If I purchased a $200 bottle of beer- I’d be divorced. Even if I found three friends to “go in” and split the bottle cost with me, that would mean $50 each- still pricy. So when the Sam Adam’s Utopias food and beer pairing dinner called “Friendsgiving” was scheduled at World of Beer – Walden Galleria, I seized the opportunity to sample a beer that I never would have been able to purchase. A ticket to the event cost $40 and included a four course food and beer pairing.
Our tour guide for the event was Sam Adams representative CJ Ullrich. Ullrich did a nice job at introducing each course and providing technical information about each beer being sampled.
The event featured four Sam Adam’s beers and food pairings, culminating in a sample of Utopias paired with dark cacao, as shown below. Let’s take a closer look at each of the pairings.
(Disclaimer: I have to say before commenting on any of these beers, that realistically none of them were going to compete with Utopias. All the other Sam Adam’s beers on the list were merely foreplay until the final sample. I tried to be as objective I could be when tasting the other beers, but this was a challenge).
Pre-Course Beer: Before the food courses, we were given an introduction pint of Rebel Grapefruit IPA. Rebel Grapefruit IPA is of limited availability and brewed once. This beer is made with West Coast style hops such as Citra, Mosaic, Centennial, and Cascade. The beer was very grapefruit and sweet up front; perhaps a little too much so. The middle of the tasting contained a hop bite that fought with the grapefruit flavors. This beer is made with real grapefruit juice and grapefruit peel. I don’t think that hops like Citra and Mosaic really need any help with citrus flavors, so for me this beer was a bit dissonant due to dueling citrus.
Course 1: Boston Lager paired with Spicy Cornbread.
Each beer paired for each course was designed to “complement”, “cut”, or “contrast” the food paired with it. (Side note: I’m not really sure what a beer would do if it doesn’t complement, cut, or contrast? Is there any other possibility?) The original Sam Adams Boston Lager is a Vienna style lager brewed with noble hops such as Hallertau and Tettnang. I’ve always liked Boston Lager for its simplicity yet depth of flavor. The cornbread was a hearty portion, and knowing that three courses were still to come there was no way anyone in the room was finishing all of their cornbread. My dinner partner Ryan jokingly proclaimed, “There was enough cornbread to kill a horse”. The full-bodied lager flavor of the beer cut the spiciness of the cornbread, and yet the malts complemented the bready grit of the cornbread.
Course 2: Winter Lager paired with Colorado Chili
A large portion of hearty chili was placed in front of us, paired with a Sam Adams Winter Lager. Winter Lager, a spiced wheat bock, contained an appropriate holiday dose of orange peel, cinnamon, and ginger. Our Sam Adams tour guide Ullrich informed us that winter bocks originated many centuries ago. Monks would brew beer high in malt character so that when fasting they could be sustained by these rich drinks. The Colorado chili was dense and contained thick meat chunks and a paste consistency. The spices in the chili were complemented and enhanced by the Winter Lager, and the combination worked nicely together.
Course 3: Rebel IPA paired with Pumpkin Spice Wings
If there a common theme to the food selection in the pairings, it would be “spicy”. When the wings arrived, they did not seem as spicy as they ended up being. If you listened around the room, you could hear the word “spicy” circulate every few seconds. I’m a big fan of spicy wings, so they were tasty to me. But I know I am on the far right of the “enjoy spiciness” bell curve. I don’t think other people were quite as thrilled with the habanero spice coming from the wings. The beer chosen for the pairing for Rebel IPA, a moderately hopped ale that was intended to complement the spice of the wings. Instead, due to the intense heat of the wings, this beer served as a nice coolant to the palate.
Course 4: Utopias paired with 70% Dark Cacao
Finally, the beer we were all waiting for! Even after a journey through spicy foods and malty lagers, our palates would not have been prepared for Utopias. The complex flavors were numerous and interwoven. The bottle itself is artwork. A porcelain vessel surrounded by copper plating.
Sam Adam’s Utopias is billed as the “highest alcohol percentage naturally fermented beer”. Maple syrup is used during fermentation to help achieve the high ABV; this maple can be detected in the taste and also elevates the alcohol content of the beer. At 27% ABV, Utopias really doesn’t taste like a beer at all, but like an aged whiskey or cognac. Utopias is an amalgamation of spirits and barrels. The beer is separated and aged in different barrels such as scotch, bourbon, port, and cognac. Later, these separate barrels are then blended together along with previous year’s blends to constitute the final product. A new batch of Utopias only comes along about once every two years. Only around 10-15,000 bottles are made, and they are hard to find, even at $200 a bottle.
We were only given a small snifter glass and an even smaller pour of Utopias. But that’s really all you need to understand just how unique this beer is. The smell invades your nostrils well before you get the glass up to your nose. The spirit aromas are strong and wonderful: cognac, bourbon, rum. The consistency is syrupy and thick. Vanilla, maple, and various barrel wood flavors can be detected in each sip. Warming alcohol rounds out each swallow.
Utopias is truly a masterpiece and a work of brewing art. If you get the chance to to try it, you should. But is Utopias worth $200 a bottle? Paradoxically, you’ll have to try it to know the answer.