I’ve done it, folks.  I’ve finally gotten through three of the reserve beers by Deschutes.  The unfortunate part is that one of these wasn’t The Dissident, which I am, perhaps, more interested in trying than any of their other beers. Fortunately, I picked up The Abyss the other day, and some friends brought me Mirror Mirror and Black Butte XXI quite a while back.  Now that I’ve had all three and some time to reflect, I’m going to give a taste to reviewing the trio.

The Abyss: Critical acclaim for this one sets the bar really high.  It’s number 4 on Beer Advocate and 23 on Ratebeer.  It has received multiple awards and is worthy of respect.  The cumulative effect of these ratings makes one believe that it is, in fact, one of the best beers on planet earth.

Some beers live up to the hype. (my experience of Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout by Three Floyds).  They say the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, and The Abyss, unfortunately, did not live up to the ratings that I’ve seen.  Again, don’t mistake me, it is still a good beer and I’m not bashing it.  I do think it had some quirks for which I don’t particularly care.  Lest you think that my reviews are done in a vacuum, my silent partner for each review is my wife, who has tried hundreds of beers and has a very capable palate.  In addition, I had another friend around for tasting this.

This response may be a little unfair in one sense because the bottle itself states that The Abyss is best after, not before, November of 2010.  That being the case, I plan on reviewing an aged bottle of beer in a year or so.  It remains to be seen if this beer can come from the abyss and puts itself on firmer ground. Here are my thoughts on a fresh bottle.

The Pour: What would a big Russian Imperial Stout be without a deep, rich blackness that makes some sense of the beer’s style and name?  It certainly was black like an Abyss.  Not only was it dark in the body, it had a creamy brown head that spoke of the drinker’s impending doom.  It is also worth noting that it had what I call “The Glass Stick Factor,” which basically means that when the glass of beer is tilted and put back there is a trail of the beer that stays on the side of the glass.  The Abyss was dark and seemingly sticky for sure. The stickiness might have added to its nice lacing.

The Nose: No doubt, there are some very nice intricacies to this beer.  The first thing I noticed on the nose was a metallic quality, which is often associated with dark roasted grains.  Speaking of those grains, they created some distinct coffee, chocolate, and dry roasted tones.  The aroma definitely hinted that it would be hot on the alcohol.  Plus, bourbon vanillas, oak, and smoke added to the expectation.  There was also a sort of dried fruit aspect to the nose, which gave it a tinge of sweetness.  In addition, I got some floral and grapefruity hops on the nose.

The Taste: What can I say?  The grapefruity hops that I caught on the aroma were in the beer at the beginning to the end, but especially the end.  Combined with the bitterness, it was reminiscent of the pulp/pith of a grapefruit.  The bourbon came through nicely without too much domination.  As the beer warms up, the alcohol becomes more noticeable, but for the most part, the alcohol was present and not domineering.  Vanilla came through nicely as did touches of smoke, coffee, and chocolate.  While I didn’t catch it on the nose until the beer warmed up a bit, the licorice was definitely present in the taste. The hints of molasses were not overt, and the beer finish somewhat dry.

Overall, the Abyss is a nice offering of what an Imperial Stout can be.  I personally prefer an Imperial Stout with a little more sweetness and less hoppiness in terms of aroma.  However, it’s not that I mind aroma/flavoring hops on the style; that’s an interpretive decision.

What I do mind is the citrusy/grapefruity hops being combined with the bitterness.  It seems to detract from what the malts are doing.  I’m personally of the opinion that this is a defect in the beer.  Again, I’d like more sweetness, but even that is not part of what I’m taking into account when rating this beer.  My real question is, do the those hops work well with the style? I’m of the opinion that they don’t.  If this one aspect of the beer were played with a bit, I think I would rate it higher.  As it is, I’m still giving it a good rating, albeit not what I might have.  It’s certainly worth a try, but be ready to shell out anywhere between $8.99-13.99 a bottle (the prices are all over the place).  One more thing; it’s better as it warms up.

Mike’s Rating:

Overall Satisfaction: ★★★★☆ 

Among other Stouts: ★★★★¼ 

Among other Ales: ★★★★☆ 

Black Butte XXI: Like the Abyss, this one comes in at 11% ABV.  This particular beer is a porter aged on cocoa and coffee beans.  In addition, 20% of the product is aged in bourbon barrels.  Yet another one of Deschutes’ Reserve Series, a lot of thought and effort went into this beer.  I believe it was also a $12 purchase.  And guess what?  Another outstanding rating on certain aforementioned beer sites.  I think it was in the 99% percentile on one site and an A rating on another.  Not to be contrary, but I simply didn’t find this to be an outstanding, exceptional, or any other superlative adjective beer.  Here is my take:

The Pour: Porters are notorious for the fluidity with which they can be defined.  Therefore, it’s always hard to be too critical of a porter being too dark, etc.  In fact, I just brewed a porter that is stout-like in color but has some nice browns to balance it out.  I’m stopping there.  If you want to read what we think about porter, here is a link to the article.  If you haven’t deduced it, this beer was pretty black on the pour with some barely visible brown hints.  There was a nicely retained medium brown head, which was simply lovely.

The Nose: Like the Abyss, there were touches of metallic qualities on the nose.  This made me wonder if they used any patent malt or black/roasted barley, although I suppose it could have come from the coffee, which was noticeable but not overpowering.  Roasted grains, touches of smoke, and a bit of caramel were noticeable.  Along with them the classic biscuity tones of porter eked out.  Bourbon vanilla, cinnamon, and booziness were certain factors on the nose as well.

The Taste: When I sipped the beer, the alcohol was there for sure but was balanced out by the big, tongue-coating mouth-feel.  Bourbon oak char and spice really came through as being pretty earthy in tone.  The woodiness was a nice touch.  The finish was full of dry biscuit qualities.  In addition, a touch of raisons and grapes came to the fore.  All this ended with a long metallic and bitter finish.  As the beer warmed up, the coffee tones and citrusy hops really started coming through.  Andrea also noted a small degree of soy qualities to Black Butte XXI.

Overall, too much bitterness.  The finish was simply too much for what the beer required.  Despite the big mouth-feel, the bitterness was only toned down for so long.  Besides that, the beer was fairly well done.

Mike’s Rating:

Overall Satisfaction: ★★★½☆ 

Among other Porters: ★★★¾☆ 

Among other Ales: ★★★½☆ 

Mirror Mirror: Mirror Mirror, in my cup, you’re the one I could drink up.  Despite it being rated the lowest of these three, Mirror Mirror was, in my opinion, the shining star of the day.  If it’s any reflection (pun intended) on how some of our proclivities go, the lightest beer got the least acclaim.  Not so on this site.  Mirror Mirror is an American style barley-wine, which also weighs in at 11% ABV, and is also aged in oak barrels.  The funny thing is that with all the over-hopped beers above, this one is surprisingly restrained. Thirty IBUs of hops is more typical of a wheat beer (albeit a well hopped one) than it is of a barley-wine. (Thomas Hardy’s goes much higher.)  It goes to show you never can tell.

The Pour: Mirror Mirror was a bit of an orange pour with some reddish/pinkish hues.  It was a bit on the odd side of color.  Atop the body was a meteoric off-white head.  However, its temporary brilliance was just that.

The Nose: Metallic qualities appeared to be a theme among the Deschutes trio.  Not that I necessarily mind metallic tones to the nose of beer, which was certainly understandable with the dark malts used in the other two, but it was slightly odd in this one.  As a barley-wine, some residual sweetness is appropriate, and this one had some sweet malty tones that wafted to my nose.  Touches of caramel, woodiness, and even a small touch of breadiness appeared.

The Taste: This beer had a nice, full mouth-feel.  I imagine this is partly related to the residual sweetness, which really wasn’t very much for a barley-wine.  I’m thinking Thomas Hardy’s Ale.  The metal that was on the nose came through on the taste as well.  Caramel tones along with an oak barrel finish were predominate in the flavor profile of Mirror Mirror.  As I mentioned before, the hops were extremely restrained on the brew, which was a nice change from the other two.  In fact, the harsher bitter tones on the other were completely absent.  I thought that as the beer warmed up, it took on some very noticeable vodka alcohol tones, which can be a touch citrusy.  No doubt, the alcohol got warmer as the beer did.

Overall, I truly enjoyed this beer.  I thought it had a nice balance for being an 11% ABV beer.  I would be just as comfortable drinking the brew whether in the winter or summer; but it will warm the drinker either way.  If pressed about which beer was the best of the series (excluding The Dissident), I would pin the ribbon on Mirror Mirror.

By the way, If they still have some, you can pick up the Abyss and Black Butte at Whole Foods on Arroyo, should you live in Pasadena (or perhaps if they are at other Whole Foods).

Mike’s Rating:

Overall Satisfaction: ★★★★½ 


Among other Barley-Wines: ★★★★☆ 


Among other the Other Three Deschutes Reviewed: ★★★★★