Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Sam Adams Utopias: The strongest and most expensive beer in the world

By William Brand
Friday, November 16th, 2007 at 8:05 am in Uncategorized.

Sam Adams Utopias closeup

Um, $120 for a beer, you say?
– Well, it is 24 ounces …

WILLIAM BRAND: WHAT’S ON TAP
Article Launched: 11/14/2007 03:03:45 AM PST

What do you say about a beer with a “suggested” price of $120-$140, which at the moment is the strongest beer in the world: a breathtaking 25.6 percent alcohol by volume? I say “Wow!”

We’re talking about the 2007 edition of Samuel Adams Utopias, coming to stores this month, and the price means that most of us, me included, won’t be buying our own sleek 24-ouncer in its copper-colored bottle shaped like an old-fashioned brewer’s kettle.

At least I won’t, unless somebody steeply discounts it — and I wouldn’t hold my breath. But if you’re in aSam Adams Utiopias: Glass restaurant that offers it or at some mogul’s house and have a chance to sample it, leap at the chance. That “Wow” applies to the beer, not the price, which is merely astute showmanship.

There’s so much hype about this beer that it would be easy to scoff. Don’t. This is an amazing creation. Sam Adams Utopias 2007 (****) is our Beer of the Week.

My first impression of a glass from the small sample bottle I got was so wild that I called a neighbor for a second opinion. Mike’s the perfect judge; he’s a big-time Port wine collector and a home brewer, so his tastes run toward extreme. Summing up his opinion: “Oh my, this is nice.” In real life, he’s a Ph.D. mathematician, no wows.

I agree: Nose like fine brandy, not as mind-blowing as a rare cognac but rich and intoxicating, unlike any beer I’ve ever sampled — hints of raisins, toffee, plums, almonds, apricots.

It pours flat, a copper color with brilliant ruby highlights. Jim Koch, Boston Beer’s founder, said they learned that when you get alcohol as high as Utopias, carbonation cannot survive, so the beer is flat.

The taste is complex: Initially there’s a bit of toffee, maple sweetness, then the familiar taste of beer: malt, hops, ripe fruit. But the beer note’s gone in an instant in a finish like vintage Port, explosive, expanding, leaving a mild warming alcohol tang on the tongue and finally a warming in the gut.

This is a beer that needs to be sipped with a good cigar after dinner, Mike said. I agreed, but I think a rich, dark chocolate would do the trick as well.

Koch says that when they started working on high-alcohol beers, Triple Bock, released in 1993, was 17.5 percent. “It felt like breaking the sound barrier,” Koch said. “Brewers for centuries had thought you could not ferment grain beyond about 14 percent.”

Over the years, they’ve developed a yeast strain that works at high alcohol levels — one of the fermentables is maple syrup — producing the incredible range of flavor in the beer. This is the fourth edition of Utopias; the first came out in 2001. It’s a blend of different beers — some barrel-aged as long as 13 years.

On a visit to the brewery in Boston last year, I got to taste samples of various beers siphoned off directly from the barrels, wine barrels and bourbon barrels. There were some wild flavors, but nothing approached Utopias 2007.

Sam Adams Utopias: Glass, BottleFor the record, the basic beer’s a blend of pale, caramel and Munich barley malt, mildly spicy German Spalter hops, Hallertau Mittelfrueh and spicy Tettnang hops.
Want to try Utopias? Boston Beer says Utopias is being served at Morton’s steakhouse restaurants, including the Morton’s at 400 Post St. in San Francisco, 415-986-5830, and Morton’s San Jose, 117 Park Ave., 408-947-7000. A bartender at Morton’s in San Francisco said they’re charging $8.95 for a pour. However, he also said they don’t have it yet. Stay tuned. I intend to check back. I’ve always loved steak.

HAYWARD HOPS: The next day after sampling Utopias, I headed to the Bistro’s second annual Barrel Aged Beer Fest in downtown Hayward, curious to see if any of the 40 barrel-aged beers from brewers in California, Colorado and Alaska could approach Utopias. The answer’s obvious: Of course not.

But there were some awesome beers. Old Woody Barleywine, an 11-percenter, aged 12 months in a new American-oak barrel from Schooner’s Grille & Brewery in Antioch, won first in the oak-aged category. It was a splendid unfiltered copper that starts out dry but with a mounting sweetness and lots of vanilla from the oak in the finish.

No, it’s not on tap at Schooner’s, but I’m betting they’re gonna bottle what’s left soon, and the newest version is aging now, due to be released in December. Hats off to Schooner’s founder Shawn Burns and head brewer Craig Cauwels, who produced it. Their Barleywine won gold at the Great American Beer Festival in 2003, and Old Woody’s a fine successor. If you’ve never visited Schooner’s, it’s worth the trek: 4250 Lone Tree Way, Antioch, 925-776-1800.

Another beer I really liked and was surprised to find was Decadence 12 Cuvee Speciale (****), Valley Brewing, Stockton. It’s a sour beer that was fermented seven months with seven yeast strains, then aged six months in a brandy barrel. Brewer Steve Altimari has created a beer with a taste like the finest Belgian gueuze. Gueuze is usually a blend of old and young lambic beers, fermented with wild yeast.

They’re often mouth-puckeringly sour, but the best have a substantial malt presence: absolutely no sweetness, but the sour quality is refreshing, not pickle sour. That description fits Decadence perfectly. The beer won third place bronze in the port/brandy/wine barrel-aged category.

First was The Angel’s Share 2006***/****; second was The Angel’s Share 2007***, both from brewing wizard Tomme Arthur at Port Brewing, San Marcos. Both Angel’s Share beers were splendid — sweet with long, drying finishes, lots of vanilla and wood and bourbon from the barrels in which they were aged. The 2006 had a more complex taste.

Port’s Old Viscosity won the bourbon barrel-aged category. All three are available in bottles in the Bay Area. Decadence remains in a barrel, not on tap, sadly, in Stockton.
For the complete results of this merry little festival, check my blog: www.beernewsletter.com/blog.

FINAL OPENING NOTES: Talked to Chuck Stilphen, who says the Trappist Beer Cafe should receive most of its government inspections this week and they expect to open in about a week. It’s at 460 8th St. in downtown Oakland.

Also, J.J. Phair’s hard at work on his new E.J. Phair restaurant and brewery at 190 East Third St. in Pittsburg — right around the corner from the landmark New Mecca cafe. The building’s being retrofitted and they’re hoping to open in the spring. Finally.

Reach William Brand at whatsontap@sbcglobal.net or call 510-915-1180 and ask for his 2007 Retail Beer Store List or Good Pub List. Read more by Brand at http://www.beernewsletter.com/blog.Ratings
***** World classic.
**** A star; don’t miss it.
*** Very good; worth a try.
** Good beer; no defects.
* Don’t toss it; demand a refund.

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