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The History of The Bottled Utopia

February 03, 2017

By Aaron Goldfarb, February 03, 2017

In the aughts the craft beer industry was still trying to figure itself out, which meant testing its limits. This was an era when breweries proudly tried to create the hoppiest beer ever; while an arms race ensued over holding the crown for most alcoholic beer in the world. The belt-holders over the years would be beers with names like Snake Venom, Armageddon, Finis Coronat Opus, Sink the Bismarck, and The End of History.

None of them particularly good. By now these beers are mostly footnotes in brewing history, fodder for “content creators” who need to quickly slap together listicles. But there is one beer that once held that ABV belt way back in 2002, that remains not just revolutionary, but still a fixture in the industry. That beer is Samuel Adams Utopias.

“If any man imagines that there is a real happiness in these enjoyments, he must then confess that he would be the happiest of all men if he were to lead his life in perpetual hunger, thirst, and itching, and, by consequence, in perpetual eating, drinking, and scratching himself; which anyone may easily see would be not only a base, but a miserable, state of a life.” 
―Thomas More, Utopia

But our story starts with another beer.

“I was on the Starship Enterprise and I wanted to take beer where no beer had ever gone before,” Boston Beer Company founder and CEO Jim Koch tells me over the phone. It was 1992 and the craft beer industry was still mostly about recreating classic old world styles in a new world kinda way. Koch was getting bored with these pale ales and ESBs, though, and wanted to try something more creative. Something more extreme. Something more alcoholic.

At the time, it was believed you pretty much couldn’t brew a beer over 14 or 15% due to yeast constraints. The most alcoholic beers of the time were EKU 28 and Samichlaus, both right around that number.

Koch wanted to best those beers and started experimenting with yeast strains and metabolism, wort composition, and brewing adjuncts that could maybe push the alcohol level higher. In the latter case, he found maple syrup did a particularly good job of boosting ABV. Eventually, he was able to produce something hovering around 18%.

“As I drank it, I realized that no human being had ever drank something like this before,” notes Koch. “I used to be a mountain climber, and it was a big thrill to now be standing on this summit drinking this beer. I thought, ‘I’m the first human being who has stood here, who has ever drank a beer like this before.’”

I’m the first human being who has stood here, who has ever drank a beer like this before.”

Unfortunately, the beer had some issues. One of them was that it was way too hot and boozy.

Koch knew he would need a way to take that edge off before releasing it to the public. The lightbulb went off when he was shopping at Home Depot and saw some used bourbon barrels that had been chopped in half and repurposed as planters. Having grown up in southern Ohio, near Kentucky, in the 1950s and 60s, he’d known plenty of men who made moonshine (“Nasty stuff!” he notes). Of course, the essential difference between moonshine and a fine bourbon was aging it in charred oak barrels.

“I didn’t have a problem to solve anymore,” Koch notes with a laugh. “A bunch of illiterate backwoodsman had already solved this problem 200 years ago!”

Luckily for Koch, at the time and unlike today, it was quite easy to acquire used whiskey barrels. Because bourbon, by law, can only be aged in brand new barrels, there was a glut of emptied barrels with no takers. A few were shipped to Scotland to age scotch, but the vast majority were being turned into furniture and those $10 Home Depot planters.

Suffice to say, when Koch called Blue Grass Cooperage and asked about taking some used barrels off their hands, they were incredibly excited.

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingThe wood. The wood was the key.

First released in 1994, Koch claims Samuel Adams Triple Bock was the first ever spirits barrel-aged beer, even as most writers today wrongly still cite Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout as the title holder. The 17.5% Triple Bock was packaged in 250 mL cobalt blue bottles with platinum labeling, topped with a sherry-style cork, and rung up at $100/case, an extraordinarily high price in those days.

“‘You can’t sell beer for that much!’ people said to me,” explains Koch. “My response was: ‘Yes, I can, I just have to make a beer worth that much.’”

If the pricing caused “shock and awe” — Koch’s words — the flavor profile did even more so. Rich and decadent, lacking in carbonation, and often described as more like a port, the beer was not without flaws, something Koch readily admits.

It was very thick. Koch’s brewers had trouble getting the fermentability up. This lead to savory, umami-like notes due to dead yeast cells being killed by the alcohol. Many beer geeks today derisively describe that flavor as “soy sauce,” and that’s one reason the beer currently scores a pathetic 69 out of 100 on Beer Advocate and a meager 23% on RateBeer. (Last summer I was lucky enough to try a bottle with Koch for a Facebook Live segment and I found it had aged to something quite remarkable in flavor profile.)

Koch had also run into problems with the ATF who didn’t even know if it was a legal product, and MADD, who thought the small bottle size and high alcohol content would lead to the comical notion of high schoolers smuggling bottles in their backpacks.

Whatever the case, Triple Bock sold well enough at the time to lead to new batches of it being released in 1995 and 1997. By then Sam Adams had begun saving some barrels in their “library” which were naturally rising in ABV due to evaporation. The brewers themselves had also gotten better at high-ABV brewing techniques thanks to an alcohol-tolerant “ninja yeast” they had developed.

As the year 2000 approached, Koch set a new goal for himself: a 20% beer to ring in Y2K. Released in a mere 3000 bottles made of a “space age” plastic, Millennium would advance Triple Bock to 21% ABV with a less syrupy, much cleaner profile. If Triple Bock was port in its flavor, Millennium was sherry. Its price was also $200. A bottle.

“Again, people asked me: ‘How can you sell beer for that much?’” Koch remembers. “Because it’s worth that much.”

Because it's worth that much.”

That beer instantly sold out too, and Koch decided to continue his high-ABV quest. It was by now 2002, though, and he obviously couldn’t name the next beer Millennium. So he settled on Utopias, amused by its double meaning.

“You have the obvious meaning of a paradise,” Koch explains, “but also the linguistic practical joke. Because in Greek, ‘utopia’ [οὐ τόπος] translates to ‘nowhere.’ Utopias was like that, a beer that had never existed before.”

Utopias would be the culmination of Triple Bock, Millennium, and Koch’s other barrel-aging experiments. In fact, believe it or not, every single batch of Utopias up to this present day, still has a small percentage of 1994 Triple Bock in its blend. The initial batch had corrected the flaws of Triple Bock and Millennium, the beer rich, lustrous, and highly-complex, though no longer savory or cloying despite its now-record ABV of 24%.

Its packaging was just as avant-garde, a brew kettle-shaped porcelain bottle with a copper glaze made by a company in Brazil. The micro-kettles even had doors on them which would slide open to reveal an image of Sam Adams himself. Koch was insistent, however, that each bottle be topped off by a standard issue bottle cap underneath its screw-on lid, so everyone would know this was indeed a beer bottle (“You can even redeem it for five cents!” Koch exclaims).

Koch knew he would have to make a splash to convince people to shell out for this $150-a-bottle “lunatic fringe” of a beer. This beer was not just hard to classify stylistically — RateBeer files it as a barley wine, Beer Advocate and Untappd as an American strong ale — but even as a beer. Port-like, sherry-like, cognac-like, who knows, it had an insane flavor profile ranging from honey, nuts, and figs to cherries and raisins, toffee, vanilla, and chocolate, even tobacco and smoked meats.

Thus, Koch invited several prominent New York food and drink writers of the time to a special meal prepared for them by chef Todd English. At the end of dinner, Koch asked the writers to taste three beverages blindly and then rank them. The first was arguably the best port ever made, 1994 Taylor Fladgate. The second was perhaps the best cognac around, Hine Rare VSOP. The final glass was, of course, Utopias. Koch had even hired Deloitte and Touche to tabulate the writers’ ballots.

“And we won hands down,” he tells me. “That was more shock and awe, these wine writers who had just had the best of the best the wine and spirits world had to offer, and they had eschewed both of those for a beer. A beer! Disbelief and cognitive dissonance quickly set in, ‘Hey, let me taste that again!’”

Hey, let me taste that again!”

15 years later, if anything, I find Utopias to now be a bit underrated. It’s been around so long — and I’m not just talking about that one bottle “shelf turding” it up at your local liquor store — that many of us take it for granted. Even if a scant 15,000 bottles are released every two years — compare that to Rare Bourbon County’s 50,000 or so — there are never any lines to score this beer, nor geeks on TalkBeer setting up ISOs for it.

When, last year, First We Feast asked me to pick the absolute best beer from Massachusetts, countless commenters were galled I opted for Utopias, thinking I should have gone with any number of New England-style IPAs from Tree House or Trillium. My thinking then, as it still is today, was that hazy IPAs are a dime a dozen, while Utopias remains a truly singular beer. There is truly no other beer on planet earth that quite tastes like it. How many other beers can you actually say that about?

While the Boston Beer Company is often taken to task for the well-known secret that their Boston Lager and other flagship beers are actually brewed in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Utopias is a beer that remains brewed, aged, and bottled exclusively in their Boston-area R&D location.

Since that initial 2002 batch there’s been eight other releases, every other year or so (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015) which means we can probably expect another bottling later this year. Each batch different from the previous batch, impossible to duplicate ever again (Koch quotes Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”).

For what it’s worth, Koch believes the beer is only getting better with each new release as the brewers and blenders continue refining and perfecting their technique. It’s also getting more complex as more and more barrels both young and old are added into the mix.

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingThat lovely liquid is the culmination of years and years of refinement.

While beer geeks today go ga-ga over beers that have been “double barrel aged,” Utopias barely even mentions that it’s sextuple if not septuple barrel aged. In addition to bourbon barrels, those would include scotch, madeira, ruby port, white wine carcavelos, cognac, armagnac, rum, and even Tabasco barrels.

Besides continuing to add just a hint of 1994 Triple Bock to each blend, as well as a portion of every previous Utopias release, the secret sauce of recent batches has been something called Kosmic Mother Funk. The Belgian-style ale is barrel-aged for around two years in Hungarian oak tuns and adds notes of aged balsamic vinegar to the final blend, something Koch feels really makes Utopias inherent sweetness pop.

The ABV also varies from year-to-year, usually bobbing around 28%, though hitting a whopping 30% with 2012’s 10th anniversary bottling. That remains the most alcoholic beer that has even been naturally fermented. Koch pooh-poohs the Snake Venoms and Sink the Bismarcks of the world, calling them nothing more than “stunts” as they are all freeze-distilled.

He’s thought about making a Utopias eisbock as a joke, but if his early ambitions were mostly about punching through the clouds of high-ABV beer, today he cares more about producing extreme flavor, something Utopias continues to have in spades.

Before hanging up, I ask Koch, so after Utopias, is there anywhere else to possibly guide that Starship Enterprise of his?

“There’s always new places to take beer!” he tells me. “I don’t know that any will be as groundbreaking as Triple Bock or break as many barriers as Utopias, but you can still find plenty of white space to innovate.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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