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Why paying $190 for an old, flat beer is worth it

Samuel Adams

Want to impress a beer geek? A $190 bottle of Utopias should do it.

Samuel Adams Utopias is a brewing masterpiece of sorts, a blend of beers aged in various wine and spirit barrels for up to 19 years. It’s a special ambrosia, one that commands a special price –$190 a bottle. 

But that’s only if you can find one on the shelves to buy. These curious kettle-shaped bottles get snapped up by beer geeks like they’re Tickle Me Elmo dolls and it’s Christmas 1996. Those who miss the feeding frenzy have to turn to places like eBay, where prices can range $300 to $400 a bottle.  

That’s a ton of money to spend on 24-fluid ounces of beer, and it begs the question – is it worth it?

Well, that hinges on several factors that for me, say yes.

First, let’s talk vintages. Utopias has been released six times since 2002, making this year’s 2012 batch the 10th anniversary edition.  Every release is different from the last – the blend is tweaked, the types of casks used to age the beers are changed up, special ingredients come and go and the alcohol by volume seems to increase a bit each time.

The first Utopias I ever tasted was a 2007, and the first sip literally made my body tingle with delight from head-to-toe. It was magical, perhaps the most enchanting mouthful of beer I’ve had in my lifetime.  That 2007 vintage was certainly worth a couple of hundred dollars for a bottle, but what about the 2012 release?  

The heart of this year’s batch is a dark beer brewed with maple syrup.  It’s blended with several other brews that have spent time aging in a variety of wooden vessels, from Portuguese Tawny Port casks to Nicaraguan rum barrels. The oldest beer in the blend is Samuel Adams Triple Bock, the company’s original extreme beer brewed in 1993 – it’s been aged in wood for almost 20 years.  Each lends a unique flavor to the mix.

Pour a couple of ounces of Utopias into the fancy Riedel glass that comes with each bottle, and the first thing that strikes you is the lack of bubbles. Utopias is a “still” beverage, which is a nice way of saying it’s a flat beer. This is something most brewers and beer geeks try to avoid, but it works here because all the layered flavors in Utopias make you forget that it’s a beer at all. Utopias drinks more like a brandy or a cognac.

Bring the little snifter to your nose and you’re greeted by a thick stream of boozy maple syrup, some sticky dark fruits and just a hint of tobacco. A sip treats your palate to a syrupy vanilla sweetness, followed by a cloying gush of honeyed port wine, with notes of chocolate, figs and raisins dancing in-between. Wait a second or two, and your lower chest blossoms with a lovely warmth from the beer’s 29% alcohol by volume.  There’s not much of a hop finish here, despite Samuel Adams’ claims that there are Mittlefrueh, Teggnanger and Splater varieties aboard. 

It didn’t make me tingle like the 2007, but I found this to be a lovely beverage, perfect to enjoy as a digestif after a nice meal.  It’ll be even better with some additional age on it, made possible by the lack of carbonation and the screw-tight cap that tops the kettle-shaped bottle.

While I enjoyed the 2012 Utopias, my wife shuddered at the taste of the stuff and waved off the offer of another sip.  She used words like “cough syrup” and “brandy” – two tastes her palate wasn’t prepared for.

I took the opportunity to ask her if she’d be angry with me if I had spent $190 on another bottle and she said no. She’d kill me instead.

But I don’t care. Did I mention I’m a little impetuous and obsessive?

After all, having a taste of Utopias should be on the bucket list of every beer geek, along with scoring a bottle of Pliny the Elder and drinking your way through Belgium.  What price can you put on that?

There were fewer than 15,000 bottles of 2012 Samuel Adams Utopias produced, and they are on shelves now. We’ll see how long they last.

Jim Galligan is co-founder of the Beer and Whiskey Brothers blog, where he and his brother Don cover the ever-evolving world of craft beer and distilled spirits. Follow him on Twitter. 

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