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Classic Beer of the Month June 2014: Samuel Adams Utopias, 28%

I've been judging international beer competitions for many years now and I've learned that there's one beer, more than any other, that always gets judges excited.

Samuel Adams UtopiasThe beer in question is Samuel Adams Utopias. To be frank, it's very unlikely that you've ever had the chance to taste this unusual offering.

Quantities are strictly limited and bottles retail at US $199 (no, I haven't omitted a decimal point). Understandably, not many people have had the pleasure.

So take it from me that, when Utopias first hit the judging table, judges struggled to get their heads around what was in the glass.

The 28% ABV was just the start of the confusion. With a complexity derived from wood ageing and the appearance of a fortified wine, there was simply no other beer like it in circulation.

Utopias first emerged in 2002. The Boston Beer Company – Samuel Adams to most drinkers – had already experimented successfully with potent beers, creating Triple Bock that was, unusually for the 1990s, aged in wood and boasted an alcohol content of 18%.

Utopias took the concept on an extra mile, but this beer is not just about strength, unlike many inferior copycats designed for publicity purposes or to justify an exorbitant price tag.

What Samuel Adams created was a classy product that added another dimension to the beer drinking experience – a beer that comes into its own as a nightcap or as an after-dinner digestif. It's the beer equivalent of a fine port.

Brewing and Ageing

Utopias is brewed using a variety of malts, including Munich and caramel. In the copper, the brew is seasoned with three tried-and-trusted German hop varieties – Hallertau Mittelfrüh, Spalt and Tettnang.

Two yeast strains – Samuel Adams' own and one normally reserved for Champagne – are called upon to feast on the abundant sugars (plus a lacing of maple syrup) and produce the daunting level of alcohol.

But it is once fermentation has finished that the fun starts. The beer is first aged in barrels that previously contained Buffalo Trace bourbon. It is then 'finished' in casks that once held a spirit or fortified wine – perhaps rum, Madeira, port or sherry.

Finally, before bottling, the beer is blended, taking samples from both the Buffalo Trace and finishing barrels, and including earlier brews that have been ageing for up to fourteen years.

When it is eventually deemed ready for sale, the beer is packaged in the most idiosyncratic of bottles, disguised as a brewing copper.

Before you taste Utopias, set aside all preconceptions of beer. It doesn't even have any fizz, pouring an attractive deep ruby colour but lifeless and flat. Carbonation has deliberately been omitted in order to create that fortified wine effect.

Heady aromas of sherry and spirits swirl around the nose and the same sherry-like fruity sweetness is the first impression on the palate, along with a touch of caramel and vanilla. Oranges, plums, raisins and sultanas all feature at some point.

Slick, Warming Experience

Drinking Utopias is a slick, warming experience that tingles the gums and warms the back of the throat with intoxicating, alcoholic vapours. Some dryness emerges to rescue the finish from a fatally cloying sweetness, but there's no real bitterness in the beer at any stage.

I compiled these tasting notes a few years ago. They really only give a suggestion of what goes on in the glass because the beer is blended differently every year. Furthermore, the 2013 vintage has yet another dimension.

For this release, the brewers have added a twist in the form of another beer from the Samuel Adams stable. KMF – the letters stand for Kosmic Mother Funk – is a Belgian-style ale re-pitched with brettanomyces yeast and aged in oak casks, where it picks up friendly lactobacillus bacteria.

These intruders weave their own spell, conjuring tart, sour, fruity notes that, I'm told, just take away some of Utopias' inherent sweetness and add suggestions of cherry and plum.

I've not had the opportunity to taste it yet but hope to do so soon at another beer competition when, I guarantee, it'll have the judges scratching their heads yet again.

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