There is a saying that people who live beyond their means have Champagne tastes on a beer budget. Clearly the line’s author was not thinking of Samuel Adams Utopias, a beer for people on a Champagne budget.
At $114.95 for 710 millilitres, a single bottle will set you back as much as three two-fours of Coors Light. And that’s the “bargain” Canadian price. South of the border, the same American-made brew sells for $150 to $180 (U.S.) thanks to that country’s unbridled retail markups.
Even at such nosebleed prices, Utopias is hardly growing stale on retail shelves. Last Friday, 400 bottles sold through the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s phone-order service in two hours and 40 minutes, with a one-bottle-per-customer limit. Expect similar fever when it rolls through British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba in coming weeks.
Champagne luxury, yes. But some drinkers might sooner confuse Coors Light with fine French sparkling wine than they would Utopias. For one thing, Utopias is not carbonated. For another, it sports 29-per-cent alcohol. Let’s just say the word refreshing does not leap to mind.
“Complex” and “delectable” certainly would, though. Slightly sweet and syrupy, the caramel-coloured elixir, packaged in a decanter resembling a brew kettle and designed to be served in small pours, unfolds with nuances that include raisin, cocoa, vanilla and spice. To me, it suggests oloroso sherry and tawny port crossed with bourbon and a dollop of maple syrup.
“I would have guessed port or Cognac,” said Dave Price, a 29-year-old beer enthusiast from Perth, Ont., who travelled more than three hours to Toronto Thursday to take part in a prerelease sampling attended by two dozen other Utopias groupies. “It’s really aromatic, heady, boozy.” As part of his $75 tasting fee, Price got the right to purchase a bottle of Utopias ahead of the telephone scramble. He plans to mature it for a few years, next to 30 other cellar-worthy barley wines and Trappist ales.
The cult brew, first launched in limited quantities 10 years ago, is made by the Boston Beer Company, which helped pioneer the craft-brewing movement in North America with Samuel Adams Boston Lager. As with other beers, Utopias starts life as fermented grain and water. That’s where the similarity with most of its kin ends.
Once fermented, it takes a long detour through the land of brown spirits, maturing for years in a variety of oak barrels, in this case ones that previously contained bourbon, port and rum. The blend is assembled like Cognac or Scotch, from multiple casks spanning various years. The current 10th-anniversary edition contains a proportion of beer that had been aging since 1992. “This is one of the few beers in the world that is old enough to drink itself,” says Boston Beer founder Jim Koch in a droll reference to the legal drinking age.
But with flavour like port and a kick like Cognac, is it beer? Absolutely, says Koch, who speaks with an infectious passion for a craft practised by his German-American family for five generations. “Go back to first principles,” he says. “Beer is fermented grain, wine is fermented fruit, and liquor is the distilled product of an earlier fermentation.” Utopias, he notes, is made from grain and not distilled. Ergo, it’s a beer.
Until the Samuel Adams brand came along, beer was widely believed to have a natural alcohol ceiling of about 14 per cent, Koch says. Above that, yeasts choked and fermentation stopped. So, Koch set about isolating yeast strains that could tolerate boozier levels. He also refined a process for slowly administering various types of sugars that could be more easily ingested as the organisms began to tire. “We literally have brewers sleeping in the brewery and feeding yeast like a baby,” he says.
Not that a big beer buzz was the goal, he says. High alcohol is a byproduct of a slow fermentation that’s designed to slowly tease out subtleties. Thus extreme brewing was born. It’s a term he coined in the early 1990s to describe a pioneering 17.5-per-cent Triple Bock. And with extreme brewing came exorbitant prices.
The past five years have seen a surge of sticker-shock suds, some unusually strong, some simply unusual. Sink the Bismarck from Scottish company Brewdog, at 41-per-cent, sells for $85 for a 330-millilitre bottle, though it owes its potency to a freezing stage whereby water is artificially removed from the brew. Crown Ambassador Reserve from Australia, aged in French oak and fermented in bottle like Champagne, costs about $90 for 750 millilitres.
It gets more extreme. Tapping the gullibility keg, Carlsberg of Denmark launched Jacobsen Vintage, a barley wine aged in Swedish and French oak priced at $360 for a 375-millilitre bottle. And Sapporo Space Barley relied on grain grown from seeds that spent five months aboard the International Space Station, selling for a relatively down-to-Earth $110 for a six-pack.
“It’s only in the last three or four years that I’ve seen such really high prices on beers,” says Tracy Bethune, a native of Saskatchewan who owns Odonata Beer Company in Sacramento, Calif. Bethune makes a Belgian-style strong beer called Rorie’s Ale, which is aged in contact with fresh cherries in used malbec wine barrels. It sells for $20 when available, but Bethune says a San Francisco store has taken to aging and reselling it for $80.
As with wine, stratospheric prices are chiefly built on scarcity. Jacobsen Vintage was launched for three years in a row in quantities of about 600 bottles each, while Utopias, at the upper end of extreme-beer volume, this year accounted for slightly less than 15,000 bottles.
It also helps if the brew is crafted with unique methods that coax out mind-bending flavours, the sort you won’t find in brands advertised during the Super Bowl. “Utopias is my way of making a statement that, yes, beer deserves to be put alongside wine and spirits in terms of quality and character and sheer beauty,” Koch says.
And alongside Rolex watches and Prada purses.