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The History of Samuel Adams Utopias

The History of Samuel Adams Utopias

Every sip of the unique beer Samuel Adams Utopias is quite literally a step back in time, into history. You’re not just tasting the beer that The Boston Beer Company made last month, or the one that’s been aging in a barrel for six months or even a year. Every bottle of Utopias contains a portion of every Utopias edition that came before it, and that means going all the way back to 1992’s Samuel Adams Triple Bock, the progenitor of today’s Utopias.

The story of Samuel Adams Utopias starts a little further back than 1992. While Samuel Adams’ popular Boston Lager was the first beer created by Jim Koch and The Boston Beer Co., their second beer was Samuel Adams Double Bock, which was first brewed in 1989 as their first seasonal offering and for many years was released each spring. At over 9 percent ABV, and a lager, it was for the time, a very unusual choice, but was quite successful nonetheless. It helped that it was delicious, and bocks have a long-standing history in the spring.

But after a few years, Boston Beer founder Koch grew restless, and wanted to push up against the boundaries of what beer at that time was considered to be. In 1992, he started working on a beer in an attempt to outdo his Double Bock, so it seemed natural to call the result Triple Bock. In those days Samichlaus was about the upper limit for high-alcohol beers at 14 percent ABV, but by experimenting with yeasts and maple syrup, Boston Beer Co. managed to create a beer that was closer to 18 percent (a still-impressive number even in today’s saturated beer market).

Read More About the Most Recent Samuel Adams Utopias Release

Koch declares that when Triple Bock was released in 1994, it was “the most revolutionary beer in craft beer” and immediately follows that up with “now let me see if I can back that up, because two important mainstays of craft brewing came out of Triple Bock.” The first of these solved his first problem with the initial attempts to make the beer. The initial batches, while very high in alcohol, were not pleasant to drink. “The liquid was hot, (and) it had this unpleasant ethanol attack on your palate,” he remembers.

“When we were getting up to 16 and 17 percent, the CO2 fled the premises and the alcohol became this stab, this sharp fiery burn, so I was trying to figure out how to mitigate that. That’s when the light went on. I’m not the first one to have to deal with this problem. Illiterate backwoodsmen in the middle of Kentucky solved this 200 years ago. They realized that if they took a fresh oak barrel and charred it on the inside, that the charcoal would soften the ferocity of the ethanol. And so we got those barrels and like a month later it was already different and had started to mellow.”

Triple Bock was originally aged in all Jack Daniels barrels, since bourbon barrels can, by law, only be used once, they were practically free, which Koch realized when he noticed them being cut in half and sold at places like Home Depot to be used as planters. Aging beer in used spirits barrels was something that everyone assumed was illegal because for Federal law, it would be mingling two tax classes — beer and spirits. But Koch decided he had nothing to lose, and petitioned the TTB, going right to their offices in person and got the TTB to allow it. Koch recalls “I told them I could buy these at Home Depot cut in half for planters. We got them to approve it on the spot, signing something to that effect. Until that moment, nobody had ever aged beer in used spirits barrels, so it was groundbreaking.”

The second mainstay was the very notion of “extreme beer,” which didn’t exist in 1992. A writer at the time asked Koch, since this is not an existing category of beer, what do you call it? When Utopias were first being created, the X Games were similarly just emerging. As Koch recalls, “they were basically new sports, invented sports that hadn’t existed before and were outside the mainstream. Some people were not even sure they were true sports. They were just kids having fun. So if there’s extreme sports, this is extreme beer.”

Samuel Adams Utopias was born in 1992 when The Boston Beer Co. founder Jim Koch wanted to push the boundaries of what beer at that time was considered to be.

But Koch was just getting started, and as the year 2000 approached, he got to work on the next part of the journey, a beer called Millennium Ale. You can see the bones of Triple Bock in Millennium Ale, because it used the very same barrels, and used approximately 15% of Triple Bock in the blend. It was a clearer beer and more resembled in both appearance and taste what Utopias would become.

Two years after that, the first beer to be called Samuel Adams Utopias was released in 2002. Actually, that first Utopias was officially called Utopias MMII, a nod to its lineage with Millennium Ale, but subsequent editions abandoned that practice.

The name Utopias also has its own history. The word is Greek in its origin, a made-up word created by Sir Thomas More for the title of his work of political satire, Utopia, which was published in 1516. The word generally means a perfect society, but its literal meaning is quite different, and can be translated as “nowhere.” But since there was a wine using just Utopia, he added the “s” to make it their own. Since they were creating a beer that didn’t have an easy home in the traditionally narrow spectrum of beer, calling it Utopias was a sly reminder that it fit nowhere.

The first edition of Utopias had an alcohol-by-volume of 21%, but subsequent editions have been slowly increasing, with the second one at 25% and reaching its peak at 28% in the early 2010s.

After the initial release in 2002, the second edition of Utopias was released in 2003. Since then, a new edition has been released every two years, with the exception of 2012, when a separate release happened that year to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Utopias.

Beginning in 2005, they began using Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels to age every bit of Utopias at the beginning of the process, and that’s continued for each batch since then. The process has evolved over the years as they’ve perfected the best way to get the flavors and aromas out of the beer that they find most desirable, but the basics have remained unchanged.

First, they brew a base beer specifically as a Utopias starter. It doesn’t really hue to any style of beer, but brewer Eryn Bottens, who’s managed the barrel program for the past six years, likens it to the biggest Scotch Ale you could imagine, although its only real purpose is to be aged to create Utopias. After fermentation, using champagne yeast that’s been self-selecting for over 25 years is finished, they’re aged in Buffalo Trace barrels, which now are hand-selected by a team that includes the rickhouse master from the distillery so that the barrels that will yield the best flavors are used for aging the beer. Usually, older barrels are selected since there’s less green wood and more of the old scotch or the old bourbon notes. The initial brew stays in the bourbon barrels for one to two years.

After the initial aging, a portion of the brew is moved from the bourbon barrels into a variety of different wood, selected for the layers they can add to the finished Utopias. Over a dozen different types of barrels have been used over the years. For each edition, a different selection of barrels is made. Bottens explains that they’re currently partial to Ruby Port barrels, but over the years, portions of Utopias have been aged in barrels that once held Bourbon, Ruby Port, Tawny Port, Sherry, Cognac, Calvados, Madeira, Rum, Aquavit, Muscatel, Carcavelos (a Portuguese wine) and Scotch, including Scotch barrels that began as Sherry and Scotch barrels that began as bourbon. And that also means the character derived from all of those barrels continue to be in every new batch, which helps to explain the growing complexity of each version of Utopias.

Over a dozen different types of barrels have been used over the years, and for each edition of Samuel Adams Utopias, a different selection of barrels is made.

The beer stays in the finishing barrels for a minimum of six months, although they begin tasting barrels at six weeks, so they can start to understand the changes happening inside each barrel. And that helps when it comes time to determine what percentage of each barrel will make up the final blend. They’re not exactly created on a strict schedule, but the decision to release is based more on when they think the beer is ready. Once it’s go time, the beer is blended into two large tanks, which are regularly re-circulated to insure they’re homogenized.  Finally, it’s filtered to remove any remaining barrel sediment and sent to be bottled. The bottling takes place on a custom-built old spirits bottler, which is only used for the Utopias line. For the most recent batch, 17,000 bottles were released, up from only 8,000 for the 2005 release.

The bottle itself is a work of art, and utterly unique. It resembles a miniature brew kettle, and is made of porcelain, covered in a copper glaze. There are even doors on the kettle that, when opened, reveal a picture of Samuel Adams himself. The vintage is stamped on the bottom along with the unique number of your bottle.

If you visit the barrel room at the Samuel Adams Brewery in Boston, it’s certainly quite a sight to see, but you’re not actually able to see all of the aging barrels. A second barrel room was built in their Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania brewery specifically for that purpose. Because of fire codes and the vapors’ propensity to explode, they had to have a specially ventilated building built, where hundreds and hundreds of barrels sit peacefully working their magic.  As the average age of each barrel continues to rise, the process only becomes more difficult to manage.

When they made the 10th anniversary edition, a black bottle was used to differentiate it, and Koch hosted a beer dinner in the barrel room of the brewery in Boston, inviting prominent beer writers, including this author. Bottles of Triple Bock, Millennium Ale and each release of Utopias up until that time were opened. When I asked Koch about that night, he remembered. It was “one of my favorite moments in my beer life. We sipped our way through the evening.” As he also explained that night, “you do not experience Utopias the way you experience any other beer. You take like half a teaspoon on your palette and let the aromas fill your head. It’s packed with so much and so many different flavors that it’s as much a sensory experience as a drinking experience.”

Koch still remembers that not everybody’s reaction to Utopias was initially positive. Many people insisted that it wasn’t beer. To which, he responds. “Your idea of beer is too small. You need to expand your idea of beer.” Which of course, begs the question, what exactly is beer? And that is exactly the point, to ask those questions.

This project has consumed twenty-seven years of Jim Koch’s life, with the same goal as when he started, of pushing more and more and more flavor and aroma into a liquid. “Nobody’s ever come close to duplicating it after all these years. It takes a certain amount of obsessive lunacy. It’s the lunatic fringe of brewing.” Who wouldn’t drink to that?

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