It will relinquish that honor when Boston Beer releases this year’s version of Utopias in November. The 2009 vintage clocks in at 27 percent ABV, more than five times the strength of a typical beer.
Utopias is a word that Sir Thomas More invented,” says company chairman Jim Koch. “It means nowhere… a place that doesn’t exist. This beer was a place that didn’t exist. We imagined it and made it real.”
The package—a ceramic bottle sculpted to resemble a brew kettle and painted gold—holds 24 ounces of a ruddy, copper-colored liquid, completely still (“the alcohol pushes the CO2 out; it won’t go into solution,” explains Koch). The first sensation is a rich mouthfeel and a sweet sherry-like flavor, with nuances of vanilla and maple. There are notes of dark fruit (mostly plum, with some prune and raisin), with traces of oak and phenol. A long, lingering alcohol burn reminds one more of a cognac or brandy than a beer. The 2007 edition is a little darker, richer and more port-like than the previous version of this biennial beer.
Utopias begins its existence at the company’s pilot brewery in Boston. The grain bill consists of mostly pale with some crystal and Munich malt, between a pound and two pounds per bottle, estimates Koch. With so much malt, the hops—25 IBUs of Hallertau, Spalt and Tettnang—are definitely supporting players, adding a faint spiciness.
Run-off can take an entire day. The viscous, sugar-laden liquid then undergoes a vigorous, 21-day primary fermentation. “At high kräusen it looks like it’s boiling,” says Koch. “It gives off enough heat that we actually get drops of ethanol condensing on the sight glass of the tank.”
After the primary fermentation, the brewers add maple syrup, rich in simple, easy-to-digest sugars, to coax the sated yeast cells into continuing the fermentation,sort of like plying your guests with pie a la mode after they’ve gorged themselves on a sumptuous Thanksgiving meal.
The beer is diverted into barrels for a leisurely aging. “We have a library of hundreds of casks,” notes Koch. Some previously held whiskey, some wine, some brandy. Others are made of new French oak. Portions of this year’s Utopias were aged in bourbon casks from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, and finished in sherry casks from Spain, and muscatel and port casks from Portugal.
Utopias is unique, adds Koch, not only for its strength, but for the fact that the brewing is decoupled from the packaging. Boston Beer brews Utopias once a year, but an individual batch might have to wait years before it gets used for the blending process.
Some of the liquid blended to make the 2009 Utopias has been aging for 16 years, says Koch. He’s referring to Samuel Adams Triple Bock, his first attempt at a super strong beer. Packaged in cobalt blue bottles and measuring 17 percent ABV, the Triple Bock (released in 1995) set a record for its time but was less than a total success flavor-wise. It tended toward the cloying, with lots of raisins and dark fruit and a sweet, heavy mouthfeel.