Occasionally, a beer comes along that's so interesting, it boggles the mind. Our first Beer of the Week is one of those. It's the Abyss (HHH3/4) from Deschutes, Bend, Ore. In its two short years of life, it's become a cult beer. And no wonder.

Talk about a walk on the wild side. The name's appropriate: It's 11 percent alcohol by volume, almost coal black with a thick, dark head. The aroma's intense: Bourbon whiskey and licorice, among many other notes. This is a beer that slides across the palate like silk -- first sweet, then a whiskey taste, then vanilla and licorice and wine and roast malt that lasts into a long finish, warmed by alcohol.

The intricate manner in which Abyss was brewed shows us how far craft brewers have come in this great beery adventure of ours. Deschutes brewer and barrel master Jake Harper said the idea came from a licorice stout and a blackstrap molasses stout both brewed at the Deschutes brewpub in 2005.

"We decided to combine them, barrel-age them and dry-hop them with cherry bark and vanilla beans," Harper said. They brewed the beer in two sessions in a process called a double mash. Then when the mash liquid was boiled, they added three hops, strong and bitter Northern Brewer and herbal Millennium and Nugget hops, also hard licorice sticks and blackstrap molasses.

After the boil, the 500 barrels of beer were divided into two fermenters -- half fermented with the house Deschutes yeast, the other with a Belgian yeast. About one-quarter of the whole batch was placed in a combination of used bourbon barrels, French Pinot barrels and regular Oregon oak wine barrels.

Part stayed in barrels for eight months. Finally, the whole batch was reassembled into stainless steel tanks and dry-hopped. Usually that means placing fresh hops in the fermenter. But instead of hops, whole vanilla beans and cherry bark were used.

Finally, Abyss was carbonated and bottled. The only technique they left out was bottle-conditioning, adding a bit of fresh yeast to each bottle for a slow second fermentation in the bottle. They figured that at 11 percent ABV and 56 International Bitterness Units (Budweiser's about 13 IBU), the beer didn't need that extra step. Abyss runs $10 for a 22-ounce bottle.

GOOD SIPPER: Samuel Adams Irish Red (HHH1/2) is at the opposite end of the beer scale from Abyss. It's a mellow 5 percent beer, an American version of an English, or I should say Irish, pub beer. My only complaint is that it should be a bit lower in alcohol like U.K.-Irish pub beers, so one could easily drink a pint or two.

It's delicious, the perfect beer to sip in your favorite pub on a rainy evening. I tasted it last fall and again recently. I really liked it both times: Thick, creamy head, clean, malty nose. Fairly sweet taste with a nice, English hop follow.

Malts are two Canadian pale malts, Harrington and Metcalfe, and caramel malt, barley kilned to the color of caramel. Finishing hops are fragrant East Kent Goldings.

Last note on Sam Adams Irish: There was a contest; pub-goers all over the country had a chance to vote on two beers, Irish Red and a Dunkelweizen Dark Wheat Ale. Boston Beer, which makes Sam Adams, says 42,000 people voted and the winner was Irish Red. It was my favorite, too. Gee -- did that many people vote? The mind reels. Irish Red: 12-ounce bottles, about $7.99 for a six-pack.

A HEAVENLY MATCH: I've tasted a lot of food and beer pairings in the past few years. But it will be a while before I find an equal to two pairings at a Lagunitas beer dinner at the Pleasanton Hotel. The menu was designed by chef Neil Marcus, who has gone on to become a partner in a new Pleasanton restaurant, Eddie Papa's American Hangout.

The new chef, Chris Smith, a San Francisco Culinary Institute grad who grew up in Livermore, prepared the dinner and did the pairing. He paired Lagunitas Censored (HHH), a stunning, malty 6 percent ale, with a pepperoni Calzone on balsamic dressed greens. Simply dynamite. The beer and the food blended and harmonized in a way that wine accomplishes only rarely.

The dessert pairing was equally inspired: Molten Lava Cake with Caramel Ice Cream, paired with Lagunitas Hairy Eyeball (HHH), a powerful, 9.2 percent winter warmer. Intrigued? Check out my blog for the recipes, kindly provided by Smith. More beer dinners are ahead at the hotel; stay tuned.

CALENDAR: Many, many things happening as we ease into February and the Bay Area's Beerapalooza, which ends on Feb. 17 with the Celebrator Beer News 20th anniversary party; 35 breweries pouring beer, lots of food and music. Info: http://www.celebrator.com. It's also a Strong Beer month at two San Francisco brewpubs: 21st Amendment, 563 2nd St.; and Magnolia, 1398 Haight St. Each has several strong beers on tap. At 6 p.m. Jan. 31, both brewers will be showing off their beers at the Toronado, 547 Haight St. See you there.

Reach William Brand at whatsontap@sbcglobal.net or call 510-915-1180 and ask for his Retail Beer Store List or Good Pub List. Read more by Brand at http://www.beernewsletter.com/blog.