Jim Koch almost can’t believe the question.
Ten minutes into a phone interview last week, I ask the Boston Beer Co. founder why Samuel Adams, craft beer pioneer, purveyor of classics we see everywhere from airport lounges to the corner store, continues to produce Utopias, a beer with an alcohol by volume approaching 30 percent. A beer that retails for a suggested price of $199. I can see reasons for making an extreme beer 20 years ago, I say, but with its purpose less clear now, has there ever been any thought of discontinuing it?
Koch launches into a minutes-long soliloquy on his coining of the phrase “extreme beer,” and the techniques that make Utopias so special. He gets so detailed that I think maybe he didn’t hear the question fully, that he’s just evangelizing. Then he pauses. “Of course we’re going to keep making it.”
Even though the brewer mass produces Boston Lager, he’s determined to keep the expensive and time-consuming Utopias going. The beer is not easy to make. It’s a blend of brews, some aged in over 20-year-old used spirits barrels. Several yeast strains work to raise the beer’s alcohol content to levels reached by very few beers. About 10,000 bottles of the 2015 edition of Utopias, each with an ABV of 28 percent, were recently released into the market. The company says very few even make it to store shelves, with distributors and individual retailers reserving them for special customers.
“Utopias is one of the very few beers today, with 20,000 different craft beers on the market, that is still unique,” says Koch. “Just about everything you can think of brewing is already out there, except for Utopias.”
The beer is reminiscent of an aged sherry or cognac. It’s meant to be sipped, in 2-ounce pours, a fact that’s readily apparent by the way the alcohol singes your nostrils when you take a sniff. In the glass, Utopias is viscous, offering a complex array of flavors ranging from figs and vanilla to smoke and toffee. Once, on a vacation in Spain, I had a glass of 30-year-old sherry at an expensive restaurant. Utopias is the closest thing I’ve tried to that.
“We can never duplicate the same Utopias, because all of the barrels are now older,” Koch says. “I’ve always felt the success of Sam Adams has allowed us to try different things.”