BEHOLD, one of beer’s most totemic brews: a nearly 30% ABV strong ale produced by Boston Beer, bottled in a miniature copper brew kettle and sold for $200. Is it a marketing gimmick, excuse for a snazzy packaging, coup of brewing science, or actually good beverage? Let’s say all of the above. After marveling at the skill and patience necessary to bring forth such a beast, the easiest way to cut through the fuss about Utopias is to evaluate it not as beer but rather a fortified dessert wine. Barely carbonated and hardly hopped, its aged fruit aromas and viscous body becomes much easier to fathom when compared to tawny port than, say, English mild.
The 2012 vintage pours a deep but clear brown with a scarlet tinge, casting sluggish legs up the glass with each swirl. Its aroma is heady and wonderfully complex, marring the big vinous notes of younger sherry with the mild oxidation, plummy sweetness, and cellar warmth of mature port. The entry to the palate is extremely smooth, thick like creme, molasses, maple syrup, or even pecan butter. Utopias foundation in malt grains does eventually reveal itself, invoking nutty, earthy, and somewhat chocolaty flavors a little more than overripe berries, but the distinction is hazy at best—Utopias still has plenty of fig, raisin, and other such dark fruits as make dessert wines so succulent. After lingering lazily on the palate for as long as you’ll have it, Utopias begins to subside with some cherry liqueur sweetness and a touch of pepper tingle—the shadow of its hops, perhaps? It’s obvious that this is a seriously strong beverage, but the ABV is apparent mostly in finish warmth, not cognac heat or any prickly aroma. Carbonation is not to be discerned, nor any bitterness. It is delectable sipping, to be sure. Don’t dream of serving it chilled.
Yet however well Utopias compares to port in flavor, it stumbles over one thing: price. Certainly world class dessert wines can command premiums far above Utopias—which must count among world-class beers for uniqueness alone—but sherry and port of comparable quality can be had for much less than this. Even acknowledging that Utopias’ recipe (i.e. the massive malt bill necessary to ferment up to this strength) distorts its economy, why pay $200 for inefficient beer when $40 would earn the same satisfaction from grapes? For love, perhaps, of malt or magic. Each has merit.
Served: 2012 Vintage