschutes from other microbrewers is its exclusive use of whole, fresh hops. Deschutes brewmaster Larry Sidor explains: "The bitterness from whole hops is softer, cleaner and gives a fresher flavour to the beers than pellets, which are more harsh and astringent."

Mirror Pond Ale, first brewed in 1997 and a local favourite, is made with locally grown, whole flower Cascade hops. Named one of America's 10 best beers by Playboy magazine, the beer is enjoying a second wind as US drinkers, unfulfilled by a whirlwind romance with hugely hoppy beers, are returning to a more balanced interpretation of pale ales.

"We're trying to make traditional styles and do them a little bit better than everyone else," says Fish. "We like to use hops, but it seems like the more we taste these beers with heavy hop character the less we find balance, and it's interesting to see whether that will last.

"We keep one eye on the history and tradition of brewing but the other is on progress and always embracing new methods," he adds. "We've grown but kept the micro personality. We still brew beer in very small batches at the brewpub."

The vast majority of the 150,000-plus barrels brewed every year come from the Deschutes principal brewing facility, opened in 1993 with a 50-barrel traditional gravity brewhouse and a one-of-a-kind 131-barrel Huppmann brew system from Germany.

On its 12.5 barrel system, the Deschutes Brewery & Public House in Bend is responsible for the Bond Street Series, a collection of limited edition, idiosyncratic ales released in small batches, including a pilsner fermented with Champagne yeast called Champizzle and an organic amber ale . But if you think you can drink Abyss here, think again.

Core ales

The Abyss, 11 per cent abv (International Beer Challenge Supreme Champion and Best in Class Beer above 7 per cent abv).

Black Butte Porter, 5.5 per cent abv. Beautifully balanced bitterness and chocolate-tinged sweetness. A slightly smoky finish like coffee brewed on a bonfire.

Mirror Pond Pale Ale, 5.5 per cent abv . Archetypal American pale ale with pronounced caramel malt, yet leaves plenty of room for a flurry of floral Cascade hops. Fantastic.

Bachelor ESB, 5.2 per cent abv . Big maltiness balanced by robust bitterness and a crisp, warm finish. IBC Best in Class Ales between 4.3 per cent and 5.5 per cent abv .

Cascade Ale, 4.6 per cent abv . Herbal hop nose gives way to a medium-bodied malt smoothness and a clean, pear-drop finish.

Obsidian Stout, 6.4 per cent abv . Mocha and dark chocolate take centre stage in this chewy challenger for the Deschutes dark beer throne.

Inversion IPA, 6.8 per cent abv . Zesty grapefruit, bold citrus and pine flavours. Balanced out by soft and sweet malt. Very refreshing. IBC Top 50 Beers .

Hop Henge Imperial IPA, 8.1 per cent abv. IBC Top 50 Beers .

Related articles: