Jim Koch, Sam Adams and Utopias

IMG_3113Jim Koch doesn’t look like a man whose job title reads co-founder and brewer of the biggest American craft brewery. He reminds me more of a cross between Mister Rogers and Don Knotts – a friendly yet unassuming man who wears his pants a little too high and not someone you would associate with a beer company. Yet having Koch act as brand ambassador has obviously worked for just this reason. His passion for beer is earnest and there is an aura of honesty around him that can’t be manufactured. I don’t know whose idea it was to market the innocence of this middle aged white guy, but it worked perfectly. Jim Koch is a man you instinctively trust, which is basically what people do whenever they go out to buy a Sam Adams beer.

Behind this exterior there is a very smart man, which shouldn’t be a surprise (after all, he did graduate from Harvard). I was part of a privileged group of media, LCBO employees and some Sam Adams folks that were invited to attend a small tasting of Sam Adams beers before the ticketed public tasting. Jim spent most of the time talking about beer, the history of Sam Adams and the creation of Utopias, impressing everyone in the room with his wealth of knowledge about all aspects of beer. (Everyone in the room was instantly smitten when Koch was handed his first bottle of beer and responded, “I was afraid I was going to have to do this sober.”) Koch was especially knowledgeable on the science of brewing and shed some insight into how science can help Sam Adams select the best hops for their beers.

Sam Adams and the Boston Beer Company are in a unique position within the American craft beer world. With 1% of the American beer market, they are the largest craft brewer in the States. Most of their production is done in two breweries, one in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania. They brew enough of the Boston Lager that there is a signature malt made only for them. It is a publicly traded company. The definition of a craft brewery from the Brewer’s Association had to be amended because Sam Adams was going to go over the production limit. For these reasons it is hard to think of them as small, at least for a craft brewer. I don’t want to say they’re not craft, but they straddle a fine line.

But then they make a beer like Utopias, which Koch described as a labour of love more than a money maker. The origins of the Utopias go back to the Triple Bock, which was described as the original extreme beer (it originally came out in 1994 at 18%). Some of that beer went into used spirit barrels and a little bit still goes into every batch of Utopias. At 29% ABV this year (previously 27%), the Utopias is more of a liqueur than a beer, though it has not undergone any freeze-distillation that many other extreme beers use to reach their high ABVs. Blending is done from beer that has been aged in bourbon, Port and rum casks to create a deliciously smooth sipper with just enough alcoholic heat to remind you of its potency.

The Utopias went on sale on Friday morning and sold out a couple of hours, which was no surprise. Sorry to anyone just getting the news now, but you missed out. That being said, it is a beer I have now tried twice and is not something I would be quick to buy. I think the $115 price tag is justified, but the rational side of my brain always seems to win out whenever the Utopias goes on sale. Odds are in favour of the Utopias going on sale through the LCBO in 2014, so anyone wanting a bottle next year should starting putting away $10 a month.

There were three beers in the tasting that preceded the Utopias. The Spring Lager (currently available at Summerhill and some other LCBOs) was a beautiful showcase of Noble hops (specifically the Tettnang Tettnanger – this is a single hop lager). The hops and touch of honey malt reminded me of a lemon square. The Boston Lager was, well, the Boston Lager. Finally, the Latitude 48 IPA was a weird mashup of American, German and British hops that just didn’t come together in a pleasant way to my palate. Mixing earthy and bright hops in the same beer just muddled the flavour.

Being able to hear Koch talk while drinking a glass of Utopias was an absolute pleasure. His years of experience talking to groups and being a spokesperson are evident in his smooth delivery, yet he somehow still seems energized by telling the same stories repeatedly. Sam Adams makes a wide range of beers, from the fantastic to the terrible (anyone care to defend the Cherry Wheat?), but they have been leaders of the craft beer revolution and will likely continue to be for a long time.

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