Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Brews Brothers: Utopias are still the reigning beer champions

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Courtesy of Boston Beer Company
Boston Beer, brewers of the Samuel Adams line of beers, has developed the unique and complex Sam Adams Utopias 2007, meant to be savored in these specially designed George Riedel snifters.
Jim Koch, Boston Beer Company’s founder, president and chief brewmaster, wants to explore, discover and go ‘‘where no brewery has gone before.”

Boston Beer, brewers of the Samuel Adams line of beers, has developed the unique, marvelously complex Sam Adams Utopias 2007, tipping the alcohol scales at 27 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), setting new records for a beer just like its Guinness Book of World Records 2003 and 2005 Utopias predecessors.

The viscous Utopias 2007 tastes unlike any other beer, moving beyond normal beers to an intricately flavored sweet sherry sensation that will tickle the palate of the most sophisticated drinker. The exciting, non-carbonated beer is meant to be savored in small, specially designed George Riedel snifters. It has an aroma of wine, oak and plum, and tastes of sweet fruitiness including plum and currants, very well blended alcohol, vanilla, toffee and maple syrup.

While many brewers have the requisite technical knowledge, a deep passion is needed to brew special beers.

‘‘My goal with Utopias is to raise beer drinkers’ expectations of beer, and to break the boundaries of what people traditionally think of as beer by brewing a beer comparable to the finest cognacs and ports in the world,” Koch explains.

He also notes that ‘‘The hops are a main difference with sherries and ports. They get rid of the cloying notes and provide balance.”

Utopias’ flavors come from Crystal, Moravian and Bamberg smoked malts, and three varieties of Bavarian Noble hops: Spalt Spalter, Hallertauer Mittlefrueh and Tettnang Tettnanger. The potion is aged in wooden oak barrels that were formerly used at the Buffalo Trace bourbon distillery.

The finished brew is blended with other specialty beers from the cask library, some of which have been aged in wooden barrels of scotch, bourbon, brandy, cognac and other spirits for up to 13 years. As a final step, the blended beer is aged in Portuguese sherry and Madeira casks, adding greater complexity and additional new flavor dimensions.

For those willing to spend the suggested price of $120 to $140 (selling locally for $180 plus) for one of only 12,000 24-ounce bottles of this singular beverage, the buyer also gets a collectable copper-clad porcelain bottle in the shape of a classic old mash tun.

The brewers at Boston Beer have developed, through ‘‘natural selection,” what Koch calls their ‘‘Ninja” yeast for Utopias, each generation evolving from the hardiest yeasts of the previous brewing. Normal yeasts cannot survive in alcohol levels above about 14 percent. Beers beyond that level are true brewing accomplishments, based on special yeasts and careful sugar management and yeast feeding. Boston Beer inverts the standard system and gives the yeasts complex sugars first, followed by simple sugars including maple syrup.

Koch believes the Ninja yeasts have reached their limits with the 2007 Utopias.

‘‘I don’t see them doing much more. They’re whipped,” he says.

Boston Beer’s program to push the envelope for brewing fermented grains began in 1993 with the maple syrup flavored, 17.5 percent ABV, Triple Bock. Following the Triple Bock, they brewed Millennium in 2000 (21 percent ABV), Utopias MMII in 2002 (24 percent), and the 2003 (25 percent) and 2005 (25.6 percent) Utopias beers. With each refinement, the flavors have, Koch says, ‘‘gone from port to sherry to cognac, and are now lighter and more ethereal, with notes of oak, vanilla, cinnamon and toffee.”

It appears that the character of each beer has changed with the increasing alcohol level. But Koch believes the exact opposite: that the alcohol level has changed with the enhanced character.

‘‘The flavor is the key,” he insists. ‘‘The higher alcohol is a secondary byproduct. The idea is first about making something wonderful.”