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Tasting the World's Strongest Beer

Last night, I had the opportunity to sip what amounts to the Holy Grail for many craft beer lovers: a snifter of Samuel Adams Utopias, the ultra-rare beer that the Boston brewery only makes every other year. While it's made from the basic ingredients of beer (hops, malt, yeast, and water), Utopias really stretches the definition of "beer" in every way. It's served uncarbonated, clocks in at 27% alcohol by volume (the average brewski is a mere 5%), and has the look and mouthfeel of nice brandy or cognac. It takes several years to brew and blend, and is aged in whiskey, wine, and cognac barrels. While it's the Guinness record-holder of World's Strongest Beer, even the Sam Adams brewer who presented it at the Monk's Kettle last night admitted that he has a hard time thinking of it as beer when he drinks it.

Challenging as it is, however, Utopias is also delicious. The scent is sweet and caramelized, with hints of grape and yeast, and it explodes on the tongue, hitting notes of Scotch, maple syrup, grappa, and cognac all at once. When it was introduced at the end of the evening, the previously buzzing room fell eerily silent: this beer required a lot of contemplation and appreciation. Our glasses of 2009 Utopias were served alongside snifters of 1994 Triple Bock, Sam Adams' (and the world's) first attempt at "extreme beer." It's a category that's loaded now, but was a real risk 15 years ago, and brewery founder Jim Koch was smart to take it. The Triple Bock was pitch-black, compared to the clear, golden Utopias, and its aged-malt flavor tasted strongly of soy sauce to our table's palates. Comparing it with Utopias, it's clear that Sam Adams has come a long way.

Utopias has a price tag to match its unique flavor: it typically retails for $199, and comes in a lovely ceramic bottle shaped to resemble a copper brew tank. That may seem steep for beer, but it's really more like a fine wine: eminently drinkable now, it should continue to develop complexity and flavor over the next five to ten years. If you're curious, Sam Adams tells me that the best place in SF to find one of the rare bottles (only 12,000 total) is BevMo! or K&L Wines. For a beer aficionado, there's no better Christmas gift, and I'd love to see one of these under my own tree.