Sam Adams Utopias 2013: An Examination Into the Original Big Beer
Utopias by Samuel Adams (Boston Beer Co) is a widely discussed beer, and with good cause, as you’ll soon see. There may be some controversy surrounding the beer’s rather steep retail price, but the world’s general consensus seems to be: Utopias is basically liquid sex. At 28%, it contains no carbonation, it’s meant to be served at room temperature, and it’s brewed using champagne yeast; it certainly pushes the boundaries of what beer actually is, or what beer can even be. The average retail price is about 199$ for a 710ml bottle, which is no laughing matter, yet the beer still manages to sell out in minutes, making it quite difficult to procure.
So what makes this beer so special, and why would anyone pay this kind of cash for a single bottle? Well first off, Utopias is a blend of several beers, some as old as 20 years. It is meticulously aged and transferred from one barrel to another, all previously containing, but not limited to: spirits, port, rum, previous versions of Utopias, and other big Sam Adams brews. This years batch was, as usual, aged in casks from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, an award winning Kentucky-based bourbon producer. Because of potential flavor discrepancies between barrels due to temperature, they hand select the casks used for Utopias in order to optimize the results. This year’s batch was also aged in eight year old port barrels from Portugal, which will certainly impart some amazing flavors to the blend. For the first time as well, this years blend contained one of their American wild ales (a sour), Kosmic Mother Funk, which according Jim Koch (co-founder/chairman), “brings a whole new spectrum of flavors and complexity to the beer, including brighter fruit notes like cherries and plums and just a hint of earthiness.” – See more at: blog.samueladams.com.
It probably goes without saying that Utopias is not available in Quebec; just like all American craft beer (sadly). So how did I get my hands on this one? Well, luckily for me I have some amazing in-laws, who without me knowing, asked my partner and some friends what the perfect beer geek Christmas gift would be, and then managed to successfully get it! They live in Ottawa, and Utopias was sold by the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) as a very limited release through private order only, and after waiting in queue for three hours, my mother in law managed to get a bottle. Thank you so much!
I really wasn’t sure what to drink this in. I have many a beer glass, but no whiskey glassware. The branded Utopias glass is made by Riedel, and is basically identical to their single malt whiskey glass. It’s short, and the diameter is quite small. I have some nice crystal brandy snifters, but I feel like they are too large and bulbous for a one ounce pour. I remembered that Genee has this really nice crystal wine glass set where the bulbs are quite small. This will do the trick!
Utopias pours out a dark chestnut brown, with auburn orange highlights and absolutely no carbonation. There are some serious legs coating the sides of my glass as I swirl it around. Looks viscous, but not a thick as sirup, which I thought it might be. Let’s smell this bad boy. Oh my God, what a nose! The first thing that hits me is the bourbon. There are some serious vanilla notes happening as well, mixed with maple syrup, a little bit of smokey peak, and some surprisingly minor ethanol boozyness. I’ve had many beers that smelled more boozy than this; it is impressively smooth for 28%. There is a lot of dried fruit, with dates and raisins coming through. I’m also getting something that I can only describe as Cola? The only real indicator that this is so high in alcohol is the fact that my nostrils burn a bit when taking huge whiffs. As it opens up a bit more I start to get a lot more, with candied caramel, banana chips, brown sugar, oak, and toasted grains making an appearance now. The complexities are endless here. In a lot of ways this smells like beer, barrel aged strong beer of course, but still beer. But I will say, in many other ways this also smells a lot like bourbon, Whiskey, Sherry, and port.
After the first sip, the thing that strikes me the most is the subtle tartness. I wasn’t really expecting that, although I know it’s blended with a sour beer, so that’s likely the culprit. It’s certainly sweet, but not too much so, and it works perfectly against the alcohol burn, as well as the slight fruity sour aspects of this years version. The bourbon is far less pronounced on the taste front as compared to the nose. Instead, the port barrel aging really comes through, with some vinous and tart grapes becoming quite present. Damn this is good. As it continues to open up, and my palate adjusts to the booze, I’m starting to taste the oak a lot more, with lots of vanilla, and a slight rubber flavor on the finish. Like the nose, I’m getting even more fruit; again there are raisins & dates, but I’m also tasting fresh figs and plums. If there was a food comparison to this, I’d say plum pudding meets candied apples, with maple syrup poured on top. As I breathe out through my nose, the back of my tongue starts to give me a tremendous amount of bourbon flavor. What really makes this special for me – besides all the many other factors that makes this incredibly special – is the tart finish, it really brings everything together, and cuts down the viscosity and sweetness. I’m not sure if that tartness is a result of the blend with Mother Funk, or if it’s the fact that this is aged in port casks as well. But either way, it works, and works amazingly. It’s really hard to do a beer like this justice without going on for hours, and although I provided a pretty detailed description, I kept getting more and more flavors and aromas as I drank it. This kind of sums up everything I experienced in no particular order: “brown sugar, dried bananas, ice wine, ice cider, port, cola syrup, tart apples, caramel candy, bourbon, oak, rubber, vanilla, maple syrup, very faint hops, little to no bitterness.”
When I explained this beer to people, many have said, “well it’s not beer then.” And to their defense, this is no ordinary beer. However, if it’s made from Barley, Hops, and Yeast, well then to me, it’s beer – especially if it doesn’t go through a distilling process which a lot of the very high ABV beers go through. Actually, Utopias is the highest-alcohol, naturally fermented beer in the world. When I was describing the aroma, I mentioned that this still smelled like beer to me, and I was serious. For someone who only drinks beer here and there and hasn’t dabbled in big barrel aged brews, I could certainly see why they might say this smells like a liquor, and not beer. And although I’m not well versed in how spirits interact with oak – or rather, I’m not well versed in spirits in general – many of the layers of flavor in this beer are very much, well, beer. So although there are elements here that are like Ice Cider, Ice wine, bourbon, sherry, and port, the underlining backbone of this drink is certainly beer-like, and I think it’s important to outline that.
I think the big question is whether this is worth the money, and honestly I can’t really answer that. I’d like to hope that the process in which it takes to produce this beer is relative to the price it retails for, but I simply don’t know; only the Boston Beer Company can really answer that. But what I will say is that this is one of, if not the most interesting, complex, and delicious beverages I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. That being said, if this beer had to be consumed in one sitting, then I might argue that it may be too steep of a price for me to ever purchase again. However, the fact that I can open this 710ml bottle once in a while, pour out an ounce or two, and enjoy for years to come, makes this totally worth it for me. It retails for 115$ at the LCBO, which is 75$ cheaper than many other retailers, so if it’s available again next year, I’m pretty sure I’ll be on the phone trying to grab a bottle – if I have the cash!
An Article by Noah Forrest