On Aging Beer: Comparing Deschutes Brewery's Abyss 2010 and 2011
I have a long history with The Abyss from Oregon's Deschutes Brewery. Their most recent release of this deep, dark beer was the 6th annual edition, and I've been enjoying it almost that long. But all too often I'd crack a bottle (paired with a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie or comparing it to other awesome Imperial Stouts) and think: this should be saved. This bottle could get better with proper storage and a little time. But what exactly would happen to it? I couldn't say.
So last year, I tucked my bottle back into the depths of the fridge (a cool-not-cold cellar space would be better, but I live in a 450 square foot apartment with no such space) and forgot about it. Really forgot about it—The Abyss 2010 says 'best after 11/15/11' on the label, and I somehow let that date come and go, even though a bottle of the 2011 edition arrived fresh from the brewery, awaiting my review.
We pulled out both bottles the other night, and were impressed to tasted the difference a year makes. The recipes were not exactly the same: the 2010 Abyss label says this stout is "brewed with licorice and molasses, with 33% aged in oak and oak bourbon barrels", while the 2011 adds cherry bark, vanilla, and oak wine barrels to the mix.
As you might expect from the listed ingredients, the 2011 edition has a fruitier scent and bright hint of wine, laced with vanilla, caramel, and coconut. The fruity side would make it a good match for hamburgers or barbecue ribs or brisket (it has some things in common with Captain Lawrence's wine barrel aged smoked imperial porter). But the beer, as tasty as it was, felt spiky, not necessarily alcohol-hot but not very integrated, with a cigarlike smoky char dominating the finish and bright fruit jumping across your mouth. This beer would benefit from mellowing out a bit.
How do we know? Tasting the older bottle, age seemed to have done everything we'd hoped for. The 2010 Abyss was rich and very smooth, with loads of molasses and coffee flavors that lingered without any rough edges. It was less bitter and more even than the younger bottle—as if all the different elements were singing the same song, instead of each turning their stereo to a different station and cranking up the volume. This beer—if you held onto a bottle—would be incredible with aged gouda or other hard cheese, or short ribs with roasted root vegetables. It calls out for meat, but is mellow enough to work with peanut butter and chocolate based desserts, as long as they're not too sweet. This was the bottle we finished, not the younger one. If only we'd cellared the 2011 longer...