In the world of beer enthusiasts, there are a few beers that are so desirable, yet so difficult to obtain, that it is considered a major coup to actually acquire one. Last week, that rare beer was Westvleteren 12, the legendary beer brewed by Trappist monks at the Saint Sixtus Abbey in Belgium. The monks, notorious among beer-lovers for their maddeningly low production and frustratingly difficult procedures for obtaining the beer, released a quantity to the United States for the first and probably last time in order to finance badly needed repairs to the monastery. The allotment was snapped up in record time. I was among those dedicated fans who braved the rain in Jacksonville to snag the brew.
This week I again obtained a rare and highly sought after brew, one that is just as valued by beer aficionados as Westies, but this time is domestic. I refer to the bi-annually released Samuel Adams Utopias. Thought the brew has only existed for ten years, it has garnered the same type of reverence and demand as even the elusive Westie.
Samuel Adams founder and chairman, Jim Koch says of the Utopias brews that his original idea was not to copy the European styles of beers like all the other brewers, but to create a style of beer that had never been brewed before. His first foray into brewing a unique style resulted in the creation of the coveted Samuel Adams Triple Bock, a brew that weighed in at an astounding for the time 18% ABV, the strongest beer in the world then. Another first for the brew, Triple Bock was aged in spirits barrels and bottled in distinctive cobalt-blue bottles. The year was 1994 and the brew sold out within just a few months.
Next Koch wanted to make a brew to commemorate the upcoming millennium, so in 1999 he set his sights at creating a brew that would honor the once-in-a-lifetime event and named it Millennium. According to the company’s website, this 40 proof brew was fashioned with, “with overtones of vanilla, butterscotch, pear, and a hint of cinnamon. Noble hops give Samuel Adams Millennium a touch of herbal and orange rind-like bitterness that delivers a balanced finish.” A recent auction on eBay had a single bottle of this brew selling for nearly $1,000.
With another success under his belt, Koch began to formulate his next big beer. This time the plan was to release the brew every other year. The brews were named Utopias, and the first batch was released in 2002. That first batch hit the market at 24% ABV and was marketed as the strongest commercially available beer in the world. Subsequently, Sam Adams has released Utopias with increasing ABVs up to this year’s 10th anniversary release that comes in at 29%.
This year’s release is brewed with, “Samuel Adams two-row pale malt, smoked malt Munich, and Caramel 60 to impart the rich, ruby-red color.” The brew also incorporates three varieties of Noble Hops: Hallertau Mittlefrueh, Spalt Spalter, and Tettnang Tettnanger. But, perhaps one of the most interesting ingredients in the beer is a blend of the other Utopias including the nearly twenty-year-old Triple Bock. To obtain the higher alcohol content, Sam Adams used a strain of champagne yeast that is known to survive in the higher alcohol environment. Finally, the brew was aged in a succession of barrels to enhance its notes of vanilla and maple. Those barrels included bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace Distillery, finishing casks of Tawny Port and Vintage Ruby Port from Portugal, and rum barrels from Nicaragua.
The end result of this time-consuming and labor-intensive process is a beer that is reminiscent of the best cordials. The company says that the brew, “invokes the flavor of a vintage Port, fine Cognac, or aged Sherry while feeling surprisingly light on the palate.” The brew is said to include flavors of fig, chocolate, raisins, vanilla, and spices.
For the brew’s 10th anniversary, only 15,000 bottles were produced. The individually-numbered bottles themselves are a work of art shaped to look like a brew kettle but colored black with roots painted on it to represent the roots beer’s that are nearly 20-year deep history.
Because of the limited number of bottles, Utopias are extremely difficult to come by and, if you are fortunate to find it, rather expensive at $190 per bottle. But, if you do manage to acquire this remarkable brew, be sure to savor it. Unlike many beers, this brew can be opend and resealed without fear of spoilage. Many take a small amount upon receipt and then pour themselves a small amount yearly on their birthday or New Year’s Eve. However you decide to drink the brew, if you are in possession of a bottle, you can feel privileged to know you are one of the very few to have that opportunity. I do.
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