The Boston Beer Co. has released its 10th anniversary batch of Samuel Adams Utopias, and it's starting to turn up on shelves around town. I spotted some in the cooler at Goody Goody on Oak Lawn Avenue and had a private little beer-nerd laugh -- clearly, the staff there is uninitiated.
Utopias is an extremely potent, rich and complex beer meant to be served in 2-ounce pours and sipped at room temperature as if it were port or cognac. This year's batch is an unprecedented 29 percent ABV, and 750-mL bottles have a suggested price of $160. I doubt you'll even find a bottle that cheap -- Goody Goody had it marked at $199.99.
One could make the case that this is the world's strongest true beer. Other beers have surpassed that level, and Scotland's Brewmeister just rolled out a 65-percent (that's 130 proof) thing they call Armageddon. As far as I know, every other beer that reaches such levels is ice-distilled, meaning the beer is frozen and ice is removed, leaving behind a stronger concentration of alcohol. And, at least in the case of Brewdog's Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck!, two previous world's-strongest contenders, they also pretty much taste like ass.
Utopias is brewed with malted barley, hops, water and yeast and naturally fermented. The high alcohol level is achieved over a long fermenting period with the use of very hardy yeast strains including a Champagne yeast, and adding lots of fermentable sugars -- maple syrup in years past, and judging by the taste, this year as well. This year, Utopias is a blend of beers going back as far as 19 years, including barrel-aged Triple Bock from Samuel Adams' original record-breaking 1994 batch (a now-quaint 17.5 percent ABV), and aged in casks that previously held bourbon, rum, tawny port and ruby port.
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It's sticky and syrupy and very sweet and pretty hot, but once I got accustomed to it I started to appreciate the very rich bock-like maltiness. The maple syrup taste was especially noticeable. It even stuck to my fingers and face, making everything seem to smell like maple syrup as though I were a little kid who just ate a plate of pancakes. Side-by-side with some leftover 2011 Utopias, it's clear the aged bottle has really mellowed out. Last year's seems a bit drier and more bitter, a bit tannic but smoother. The newer version has more dark-fruit sweetness. I think it's very good, and it grew on me more and more with each sip. Previously I've said it tastes like something of a cross between a strong bock or barleywine and a maple-syrup liqueur, and still feel the same way. I still wouldn't buy a whole bottle for myself, but would be willing to pitch in $20 or $30 to share with friends.
Audra Schroeder: It's definitely a sipper. It has a kind of nutty, whiskey aftertaste. I probably wouldn't buy it even for $30 -- definitely not full price.
Eric Nicholson: It's good. Probably the warmness of it is what reminds me of sake. It's fruity, powerful. I would buy it if I made five times as much as I do.
Scott Reitz: I think it's more suited for incorporation into a vinaigrette dressing than drinking. I want to reduce it and drizzle it over figs and goat cheese. Buy it? No.
Nick Rallo: I really want to pour it over Belgian waffles. [His tastes are clearly maturing -- last year it was pancakes.] I feel like it's richer and more raisiny. It's amazing how much it doesn't smell like beer. I would buy it to give to family members to show how good I'm doing.
Tracie Louck: I agree, it's figgy and raisiny. It's kind of overpowering. I don't know that I would drink that. The second or third drink, I made a face. No, I wouldn't buy it.
Joe Tone: It tastes like ... the fuck does it taste like? Maple-y. I definitely do not like it. It's super sweet, then it smacks you in the face. It's intense. I feel like my face is sticky from eating French toast.
Myranda Sauters: It's really strong. It tastes like whiskey. Thick, maple-y, syrupy. I probably wouldn't buy it, but I would sip on it if somebody gave it to me.