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A taste of Utopia: The ultimate beer

By Paul Sussman for CNN

Utopias
Utopias is said to be the world's strongest and most expensive beer.

LONDON, England (CNN) -- "Probably the most intense and serious beer I have ever tried," enthuses one blogger. "Unique in every possible way," raves another. "You can smell it a mile away! This stuff is psycho!" trumpets a third.

Such are just some of the reactions to the taste of Samuel Adams' Utopias, at $100 a bottle not only the most expensive beer on the planet, but at 25 percent alcohol by some distance the strongest as well (it is listed as such in the Guinness Book of Records.)

Brewed by the Boston Beer Company under the Samuel Adams brand -- the latter named after one of the founding fathers of the U.S. -- Utopias is about as far away as you possibly can get from the average beer drinking experience.

"It is not only the strongest and most expensive beer in the world," explains Julie Bradford, editor of All About Beer Magazine, "More important, it challenges our understanding of what beer is.

"It is a delicious, complex, balanced beverage, meant to be sipped and savored."

Tom Dalldorf of Celebrator Beer News agrees.

"It redefines the term beer," he says. "It's not for everyone, but connoisseurs of fine wine and cigars should consider this unique beverage among the stellar desert wines and spirits of the world."

As these comments suggest, Utopias is by no means the sort of beer you would knock back in a spit-and-sawdust bar on a Saturday night out with the lads. Taste-wise, indeed, it has been likened more to port or sherry than traditional beer.

"My goal was to raise beer drinkers' expectations," says Master Brewer Jim Koch, 56, founder of The Boston Beer Company and creator of Utopias. "To break the boundaries of what people traditionally think of as beer.

"I wanted to brew something comparable to the finest cognacs and ports in the world, to push fermentation beyond what were considered acceptable limits.

"Everybody thought that you couldn't ferment a beer beyond 13 or 14 percent alcohol. We discovered that if you push fermentation up above 20 percent you encounter an entirely new world of flavors."

A slow evolution

As one of the leading figures in America's high-quality beer movement -- his beers have won more awards at international beer tasting competitions than those from any other brewery in the world -- it is no surprise that for Koch Utopias is as much a labor of love as it is a money-making venture.

The beverage, which is sold in copper-colored bottles shaped like a traditional brewers' kettles, has taken over a decade to develop into its current form.

Jim Koch
Jim Koch comes from a family with six-generations of brewing experience.

"I started brewing a very early form of it back in 1993," explains Koch. "That first incarnation was called Triple Bock. That developed into a beer called Millennium which in turn became Utopias.

"It's been an evolution. The flavors are changing all the time, getting fuller and more complex."

The brewing process for Utopias is a painstaking affair, combining both tradition and innovation.

The basic ingredients are four different varieties of the very finest Bavarian hops -- Saaz, Spalt Spalter, Hallertau Mittelfruh and Tettnang Tettnanger -- all hand selected by Koch on his annual visit to Germany.

To these are added several different types of malt and a strain of yeast normally reserved for the production of champagne.

What really gives Utopias it's unique flavor, however, is the way the beverage is aged in oak barrels that have previously been used to store whiskey, bourbon, port and cognac. This process can take anything up to 12 years.

An elixir of toffee

So what exactly is that taste?

"Big floral, perfume bouquet with fruity aromas of passion fruit, peach and pear," says Terry Solomon of the Ale and Lager Examiner.

"Sweet vanilla, butter and mild candy spices combining into an elixir of toffee with a mouth-feel like Drambuie," says U.S. food and drink critic Chris Sherman.

"Madeira-like with a rich vanilla and fig nose, obvious alcohol, and a richly warming mouth feel," says Thomas Dalldorf.

"You can't really describe it," says Jim Koch, "Not in words. It is just beyond anything you've ever imagined or tasted. To appreciate it you have to try it."

That is easier said than done. Only a few thousand bottles of Utopias are produced each year, and such is the demand among beer enthusiasts that they can change hands for considerably more than the advertised $100.

If you can lay your hands -- or lips -- on a bottle, however, it is an experience that will, according to beer enthusiasts, forever change your perceptions of what beer is or should be.

As one critic put it: "Utopias is to beer what a Rolls Royce is to your average run around. They both get you from A to B, but in a Rolls the journey is just so much more enjoyable."

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