Boston brewer pushes new limits on extreme beer

BOSTON - November 30, 2009

The maker of Samuel Adams beer has released an updated version of its biennial beer Utopias - now the highest alcohol content beer on the market. At 27 percent alcohol by volume and $150 a bottle, the limited release of the brandy-colored Utopias comes as more brewers take advantage of improvements in science to boost potency and enhance taste.

"Just part of trying to push the envelope," said Jim Koch, founder and owner of the Boston Beer Co. the maker of Sam Adams. "I'm pushing it beyond what the laws of these 13 states ever contemplated when they passed those laws decades ago."

Since the 1990s, craft brewers like the Boston Beer Co. and the Delaware-based Dogfish Head have produced a number of "extreme beers" that challenge old notions of beer and the decades-old laws that have governed them.

By law, these specialty drinks still are classified as beer when they are based on fermented grain. And despite the hefty prices of the high-scale beer, brewers still have to pay the required nickel deposit on bottles.

Paul Gatza, director of the national Brewers Association based in Boulder, Colo., said new yeast research allowed brewers to experiment with the emerging science that pushed the traditional cap of 14 percent alcohol by volume for beer.

"As a result, these new beers, like Utopias, balance sweetness, higher alcohol content and more ingredients," Gatza said.

A few states also have moved to adapt their laws to allow for the emerging craft brew market. For example, Alabama and West Virginia recently passed laws to allow higher alcohol content in beer. Lawmakers in Iowa and Mississippi are considering similar legislation.

Gatza said consumers are also pushing for the changes.

That's what sparked a brew battle between the Boston Brewing Co. and Dogfish Head.

In 1993, Koch set a new bar by creating Triple Bock, a beverage with 17.5 percent alcohol by volume. In the early 2000s, Dogfish Head responded with beverages of their own that went to 22 percent.

But the latest Utopias alcohol volume gives Koch and Boston Beer Co. the clear title of having the strongest beer, said Sam Calagione, president and founder of Dogfish Head. "I must bow before him for Utopias," Calagione said. "I don't think we'll be brewing a beer that strong for a while."

Utopias has reached its unique strength through a 15-year aging process in barrels at the Boston Beer Co.'s brewery in Boston. It's aged and finished in wooden containers like Scotch whisky barrels and sherry casks. The drink's yeast strains are regularly used in making malts and champagne.

A quick sip unveils a cognac-like hit combined with vanilla, honey, and maple flavors.

The long production cycle is what limits its availability to once every two years. This holiday season, for example, Koch is only releasing 10,000 bottles with the suggested retail price of $150 apiece.

"It's like making 21-year-old Scotch," Koch said. "Yeah, you can make more. You just can't have it for 21 years."

The drink comes in a ceramic-and-copper bottle that resembles a tiny brew kettle. Thirteen states prohibit its sale because its alcohol content exceeds the legal limit for beer: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington.

Chuck Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the group in general doesn't have a problem with extreme brands of beer like Utopias. However, he hopes the beverage's higher alcohol content is properly labeled and that it isn't marketed to minors.

"Right now, we're reserving judgment," Hurley said.

Koch said the Boston Beer Co. is presenting Utopias as an exclusive beer for sophisticated drinkers that should be consumed like champagne. He said it's not a beer for the weekend football game or for a regular dinner.

He would not speculate whether he would try to get more extreme with future brews, but noted that no one ever thought there would be an "insane brewer" who would be making such a strong Utopias.

"We'll see," he said.

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