Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Judging Sam Adams Homebrew Contest

By William Brand
Wednesday, September 13th, 2006 at 1:06 pm in Uncategorized.

Also…A visit to Sam Adams barrel room…
And A Taste of S.A. Late Harvest Imperial Pilsner

Back to the Blog…

I never drink beer at 10 o’clock in the morning – even when I was a thirsty swabbie in the U.S. Navy. But there I was this morning, sitting in the tasting room at the Sam Adams brewery in Boston, Mass., drinking beer.

Hey, I admit. It was fun. Jim Koch, Boston Brewing’s founder and CEO, invited four of us, myself, Tony Fordor,editor of the Ale Street News, the New Jersey-based beer publication, Todd Alstrom of the Beer Advocate, the web based beer database and beer rating Web site and Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association to join him to select the winners of their Longshot national homebrew contest.

Here’s the disclaimer: Boston Brewing paid our airfare and one night in a Boston hotel. But we were under no pressure to choose a particular beer. In fact, the one that Jim Koch (and I) liked, got voted down.


Judges Todd Alstrom, Tony Fordor, Gary Glass with a sampling of Utopias 2003.

The Sam Adams contest drew 1,512 entries in every conceivable style from across the United States, plus another 1,000 or so from eight foreign countries. There were 202 entries from the San Francisco Bay Area north and another 175 from southern California and neighboring states. Beer in the Bay Area was handled by Beer, Beer & More Beer in Concord. Local clubs in each region chose regional winners.

Our job was to chose two winners from the five regional finalists. Boston Brewing will bring in the two winners, then duplicate the beers, first in their test brewery in Boston, then in quantity for national distribution next February as a four-pack.
All five were excellent, homebrews any professional brewer could be proud of – and we can’t say a word about the beers until Koch makes the announcement at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver at the end of September.

Personally, I can’t wait to try the two again.

But the highlight of the trip for all of us, I believe, was an opportunity to sample a number of barrel aged beers from the barrels in the Boston Brewing warehouse with head brewer Grant Wood.
The highlight for all of us was their 2003 Utopias. They make this amazing beer almost every year, blend a bit of old Utopias with the new in the Belgian fashion.
When it came out in 2003, at 24 percent alcohol by volume, it was the world’s strongest beer. It may still be – or maybe Dogfish Head Worldwide Stout, which was 23 percent has been upped a notch.

That’s just drek for the publicity mill. Lots of things went into this beer; it was a 10-year project and I’ve posted an old column before this blog item for background.

The amazing thing is what the beer tastes like today after three more years of aging. Wow, this is a real aperitif, I said. “You mean digestif,” Tony Fordor corrected me.

“Yeah, like a fine brandy, for sipping on a cold evening.”

I didn’t take notes, but it was wild, Cognac nose. Definitely a beer, but so, so mellow and smooth. Lots of oak, but not too much.

We tasted several others from barrels, a Millennium, the 21 percenter brewed in 2000 was mellow. But paled if it’s possible for a 21 percent beer to pale before the Utopias.

Another unusual sample that stood out was something labeled “2003 Gueze.” Grant Wood said they brewed a wort, using ingredients that were around the brewery. Then they put it in a stainless steel container, took it to an apple orchard in, I think, New Hampshire, where they get the apples for the hard cider they make.

They left the bung hole open and let it sit in the orchard for a few days to let the wild yeast and whatever else was floating around in the orchard in. Finally, they closed it up and brought it back to Boston, put it in an old whiskey barrel, or rather several whiskey barrels.

Fermentation didn’t seem to be happening, so they added a bit of English ale yeast and the fermentation took off.

And there it sits.

Grant said that at one point the taste was so rugged, sour and off-putting that they thought they had created a disaster.

But now it’s quite mellow. Nearly a fine Lambic-style beer, perhaps a bit thin – compared to the best Belgian Lambic, but definitely sour with a delicate, delicious, thirst-quenching quality.

I hope they release this one some day.

Others we sampled included their Cherry Chocolate Lambic and another one still fermenting – the weird Brettanymices yeast particles clinging in inch-long, rod-like clumps, to the sampling tool. A fascinating tour.

Finished off the day with a sample of the new 8 percent Sam Adams Imperial Pilsner. The bad news for us is that it won’t be bottled, will only be available in cask in New England. That’s indeed bad news. The 2005, made with fresh German Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops and a complex malt blend was spectacular.

So was this one, perhaps a bit deeper copper color with hops so fragrant that right now, three hours after I sampled the beer, I can still taste the hops.
Koch explains that they decided to do the whole beer in a day, from the minute the German farmer picked the hops until the beer was ready for the fermenter.

The farmer went out to the hop farm just after midnight, picked two bales, they flew the hops out immediately afterwards, somehow clearing both German and U.S. customs and into the boil before midnight.

Barnam & Bailey have nothing on Jim Koch. The guy’s a showman and it’s not smoke and mirrors either. The beer is very fine. Salud. William Brand.

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