Sam Adams Utopias isn’t really a beer…it’s an experience.

Offered in extraordinarily limited quantities once every two years (there were only 53 barrels produced for this year’s version), Utopias is considered to be one of the tougher beers out there to get your hands on, and for good reason, taking into account the intensely laborious, time-consuming process Boston Beer Co.’s brewers take to produce this innovative brew. In its fifth release, Utopias has traditionally contended with such beers as Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA as the most alcoholic beer on planet earth*, coming in at a mere 27% ABV. But the strength of the beer, while certainly unique and more reminiscent to what you’d find in a fine liquer, is not all that sets it apart in my mind.

To brew this one-of-a-kind beer (and yes, it technically is a beer), they use a blend of two-row, caramel and Munich malts with a healthy dose of maple syrup to help kick up the gravity, likely to uncharted levels that would make your average hydrometer hide in fear. To balance the insane levels of malt, they hop with several Noble varieties including Spalt Spalter, Hallertau Mittelfrueh, and Tettnang Tettnanger to add a bit of spice to the concoction. For such a potently sweet wort, they use a number of high gravity yeasts to ferment, including Champagne yeast, and much like a fine distiller, they also blend a number of batches to come up with the finished product, some of which have aged up to 16 years in various casks including brandy, sherry, cognac, bourbon and muscatel. In short, Sam Adams Utopias is to American brewing what Cantillon Blåbær and other rare lambics are to the Belgian brewing tradition with all of the patience and care involved in developing it.

Liquid aside, the bottle holding the beer is something to behold in and of itself, like a piece of art. Designed by a noted Brazilian glassware manufacturer, the container is a miniaturized copper brewing kettle with advent-like sliding doors that reveal a picture of the brewer/patriot himself, Sam Adams.

Utopias poured into a snifter (my special commemorative Riedel glass is on order!) with no perceptible carbonation. Awe-inspiring amber coloring, like staring at a beautifully crafted stained glass window in its magnetism. The beer had legs for miles that slowly sank down the sides of the glass when swirled, like a nice wine or single-malt scotch. Piercing notes of raisin, plum, honey, vanilla, and caramel in the nose mixed with a stinging wave of alcohol. Taste is immediately sweet, with an unparalleled symphony of caramel, honey and oak. The alcohol burn in the finish is really no burn at all, but rather a soft blanket of warmth gently coating the tongue. Surprisingly light mouthfeel, truly masterful in its complexity, and easy to see how the prestigious Wine Enthusiast Magazine gave Utopias its highest possible rating of 96-100 points several years ago.      

It’s difficult to compare this to anything, considering the beer doesn’t really have a stylistic equal. But if you’re looking for a warming, after dinner drink that resembles something like a sherry or cognac, Utopias is your choice.

Rating: A+

* Scottish brewer BrewDog has recently laid claim to the strongest beer in the world title with their forthcoming Tactical Nuclear Penguin. Looks like Jim Koch may have to up the ante with Utopias 2011.

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You kind of have to be an arrogant bastard to make the so-called Bacon Explosion.

By now, I’m sure most of you have at least heard rumors of this BBQ blitzkrieg of a meal. If not, check out the recent NY Times article detailing its glory.

Bacon Explosion is an exercise in excess. An orgy of over-consumption. And it seemed to go very well with Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard, a nice complement to the hickory-smokiness coming from the more than two pounds of bacon wrapped around two pounds of pork sausage, and then all of it slathered in copious amounts of BBQ sauce.

DSC02628After enjoying the meal, which also included homemade baked beans, potato salad and country-style biscuits, I had to take an extended time-out on the couch to let my stomach figure out what in the hell I had just put it through. It was so damn good going down, but it felt like a lead weight in my belly, exascerbated by the palpable rise in cholesterol that slowly but surely sent me spinning into heartburn city, and eventually put me into a bit of a food coma. In short, it was everything Bacon Explosion should be.

Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard adds to its already superb regular version with a subtle tinge of oaky goodness, just enough to let you know its there without overpowering the hops and malt already working in harmony to make this one of the better American craft beers on the market. 

Rating: A 

Oaked Arrogant Bastard

dsc01698So I’ve been a little lax on my frequency of beer reviews lately.

Part of it is the fact that I have a ton of my own homebrew on tap that I’ve been enjoying. I went through a real prolific period this last fall, and consequently have numerous cases laying around. The other factor is the mental paralysis that sets in every time I walk into my beer cellar and am confronted with the overwhelming number of commercial offerings I have at my disposal. It sounds counterintuitive, but I’ve slowly acquired so many great beers that I don’t know where to start sometimes. My wife has compared me to a Depression-era hoarder when it comes to my beer collection habits. Not sure what it is, but every time I hear about a new beer coming out, or happen upon one I haven’t tried before, my prefrontal cortex melts down and all reason escapes me. I just have to have it. Even if I don’t drink it for a couple years, I at least feel better knowing it’s in my rotation.    

When Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous hit the market a while ago, I knew it was going to be one of those magical beers for me. We unfortunately aren’t privy to Stone in the Twin Cities (yet), so most of their stuff I’ve had has been thanks to a handful of my beer trading buddies on the coasts. However, our cheese loving neighbor to the east does get Stone, so on occasion I’ve taken a trip to Hudson to stock up on whatever I can find.

Sublimely Self-Righteous is actually a reincarnation of Stone’s 11th Anniversary Ale. They apparently liked this American strong ale so much when they initially brewed it, they decided to bring it back year-round. And I’m glad they did. It’s an elegant, yet surprisingly contradictory beer, all in one.   

Pours with a very deep mahogany body and two finger khaki head. From first glance, one might assume aromas of rich caramel, possibly some chocolate. But Sublimely Self-Righteous hits you with a wallop of pure hoppiness, akin to a DIPA like Pliny the Elder. Huge floral notes, citrus and strong pine, possibly from Simcoe hops, with none of the anticipated roasted malt. I guarantee most folks, if blind-folded and asked to place the beer on smell alone, would never think they were drinking an ale that presented itself like this. A very interesting dichotomy.

Taste is even more perplexing. Again, the hoppy bitterness inundates the senses to the point where you start wondering if they simply added dark food coloring to a simple IPA brewed on straight 2-row. Decent carbonation and mouthfeel, yet really none of the maltiness. The 8.75% ABV does get in the way a bit, mixing with the hops to lend a somewhat astringent character in the finish. 

As a homebrewer, I’m very impressed (and honestly a little curious) at how Stone pulled this one off. I enjoyed it, but could have been better if the hops were balanced with some sweetness. Then again, I might just be suffering from unmet expectations based on the initial appearance.      

Rating: B+

The inaugural First Tuesday Beer Club meeting last month at Acadia went so well, we decided to do it again.

For the March gathering, our ragtag ensemble of fellow craft beer appreciators descended upon the Muddy Pig in St. Paul, a great neighborhood watering hole that has been host to several of my more memorable drinking excursions of late.

Unlike the first go-round, I decided to take it a little easier considering I was 1) driving, and 2) had a busy work day ahead of me on Wednesday. So I kept it to a handful of craft beers, one local and a couple from the coasts. Here’s the rundown:

Lift Bridge Farm Girl Saison
I’ve been remiss in not trying this one yet, the flagship offering from our very own Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater (contract brewed by Flat Earth, I believe). For a Belgian saison, this one was very unique…at first blush I wasn’t sure if I’d mistakenly been served a tall glass of opaque orange juice, as it looked nothing like most other saisons I’ve had (or brewed myself). Tons of suspended yeast, almost like a hefeweizen. It smelled fantastic. Aggressively yeast-forward with a nice layering of cloves, light esters and a distinct horse blanket quality (did they use Brett?). Taste was bready and light, but not effervescent which I look forward to in this style. Carbonation a bit lacking, giving it a rather flat and watery mouthfeel. But overall, a pretty decent beer and one that I’d definitely try again. Look forward to some more offerings from these guys.

Rating: B+    

Eel River Triple Exultation
If Lift Bridge’s saison was my warm-up appetizer into the evening, tipping back a glass of Triple Exultation from Eel River in California was like skipping the main course and heading right for the dessert tray. Very nice amber coloring in the pour with only the slightest film of bubbles skimming the top of this Old Ale. A candy sweet aroma hits you right away, hinting at toffee, dark fruits and maybe even sherry. The taste was just like the nose, bordering on cloying in its malty, chewy sweetness. At nearly 10% ABV, it’s a hefty beer, and in combination with its nearly overpowering sugaryness, one that I was glad to share with a couple other friends at the table.  

Rating: B-     

Southern Tier Oak-Aged Cuvee Series Two
Mmm…now this is a nice beer. My love of all things casked has been long documented (most recently with my brewing of the port barrel-aged Belgian Brown Ale), so when I saw Southern Tier’s Oak-Aged Cuvee Series Two on the beer list, I had to order. Served in a snifter with a beautiful ruby red coloring and thin, khaki head. The nose was pure oaky goodness with a nice interplay of vanilla and dark fruits. Not sure where they get their casks, but they certainly could have been bourbon barrels. Taste was fantastic, with more of the oaked flavoring permeating throughout. Really reminded me in a big way of Allagash Curieux, minus the Belgian qualities. Mouthfeel and drinkability were great. And I didn’t even mind the slight heat from the 11% ABV that started creeping up on the back of my throat with each small sip. I have a bottle of this in my beer cellar, and I’m very excited to try this in another year or two.

Rating: A  

dsc01550I’m the guy that shows up at a Chilean wine tasting and asks about the beer selection.

Well, to be fair, Dark Horse Reserve Special Black Bier was offered to me moments after I walked in the front door of my friends’ home who happened to be hosting said wine event the other night. So, I of course partook in this very nice American Strong Ale before I dove into about a dozen Chilean reds including malbecs, cabernet sauvignons and merlots. No better way to screw up your palette for wine than with a rich and flavorful ale.  

I’d heard of Dark Horse out of Michigan, but had never tried any of their offerings to this point. The fact that this is categorized as an American Strong Ale struck me as a bit odd, as it came off much more like a porter to me. But I guess that designation is kind of a catch-all for any beer over 7% ABV. And this one qualifies coming in at 7.5%.

Really nice and rich dark coloring poured into a wine glass. Aroma is that of coffee, roasted malt and chocolate. Not much in the way of hops. Relatively thin mouthfeel, but a nice molasses flavor, followed by a somewhat bitter finish. Overall, pretty drinkable. I’d definitely try more of their stuff if it’s in the same quality realm as this one. By far the best thing I imbibed that night, aside from possibly the Montes Malbec 2007.

Rating: B+

There are some beers that fly under the radar and are pretty damn good. Quietly celebrated…nay, appreciated…by beer geeks far and wide.

Then there are beers like Stone Arrogant Bastard. They know it’s superior, and don’t apologize for it. They don’t need to. In fact, they taunt you with it. Just read the back of the bottle. Because odds are, you can’t handle the aggressive nature of this ale. It’ll make you weep. First with joy, then in fear that you may not try another beer of this ilk again. Arrogant Bastard is kind of like that smug, know-it-all prick you went to high school with, who for sure was never going to get anywhere in life. How could he, being such a self-centered jerk? Except he shows up at your 10-year high school reunion driving a Gumpert Apollo, wearing a Huntsman double breasted suit, and carting his huge balls in a wheelbarrow in front of him. Yep, he’s that guy. And this is that beer. Oh Stone…you magnificent bastard.

I don’t have a lot of words for this one. Kind of like trying to verbosely explain the power of Guernica. You’re just supposed to take it in and keep your mouth shut. First thing I noticed was the pour…a deep chocolately red river of goodness. Not a ton of head, but a richly complex and inviting smell of toffee and alcohol. Somewhat of a biscuity or burnt malt flavor, especially as it warms up, followed by a sharp hop bitterness that sits on the back of your tongue. Best of both worlds.

I’m a little disappointed that this is the third offering from Stone that I’ve tried, the other two being a limited edition and anniversary release. Wish I would have made Arrogant Bastard the opener.

Rating: A