Beer is arguably one of the most democratic drinks in the world. Yes, beer uber-nerds have their white whales to chase, but the rest of us can enjoy world class beers like St. Bernardus Abt 12, Ballast Point Sculpin, and Goose Island's Bourbon County Brand Stout with a little patience and leg work. And not only are life-changing beers available coast to coast, they almost always run less than $20 per bottle. Hell, sometimes that'll buy you a six-pack. So then what do you make of Boston Beer's Sam Adams Utopias release that hits shelves (usually) every other year with a sticker price of $200 for a 24-ounce bottle?
First, let's start by giving credit where it's due: The 27-plus percent alcohol brew is a craft beer icon and helped kickstart the extreme beer wave of the aughts that made imperial ales ubiquitous today. Boston Beer released the first Utopias in 2002, but the strong ale was the brewery's third generation of boundary-pushing beer after the 18-percent Triple Bock released in the 1990s, and 2000's 22-percent Millennium. Founder Jim Koch launched the Utopias program out of his curiosity with barrel aging and creating flavors that didn't resemble beer as we know it, says Jennifer Glanville, a veteran brewer who's worked on every batch of Utopias. "That's been the goal, finding ways to drive more flavors."
That's a worthy mission, but it understates the effort that goes into every biannual release. The beer only gets released every two years because that's how long it takes to finish. Over the course of the first year, the company's small R&D brewery in Boston periodically halts all other production to focus on Utopias. Once it hits the fermenters, brewers monitor the beer's vitals around the clock for two weeks to make sure the yeast is happy and productive and on its way to 20 percent alcohol, Utopias' first benchmark. "It's like a newborn baby," Glanville says. Along the way, maple syrup is added for a second hit of fermentables that will bring it over 27 percent. 2015's lands at 28, but previous batches have gone as high as 33 percent alcohol.
With the beer near full strength, batches are pumped into bourbon barrels. Sam Adams brewers work with the Buffalo Trace brick house storage facility to identify the whiskey brand's most flavorful barrels and bring them to Boston. Unlike most barrel-aged beers, Utopias liquid will spend its life in multiple vessels. Depending on how fast the charred oak loses its character, the beer will be pumped into a fresh barrel after one to six months to continue compounding flavor. Even then, a portion of the aging Utopias gets transferred again to finishing barrels. In this release, it's 20 barrels each of white Carcovelos (a Portuguese wine), Armagnac, Cognac, tawny port, and ruby port, Glanville says.
As the release date approaches, the barrels are blended back together. Beyond the batches brewed in the first year, portions of old stock from every previous Utopias, and maybe even a Triple Bock, are woven in. While 100 finishing barrels stand ready, many will remain in the shadows for a later release as the brewers balance the flavors of each. In 2013, for instance, 20 rum barrels were filled, but the character was so powerful that only two were blended into the finished beer, Glanville says.
Finally, Utopias is hand filled in the copper-covered porcelain bottles — which Boston Beer admits adds to the price — and numbered. Only 15,000 bottles leave the brewery, a tiny amount for the two years of sweat that nearly 30 people put into the finished product.
That brings us to the 2015 edition, which hits a couple of familiar cues with a distinct maple taste and body that resembles cognac. The brewers also threw in a small amount of smoked barley to accentuate the leather and tobacco. And then leaned more on caramel malts for nutty, toffee notes. Together, it's a confluence of flavors that achieves Koch's goal of beer than doesn't resemble beer. Even as other craft brewers regularly brew in the neighborhood of 20-percent alcohol, the beers don't approach the realm of Utopias. Is any beer worth $200? We can't make that call, but we can say you'll not find another beer on the planet quite like Utopias.