Tasting Notes with Jim Beauregard: A Sam Adams brew unlike any other brew

JIM BEAUREGARD December 04. 2012 8:32PM

Jim Koch, founder and brewer of Sam Adams beer, has released the 10th anniversary Samuel Adams Utopias. In October he described it as "our most distinct, barrel-aged, extreme beer." On of his goals in making this particular brew was to "push the boundaries of traditional brewing and elevate drinker's perceptions of beer."

So, then, his goal was to create a beer, but something more than a beer. The "extreme" part, from what I gather from the informational materials accompanying our sample, includes the alcohol level, but also refers to the flavors and complexity of the finished product.

Koch notes that his 1994 release of Sam Adams Triple Bock was the strongest beer yet released, at 17.5 percent alcohol by volume (abv). It was also an American first, in that this beer was aged in barrels that had first been used for other types of alcoholic beverages.

Utopias was first introduced a decade ago, in 2002, and weighed in at 24 percent abv, otherwise known as 48 proof, if you apply the scale used for spirits. This year, he has reached 29 percent abv, or 58 proof. He noted that some of the individual barrels fermented out to 33 percent abv, but blending kept the alcohol at the target 29 percent level. Here's how he did it:

The malts employed were a blend of Caramel and Munich malt, which give the beer its very dark color. Noble hops went into the mix: Hallertau Mittlefrueh, Spalt Spalter and Tettnang Teggnanger. Also, more than one strain of yeast is used; Koch noted that one of his yeasts is traditionally used in the making of champagne.

The goal of it all was complexity in the finished product. Now, it's not all made this year; the Utopias is a blend of liquids barrel-aged for as long as 19 years, which is the single biggest factor in the price of a 24-ounce bottle: $160 suggested retail. Barrels are expensive, and shipping them from other parts of the world takes more than an airmail stamp.

So it all goes in, and then the beer is aged in those imported, pre-used barrels impregnated with the flavor of other spirits. This year, the Utopias was aged in single-use bourbon casks, aiming for vanilla and maple flavors. Then it was on to "finishing casks," with the same goal of increasing complexity. The finishing casks included tawny port and vintage ruby port (shooting for dark fruit flavors) casks from Portugal as well as barrels used to age rum from Nicaragua (seeking flavors like fig, raisin, and even chocolate).

Utopias is designed for aging, and if so, it can develop more complex flavors over time, just as wine does. So how to evaluate it? Is it a beer or a spirit? I had my beer sheet, my spirits sheet and wine sheets in front of me as I opened it. So here's what's in the black, decanter-shaped bottle:

Very dark brown liquid, mahogany/black, depending on the lighting, opaque all the way through (you can't read the paper through it). The nose explodes with fruit: dry fruit for the most part, fig, raising, a hint of prune, with caramel in the background, and some vanilla coming through from the oak. The palate is off-dry, meaning there's some sweetness evident on the palate, but not overpowering by any means, medium acidity, high alcohol that is nevertheless well-balanced in a beverage that has considerable weight. Medium tannin, medium-plus body, creamy, pronounced flavor intensity that reflects the palate: fig and raisin, vanilla, caramel, hints of burnt sugar, sweet spice hints, ginger in the background. They are all held in balance on a long, intense finish.

Technically it's a beer - that's what they start with: hops and malt and water and yeast. Then the barrels enter the picture. All told, I place it in the spirits ballpark rather than the beer. Yes, it's made with malt and hops, but the flavors and the alcohol fall more directly into the spirits category - bourbon, sherry and the like. And given the ingredients, this appears to have been the intention.

There's an old Italian expression about spendthrifts my grandmother used to use, which roughly translates, "The money's heavy in your pocket" In other words, lighten your load. The suggested retail price is $160. I leave it to you as to whether you want to spend it here or not.

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Call me a killjoy, but to be honest, I'm not a fan of the incremental, and sometimes skyrocketing, alcohol levels in wine and beer. These beverages were, for the most part, created to accompany meals, and these alcohol levels take them out of that history and context.

I have sampled 17 percent abv California Zinfandels that I tried once and have no interest in trying again. Our bodies can process and store only so much alcohol at a given time, and this isn't gong to change in the near, or probably distant, future. We've all still got metabolisms from our caveman days - store as much fat as you can at today's meal, 'cause you don't know when the next mammoth is coming along.

As someone who, in my day job, knows how the brain develops and changes from one end of life to the other, I know that products that have long been known in the wine world as "bottle rockets" aren't necessarily a good thing.

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And if you don't have $160 in your weekly beer envelope, don't fret, try this:

Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace "B", Saison Style Ale, 100% bottle fermented, 25.4 ounces, $9.49 at Harvest Market and available round about town. Brooklyn Brewery consistently turns out top-notch beer, and this certainly is one of them. It has a huge, lasting, frothy off-white head like a good Belgian ale, bright gold unfiltered beer underneath, a very hoppy nose of citrus and floral notes, an off-dry palate with medium bitterness, medium acidity, some noticeable weight in terms of body, medium-plus flavor intensity of citrus, floral blossom and spice notes, orange peel peeking out now and again, and a long pleasing and refreshing finish.


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