One Steep Sip

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

How much would you pay for an exceptional brew? $10 a six-pack? $20 a six-pack?

How about $5 an ounce?

That's the minimum going rate for Boston Beer's Samuel Adams Utopias, which retails starting at $120 per 24-ounce bottle.

The country's most expensive beer is also the strongest. The 2007 edition of the vintage-dated biennial release clocks in at 27 percent alcohol by volume, more than five times the proof of the average American golden lager. The previous record holder: the 2005 Utopias, at 25.6 percent.

Need something to counteract the sticker shock? Would it help to know that each bottle of Utopias comes with a coupon code redeemable (in the District and Maryland, but not in Virginia) for a free snifter, specially crafted by internationally known wineglass designer Georg Riedel to enhance the beer's aromatics? The brewery advises serving Utopias at room temperature in the snifter, in two-ounce pours.

The Utopias container, a ceramic bottle molded to resemble a brew kettle, is a collectible in and of itself. The copper-colored liquid inside hasn't a bubble of carbonation. The first sensations are a viscous mouth feel and a sweet sherrylike flavor with nuances of toffee and maple. There are notes of vanilla and plum and a hint of charred wood. A long, lingering alcohol burn, more reminiscent of a cognac or brandy than a beer, is followed by a sweet burned-caramel aftertaste.

Utopias is a complex blend of batches aged in barrels that formerly held Scotch, bourbon, brandy and other spirits. (The brewery's Boston facility contains a "library" of casks dating back 14 years, to brewery president Jim Koch's earliest experiment in super-strong beer, a 17.5-percent-alcohol brew called Triple Bock.) The Utopias completes its conditioning in sherry and Madeira casks from Portugal.

Koch insists that the alcohol comes solely from fermentation, the process by which the yeast cells digest sugar to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. He does not inject the beer with spirits. Nor does he use the "ice bock" method of partially freezing the brew, then sloughing off the top layer of ice to concentrate the alcohol. "That's illegal!" he protests, and he's right: The government views that as a form of distillation, and it cannot lawfully be done in a brewery.

Koch is willing to drop a few hints about his proprietary process. The brewery employs a tag team of two primary yeasts: an ale strain and one that normally is used to produce champagne.

Keeping the yeast active is a problem: The cells tend to sink into a torpor when overfed, much like humans after a heavy Thanksgiving meal. The trick is coaxing them into forcing down that extra slice of pie, so to speak, to produce the extra alcohol. Koch says he inverts the usual feeding regimen, offering the yeast more complex sugars at the start of fermentation, then finishing with simpler molecules. A dash of maple syrup during the process piques the yeast cells' appetites and inspires them to new heights.

"It's not rocket science, but it is 'grain surgery,' " Koch quips.

The 2007 will be the fourth release of this beer. Koch believes he might have reached the biological limitations of the yeast cells with the latest vintage: "Unless there's a major breakthrough, I don't see them doing much more. They're whipped!"

Boston Beer is releasing 12,000 bottles of the 2007 Utopias. The beer will be available nationally (except for 14 states, including West Virginia and North Carolina, where caps on the alcohol level of beer make it illegal). Look for the bottles to show up in the next few weeks at Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits in the District, where beer buyer Larry Robinson expects it to retail for at least $130, and at Norm's Beer & Wine in Vienna, where owner Norm Yow guesses the price might top $150, depending on what the local wholesaler charges him. Other outlets include Paul's of Chevy Chase in Northwest and the various Northern Virginia locations of Balducci's, Total Wine & More and Whole Foods Market. "I've got a feeling that there'll be a whole lot of people looking for it who are going to be disappointed," Yow says.

Less-fanatical beer geeks who don't want to trade a day's wages for a bottle of beer will be able to find it at the Morton's steakhouse chain, where a two-ounce pour will you set back $27, publicist Anthony Hesselius says. The Ruby Tuesday near Verizon Center will carry it, too, at $20 for a two-ounce pour.

Either alternative is better than eBay, where a bottle of the 2007 was on sale for $350 at press time.

Greg Kitsock can be reached

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