Whenever Samuel Adams introduces its highly anticipated Utopias brew to the marketplace, the company knows exactly how to drum up buzz. At Aspen Food & Wine and other major food events, the company invited the country's top wine and spirits writers to do a blind taste test. What did they taste? A $500 bottle of 1994 Taylor Fladgate port, the Utopias Brew, and a $300 bottle of Hine's cognac. "Out of the 20 times we did it, Utopia's won 19," said Boston Beer Co. brewer and founder Jim Koch over a glass of the Utopias 10th anniversary brew. "We always won by a fairly large majority, too."
So it's no surprise that the 10th anniversary batch of Utopias, made of a blend of beers aged in a variety of wood barrels for up to 19 years, is already a hit. Once the 15,000 bottles hit the market, Koch knows they will sell out quickly. And after The Daily Meal got a preview taste of the beer, we can see exactly why.
Koch said that the 10th anniversary brew is actually 20 years in the making; Samuel Adams was among the first brewers in the country to tackle the Triple Bock, an 18 percent ABV brew that tastes uniquely of sherry and port. It was the first time that American craft brewers began to shift away from traditionally European styles of beer and create new styles of beer — with Koch leading the way. He talked about a cranberry lambic that people criticized for not being a traditional lambic, but charged back that it wasn't the American way to do things. "I said, Americans are going to redefine the beer unverse," Koch said. It was also the first time they challenged the traditional ABV percentage of beer. That then led to the first time a brewer began aging beer in used spirit barrels. Koch said that he happened to get lucky that the alcohol authority board to allow him to use wood barrels; without the approval, the Utopias brew may never have happened.
Koch and his team filled that first barrel of beer 20 years ago, and some of that product shows up in this year's Utopias. The beer is a blend of differently aged barrels, from Tawny Port finishing casks to port pipes to bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace. The 10th anniversary also has a new addition that adds a new flavor dimension: rum barrels from Nicaragua. The beer also uses a variety of Noble hops and several yeast strains.
So what does that $170 bottle taste like? Definitely not like any other Samuel Adams brew you've had before: this uncarbonated, dark beer rivals a fine port and cognac. The aromatics alone aren't what you typically find in a brew; the woods from the barrels give it a vanilla, maple, ginger, and cinnamon. (Koch and George Reidel even designed a special beer glass for the Utopias to better bring out the aromas; a smaller, snifter-like glass does wonders to change the smell.) On the palate, it goes down "like smooth, sweet fire," Koch said. Imagine a sherry with notes of caramel, toffee, molasses, and dark fruits -- minus the ethanol burb. "Over the years, our goal was to make the Utopias brighter, to take the heaviness out of it," he said. "I think we've finally gotten that with the 10th anniversary." And yes, the beer comes in at a whopping 29 percent ABV — the highest yet for the Utopias.
The Utopias brew — the oldest naturally fermented beer — is something of an accomplishment for Koch and Samuel Adams. And that goes a long way for a beer company who only makes up 1 percent of the nation's beer market — the same size of the sales of Bud Light Ice (which many didn't know existed). "The Utopias brew was how we began to push the boundaries of beer, and we'll continue to do that," Koch said. "We're going to change the notions of what beer is, and what beer could be."
The Utopias brew will be available in stores in November. Only 15,000 bottles of the 10th anniversary brew exist — but that number one bottle (each are marked individually) will be sitting on Koch's shelf for a long time to come. "We really do have to ration it out," he said.