When I first started getting interested in craft beer a long time ago, one of the things about it that appealed to me was the idea that you can try some truly outstanding beers without having to spend your life savings. Compared to the often-astronomical prices of fancy wines or rare spirits, the best beers are downright cheap. And as someone who certainly can’t taste the difference between a $50 whiskey and a $500 one — at a certain point, they’re all just really good, right? — I’ve always held tight to the belief that great beer doesn’t have to break the bank.
Then I tried Sam Adams Utopias. The biannual release, now in its 12th edition since 2002, retails for $240 a bottle, and it’s well worth it if you’re looking to try a beer that tastes unlike any other.
But what exactly is it that sets Utopias apart? For one, it’s a blend of multiple batches of different Sam Adams beers — some of which are held in reserve specifically to be a part of Utopias — aged in wooden bourbon casks for nearly 30 years. The blend is then finished in a combination of Carcavelos, Madeira, Ruby Port and Sherry Oloroso barrels. (This year, for the first time in Utopias history, a portion of the blend was also aged in Sauternes French oak wine casks.) The resulting liquid boasts a whopping 28% ABV, making it boozier than most port wines (and certainly just about any beer you’ll be able to find here in the States) and rendering it illegal in 15 states. Sadly, if you live in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont or West Virginia, you won’t be able to partake.
If you can get your hands on a bottle, however, it’s worth it, even just as a novelty. Utopias has more in common with a spirit or a nice wine than it does most beers; it’s best savored several sips at a time, out of a snifter glass at room temperature. Unlike other beer, once opened, it’ll keep indefinitely. (The flavor profile may change a bit as it ages, but thanks to its high ABV and the fact that there’s no carbonation, you won’t have to worry about it going bad; if anything, the flavor can get better the longer it sits on your shelf.) The resealable ceramic bottle it comes in is made to look like a copper brewing kettle, and each one is numbered, so it’s sure to be conversation-starter sitting out on your bar cart. Historically, the brewery has only released between 13,000 and 15,000 bottles of Utopias nationwide in any given year, so if you’re able to snag one, it’s a bit of a collector’s item.
This is a special-occasion beer that bears a real resemblance to cognac or port. It’s sweet, perfect for pairing with dessert after a holiday meal, but there’s also a nice wood tannins flavor to balance it thanks to the oak wine casks it was aged in. You’ll also pick up some nice, rich hints of maple and vanilla. This year’s Utopias was also finished on 2,000 pounds of cherries, including the tart Michigan Balaton cherry. That fruity tartness is definitely noticeable in the beer, but it’s subtle enough that it doesn’t overpower anything else, making for an overall complex flavor profile.
There’s no doubt that it’s an excellent beer, even if you don’t normally drink beer. But why should you spend $240 on this when you can just buy a nice bottle of cognac for a third of the price? There are the obvious answers, of course — it tastes incredible and is extremely rare — but ultimately, it challenges what a beer can be. (There’s even a good “taking beer to new heights” pun to be made here, thanks to the fact that Utopias was the official beer of SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission, the first all-civilian orbital spaceflight. A high-gravity beer for a zero-gravity adventure.) Let your snobby wine or spirits-loving friends who thumb their noses at beer for being too pedestrian try a sip and open their minds to the idea that it can be just as complex and delicious as their preferred tipples.
The 2021 edition of Sam Adams Utopias is available in select beer, wine and liquor stores beginning Oct. 11. The price starts at $240, but it varies by market, and availability is extremely limited.
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