Some experiences deserve more than a single column.
Last week, I shared with you excerpts from the interview I conducted with Jim Koch at the Samuel Adams brewery in the West End a few weeks ago. The 15 minute interview with Koch was certainly a highlight of the afternoon experience, but it was not the highlight. Not for me.
The highlight: Koch and several of his adjutants just finished taking a group of us media types on an in-depth tour of the brewery. We stand in a large room surrounded by gargantuan oak barrels called foeders (pronounce that first syllable as “food” and you have it). In the middle of the room is a table, on which rest two ornate bottles that appear to be gold from a distance, along with about two dozen glasses to taste.
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This is Willy Wonka moment I waited. It’s Utopias.
“I wanted you to have the chance to taste the whimsical fringe of brewing,” Koch told us. “It will destroy your idea of what beer can be.”
The sale of Utopias was illegal in Ohio until just a few years ago when the state-imposed 12% ABV limit on beer was lifted. At 28% ABV, Utopias is stronger than Ohio grocery store liquor. Boston Beer Company releases approximately 10,000 bottles of Utopias every odd year.
It sells for $250 a bottle, and those 10,000 bottles are disappearing almost as fast as they appear in bottle stores across the country. The reason Utopias is in such high demand despite the price is the fact that there simply isn’t a beer like this made anywhere. New batches of Utopias are blended with brews from previous years; some of this liquid dates back to 1992, when Sam Adams Triple Bock set brewing industry records with its 18% ABV. Koch jokes that it’s the only beer old enough to drink on its own.
“It’s like you’ve never had a beer,” Koch said. “The flavor profile is basically somewhere between vintage port, aged cognac or fine sherry. At this level of alcohol, the carbonation has long since fled the scene, scared and scared.”
That first sip from the glass of beer Koch served me was magical. It was exactly as he had said. I taste caramel and black cherry. I detect honey and vanilla and maple. I am in paradise.
But why do that? For Koch, it’s not just a mountain he had to climb because it was there. It’s proof that beer doesn’t have to be bubbly and yellow. It doesn’t have to taste a certain way. Beer can be so much more than most of us can imagine. Our definition of beer is too narrow, he said.
And here’s the best part: you don’t have to wait for the biennial release of a $250 bottle to see how crazy a different beer can be in your understanding. The beer can taste like a good sherry, of course. But he can also taste sangria or a mimosa or a slice of German chocolate cake. Beer doesn’t come in just one color or just one flavor. It can look, smell and taste just about anything.
If you think you don’t like beer, that’s okay. But chances are you haven’t found a beer that speaks to you. And fortunately, we have a whole bunch of great breweries here in Cincinnati that challenge our definition of beer and expand our minds with each new experience.
The problem probably isn’t that you like beer at all. You may not have found the one you like.
what’s in my drink
Sam Adams Queen City Crown. Brewed in collaboration with Everything Cincy, Queen City Crown is a cream ale brewed with honey and aged with peaches. I’m not normally a fan of the flavor of peaches, but this was really well done. Fishing is by no means overdone. Instead, Queen City Crown joins my growing list of Sam Adams favorites (although Cherry Wheat still tops).
Queen City Crown is available on draft and in cans at Samuel Adams Cincinnati Bar (1727 Logan St.).
I am eager to HighGrain Brewing Third Anniversary Partyscheduled for Saturday, June 4 between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. The celebration will take place in the parking lot of the Silverton Brewery (6860 Plainfield Road) and will feature live music, food trucks, vendors and limited beer releases.