By all appearances, Samuel Adams' Utopias is a novelty beer. It's 60 proof, tastes closer to cognac than ale, costs $190, and comes in a handcrafted porcelain bottle shaped like a mashtun. Even the stated goal of the brewmaster and CEO Jim Koch hints to this beer's peculiarity. "We want this to be the Starship Enterprise of beer," he says. "We wanted to take beer where no beer has gone before." But after one sip of Utopias, it's clear that this is no trendy media stunt. Utopias is a bold experiment and a rich, unique brew that is worth fawning over.
Utopias defies all notions of beer styles. It is a barrel-aged beer, made super alcoholic by means of a ton of malt (sugar from grains) and specially engineered super-yeast capable of fermenting it to spirit strength. Samuel Adams produced 15,000 bottles for this year's batch of Utopias, blending the base beers from a library of hundreds of oak barrels. Most of the barrels were purchased from bourbon distilleries, but some were also used for rum or wine and many have been reused multiple times dating back to Triple Bock, which is Samuel Adams's first high alcohol beer in 1992. The final blended beer comes in at almost 30 percent this year, a proof that, as Koch likes to point out, was blended down from some of the higher-alcohol barrels.
Our sample was consumed in the specially provided tasting glass designed by George Reidel, but we think a port glass or brandy snifter would serve equally well. The beer pours a deep ruby color without a trace of carbonation or head and a swirl generates the most distinct (long and thick) legs we've ever seen on a beer. Aromas of sherry, cognac, vanilla, and dark fruits gently waft out of the glass, and a sip reveals a beer that is intensely sweet with notes of caramel, molasses, raisin, and rum. While there was no burn from the alcohol, there is pleasant warmth that follows all the way to the stomach.
Utopias is packaged in a 750 ml bottle with a resealable cap, so that the entire bottle doesn't have to be consumed in one evening. While Jim Koch recommends against "ruining it by pairing it with food," we think it makes an excellent digestif and we wouldn't hesitate to serve it after a special dinner party along with some palette-cleansing matzoh. Our only reservation about this unprecedented sipper is its $190 price tag. Chip in with a dozen or so adventurous friends to buy a bottle and compare it to an exceptional tawny port or cognac. It's too good not to share, and you'll want to have company around so that you can talk about it and compare your experiences. [$190, 750 ml; samueladams.com]