Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Samuel Adams Utopias - 10th Anniversary Release (The Boston Beer Company)

What lies at the outer edges of the vast universe of beer, do you suppose? Let's assume we've all done our time at the low end of the spectrum and, without defaming specific brands, leave it at that. But what beer represents the limits of extravagance?

I could certainly make an argument for Samuel Adams Utopias, an annual release from The Boston Beer Company. This year's 10th anniversary incarnation packs 29% alcohol by volume, and carries a suggested retail price of $160 a bottle. Is this madness? Not really, when viewed in context.

Even within the craft beer industry, which is pretty innovative to begin with, there is the vanguard of "extreme brewing" -- brewers experimenting with unusual ingredients (chili peppers, peanuts, exotic fruits and berries, even seafood), novel yeast strains, and unconventional techniques to produce beers that probe the frontiers of flavor.

And within this specialty a handful of breweries, including BBC, have explored the upper limits of alcohol in beer production, using either pure fermentation (as in the case of Utopias) or a freeze distillation method which removes water from the beer and leaves concentrated alcohol behind.

While many of these extreme alcohol beers have been condemned as mere publicity stunts because of their harshness, Utopias has got this problem licked. Through a combination of painstaking barrel aging (in casks previously holding port, bourbon and rum) and blending, they have created a -- well, I'll call it an "elixir," since "beer" doesn't quite describe it -- an elixir that smooths out the intense alcohol kick and incorporates it into an incredibly rich palette of flavors.

I poured the Utopias from its opulent-looking black ceramic flask into a small snifter. It appears deep amber brown with a slight plum tinge. It has a slightly viscous consistency and absolutely no carbonation. When swirled in the glass, it leaves oily legs, much like a wine or distilled spirit.

The aroma is not at all like beer, but much more like port or sherry. There are amazing notes of wood, Fig Newton, and Concord grape, with a solid undertone of alcohol.

The flavor is, again, less like beer and more like fortified wine. This elixir is clearly designed to be sipped and savored, not gulped by the mouthful. My first impression is of dense fig, honey, Medjool dates, and leather. Then the astringent wood rises but does not completely dry out the flavor, which finishes with the dark fruit essences receding into gentle oak, reminiscent of bourbon. Sipped in this way, there is some warmth, but no offensive ravage of alcohol.

In a video on their website, BBC founder Jim Koch says: "As a brewer, I believe Sam Adams' Utopias stands alongside the very best ports, the very best cognacs and brandies and sherries. To me, this is a beautiful example of the maker's art, just as those beverages are."

I agree that Utopias is a unique beverage that demonstrates superlative craftsmanship. Not sure I could work up the nerve to shell out $160 for a bottle of it, but it's nice to know what beer tastes like at the heavenly edge.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Beer Club (November 16, 2012)

Another great and varied assortment, introducing three breweries -- Boulevard of Kansas City, MO, Evil Genius (contract brewed through Cooperstown Brewing Company of Milford, NY), and Starr Hill of Charlottesville, VA -- that have not appeared in the lineup before.

• Fireside Chat (21st Amendment Brewery)
• Dark Starr Stout (Starr Hill Brewery)
• Evil Eye PA (Evil Genius Beer Company)
• Claymore Scotch Ale (Great Divide Brewing Company)
• Single-Wide IPA (Boulevard Brewing)
• Poor Richard's Tavern Spruce (Yards Brewing Company)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Beer Club (November 2, 2012)

Only five beers this week, but a great batch -- mostly dark beauties.

• Baba Black Lager (Uinta Brewing Company)
• Bristlecone Brown Ale (Uinta Brewing Company)
• Heart of Darkness Stout (Magic Hat Brewing Company)
• Old Rasputin RIS (North Coast Brewing Company)
• Red Fish (Flying Fish Brewing Company)

One bonus did come to me via Deputy Features Editor Patty Talorico: an elaborately packaged sample of the 10th anniversary release of Samuel Adams Utopias. A review of that will be forthcoming in a future "Quench" column in The News Journal.