I'd been curious about Samuel Adams' Utopias since its initial release in 2002, what with its display-worthy copper brew kettle-shaped bottle, staggering alcohol level, and singularly high price tag (retail starts at about $150 for 24 ounces).
The 2011 Utopias—the sixth installment in one of the brewery's efforts to change what beer can be and how people perceive it—was fermented using both ale yeast and yeast typically used to ferment Champagne and wine. It's a blend of beers aged in eight types of wine and spirits barrels, some of which have aged up to 18 years, that was then finished in a variety of sherry, Madeira, and port casks. For this year's version, Samuel Adams brewer Grant Wood told me they tried to create a drier Utopias. He said their efforts were more successful than expected, so they ended up blending in more maple syrup later on to add sweetness.
The end result pours a ruby-tinged brown that leaves thick, sticky legs coating the glass. The aroma is a rich blend of maple syrup, cocoa, and nose-tingling alcohol. The oak flavor imparted by the various barrels is also prominent, complemented by hints of toffee and sticky dates.
The first sip reminded us of apricots and raisins mixed with caramel, maple, and semi-sweet chocolate. There's a lot of sherry character. Noble hops are present yet restrained, providing a spicy note that leads into warming alcohol. As big as Utopias is, any rougher edges have been smoothed by time in the barrel. The finish is prolonged and leaves a sherry-like nuttiness lingering on the tongue.
The beer is completely and intentionally flat, which allows it to be consumed over an extended period of time. Utopias is closer to cognac or single-malt scotch than what most people think of as beer. This refined "extreme beer" is best served a few ounces at a time in a snifter. Like the 2009 version, the 2011 Utopias weighs in at 27% ABV, placing it decidedly in the "one and done" category.
And now for the $150 question: Is Utopias worth the money?
I think that depends on who's drinking it. If your preferences begin and end with beer, you might be better off spending your money elsewhere. This is a beer for someone who yearns for fine wines and brown spirits—if your dad knows his Speyside from his Islay or his Fino from his Amontillado, a bottle would make a terrific Father's Day gift. But even if you can't commit to a bottle, don't pass up Utopias if you see a bar selling it by the glass.
What's the priciest beer, wine, or spirit you've ever tried? Was it worth it?
Disclosure: We attended a press tasting and received a sample for review.