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Hophead: Samuel Adams Utopias Stretches The Definition of Beer

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It's not carbonated. It is aged for years in a variety of barrels, served in 2-ounce pours at room temperature, contains 27 percent alcohol by volume (54 proof, in other words) and carries suggested retail price tag of $150 for a 24-ounce bottle. And it's beer.

The 2009 version of Samuel Adams' biannual Utopias is the most "extreme beer" yet from the company whose founder coined the term. The high alcohol content makes it one of the strongest beers in the world. In fact, its high alcohol content makes it illegal in 13 states.

Of course, it's not quite as strong as Scotland's 32-percent ABV Tactical Nuclear Penguin from Brewdog. But while Tactical Nuclear Penguin is an eisbock, created by freezing and removing ice particles to concentrate the flavor and alcohol, Utopias gain their strength from sturdy yeasts typically used in Champagne and the addition of maple syrup throughout the brewing process.

With just 53 barrels created this year, the beer, sold in numbered copper-colored ceramic brew-kettle-shaped collectible bottles, is extremely difficult to find. Ebay sellers are asking well over the retail price.

I was skeptical about whether any beer could be worth that kind of dough. The high price and high alcohol content makes this seem as much a marketing stunt as a genuine attempt to make a good beer. But when a Sam Adams PR representative offered to send a sample, I jumped at the chance to try it.

Utopias is recommended to be served in a brandy snifter, but lacking one and figuring I'd have little use for one in the future, I decided to compromise by purchasing a pair of similarly shaped tulip glasses.

Examining a sample pour confirmed my expectation that this would be nothing like beer. It was maple brown in color, deep ruby when held to a light source, surprisingly viscous and clung to the glass like sap. With no head or lacing to consider (remember, it's not carbonated), this was the first time I ever considered the "legs" on a beer--and they put those of the best wines I've ever had to shame. Seriously, it would have been like comparing Tina Turner in her prime to Amy Winehouse after a six-week binge.

For all I've read about how smooth it tastes and how well the alcohol is hidden, though, the first thing I caught on the nose was a punch of alcohol, backed by oak, vanilla and dark fruit notes along with a strong maple syrup presence. The maple was very prominent in the taste as well. Vanilla, oak, cinamon, butterscotch and caramel all show up too, with a very pronounced alcohol warmth. Thanks to its aging at various stages in Scotch, bourbon, sherry and port barrels, it tasted as much like bourbon, or perhaps some kind of semi-sweet maple barleywine liqueur, as it did beer.

And frankly, the sticky mouthfeel and lingering maple and malt finish was not entirely pleasant. Some tasters have written that the alcohol presence is surprisingly subdued, but I disagree. I've had smoother bourbons. Considering how complex and alcoholic the 2009 Utopias is, this is one case where I think aging will do the beer a world of good.

It was definitely an intriguing drink, and I'm glad I got the chance to try it even though the idea of paying that much for a beer is off-putting. Still, considering that Champagnes, wines and single-malt whiskies can fetch $150 or more for single bottles, the price tag on Utopias could be justified when put in that context. And it could be fun to split the cost of a bottle with a group of beer lovers and have a tasting party, just to experience the outer limits of beer. But now that I've already tried it, don't ask me to pitch in.

However, if anyone can tell me how to get hold of a bottle of Tactical Nuclear Penguin, I'm all ears. 

Where to score: Majestic, Sigels, Centennial and Goody Goody--if they're not already sold out.

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