An Enlightening Moment with Jim Koch and Sam Adams 10th Anniversary Utopias

When it comes to innovation in American craft brewing, it’d be hard to deny Sam Adams the head seat at the table. I know that many of you hard core craft beer enthusiasts will disagree with me and spit out a handful of other brewers like Russian River or Dogfish or Stone or Sierra or Founders, and on and on. And, I’m not saying that there aren’t dozens of amazingly talented and innovative craft brewers in America. There’s no doubt that there are. But what I am saying is that Jim Koch and Sam Adams have done amazing things for the craft beer industry in America in the nearly 30 years that they have been brewing beer. And without Jim, the craft beer industry in America would not be where it’s at.

Need one good example? I’ve got two words for you: barrel aging.

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A couple weeks ago I received the huge privilege of spending an evening with Jim Koch and a few other beer journalists tasting the newest 10th Anniversary Utopias at the Sam Adams brewery in Jamaica Plain. To say that this was perhaps the coolest drinking experience of my life may be an understatement. Jim’s perspective on the evolution and future of craft brewing is unmatched and being able to experience this truly remarkable beer in this intimate setting was nothing short of awesome.

Instead of boring you with my thoughts on the new Utopias, however (which, by the way, is terrific), I wanted to give you a taste of the conversation that accompanied many glasses of 10th Anniversary Utopias. Students, the Jim Koch class is now in session.

On history, realization and Utopias.
I started in 1984. I think Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada) and I are the last two people from those days who are still actively involved in craft brewing. One of the hallmarks of craft brewing at the beginning was basically that what we were doing was recreating old world styles of beer – pale ales, stouts, porters, Octoberfests, bocks, double bocks – that was pretty much all that was done with craft brewing. This went into the early 1990’s and at that point it was actually easy to bring out a new beer because you just looked in the books of what they brewed in Europe and did that. Around that time I started to wonder if there was another approach.

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The thing that most interested me at that point was that in 10,000 years of brewing history nobody had ever made a beer over 14% alcohol. That was kind of this sound barrier for beer and I thought, hmm, I think I see a pathway to get there. So, we set out on that pathway and got to 18% alcohol, but it was hot, boozy – so we started thinking about how to take the heat down from this beer. And I didn’t really have an idea until it dawned on me, wait a minute, I don’t need to solve this problem – a bunch of backwoodsmen from Kentucky have already solved this for me by charring the inside of oak barrels and aging their liquid in those barrels.

The final piece of the equation was to go to the BATF and get their approval to do this with beer. Long story short, we went in on a good day and they said, “that sounds okay to me.” Great, thank you very much. We’re going to do this. So I started doing it. Barrel one from the barrel aging movement is still in the corner over there (at the Sam Adams brewery) and it still has Triple Bock in it from 1992. It’s one of the important flavor elements in Utopias.

Utopias is made completely differently than normal beer. It is basically put together from a library of barrels that we have here and at the brewery in Ohio and we can make one at any given moment. We build it on these layers of different barrels going back to 1992, including Millennium, including earlier Utopias and we try to add something new to it each year. This year we have some Utopias aged in rum barrels, and so there’s a little more fig, cocoa, and other rum notes – it’s all of these different layers and it begins with Triple Bock. It’s actually only about 1% Triple Bock but it’s a different flavor at 1.25% Triple Bock and at .75%. It’s one of the biggest flavor elements.

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On the importance of these kind of projects to Sam Adams.
They’re at the core of what we do. You’ve got to remember, Utopias was an extreme beer when it came out. It didn’t sell much. It took a while to make money. I’m used to that. It all comes down to this larger project, if you will, that in some ways all craft brewers are involved with which is changing the way Americans think about their own beer. Because when I started everyone thought American beer had to be watery and cheap, even crummy. Now I think we’ve changed that and I think the bigger challenge that we’re all involved in is creating a beer culture here in the US that results in beer being treated with the same respect and dignity that wine is accorded.

Wine hasn’t always been treated the way it is today. When I first came of legal drinking age the largest selling wine was Thunderbird. What’s the word? Thunderbird. What’s the price? 20 twice. (because it was 40 cents a bottle). How’s it sold? Nice and cold. That was wine. If you wanted something good you’d get like Mateus, or Lancers, or something you could make a lamp out of. That was wine. And in the 40-some years since, people’s perceptions of wine is utterly changed and there’s a wine culture in the US. People think about wine in a completely different way. All of the growth is with good wines. 35 years ago the wine in the US was called GAMIT. And most of the wine came from GAMIT – Gallo, Almaden, Mason, Inglenook and Taylor. They were the Bud, Miller, Coors of wine. And look at where we are today.

So this greater project that craft brewers I think are involved in and the path that we’re going down is what happened in wine where people’s palate’s are upgraded, the vintners become recognized as some of the best in the world, and it gets treated with more respect. Your generation (the Gen X and Y’ers) is adopting craft beer the way my generation – the boomers – adopted wine. And that’s really cool. A lot of these things are about changing people’s perceptions of beer and one way that I know how to do that is to make something that just shocks you. Where you go, “holy shit, that’s beer?” And that was the case with Sam Adams 28 years ago. It was like holy shit that’s American beer? I never knew American beer could taste like that. That was radical. This was an extreme beer. In the same way that Utopias is an extreme beer today.

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On the alcohol percentage of Utopias.
We could do 40, 50% tomorrow. You just get an ice cream freezer, put dry ice in it and churn it for about an hour or two and you’ll freeze about 2/3 of the water out of it. So we would end up with about 60% alcohol. (laughs). Honestly, we can’t get much higher than where we’re at. We’re at a wall. It was about 28% last time, 29% this time with the new release of Utopias. I think the highest alcohol we have in any barrel is about 33%. So we actually blend down because this is not about hitting an ABV number, it’s about flavor.

The Triple Bock is about 20%. It’s not going much higher. The yeast is done – short of some breakthrough in the genetic makeup. We need to find a yeast that has a noticeably thicker cell wall. That’s essentially what’s going on. The yeast, through natural selection, is having thicker and thicker cell walls. The alcohol is a poison for the yeast. Normal yeast pushes back in at about 12% and it just kills the yeast. So slowly over these 28 years we’ve been thickening the cell walls. To get to 20% wasn’t too hard. The last ten points have been exceedingly slow.

On tasting Utopias.
It’s amazing to me how little liquid you need to put on your palate, it just explodes and fills your head with flavor.

(Coincidentally, I couldn’t agree more. This stuff is a flavor bomb of awesomeness that just absolutely explodes your taste buds.)

…and on first tasting Utopias.
Well, we kept tasting it but I remember when we got to like 16%, 17% alcohol, when it actually started to settle out… that was a very cool moment to think wow, in 10,000 years of brewing history nobody has ever tasted these flavors. Because nobody has ever pushed yeast metabolism this far. For 10,000 years brewers have been making beer and nobody has tasted this. That’s really awesome. That’s a cool thing with each release of Utopias.

On the “Vision” of Utopias
At the end of the day, it’s about when you say, “this is a pleasure to drink.” That to me is the final hurdle. We’ve made a lot of stuff that’s interesting, experiments with wood aging have given us a lot of interesting stuff. But, a pleasure to drink and interesting are often incompatible. My vision for Utopias was something in between a vintage port, a fine Cognac and an old Sherry. This is the flavor space that I want Utopias to be in. And we constantly have to keep figuring out how to transform the ferocious ethanol attack that you’d get in a Cognac, into a smooth, sweet, warming fire.

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On the background behind the design of the 10th anniversary bottle.
This is about roots. It’s about the 20 years of doing this and its roots all the way back to the original barrels. That’s the cool part. It’s like a tree that’s 20 years old. It took 20 years to get here.

On Barrel Aging
It was slow at first. It took 5, 6, 7 years before it took off, but it’s very cool now. There are people who are really good at it. It’s interesting to see it become one of the foundational elements of craft brewing today. It’s interesting to me, everyone thinks it has been around for ever – haven’t people been aging beer in whiskey barrels forever? No. I mean, I know – when I went to the BATF they were like, “You want to do what??” It’s fun for me because there are some people who I consider friends who are really doing some cool things. Rob Tod (Alagash), Tomme Arthur (Port Brewing), Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River), they’re doing cool things too and I learn from them. That’s the neat thing about craft brewing. Nobody is out there totally alone. We’re all building on what each other has done.

On 100 years looking back at Sam Adams.
I’d want a brewer to look back and say “Boy, I wish I had been making beer at Sam Adams then. That was like the best time ever to be a brewer.” And I think it’s actually true. Craft brewing in the US is in a once in ten millennium moment. There has been more innovation in craft brewing in the last 15-20 years in the US than in the last 10,000 years.

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A hearty and massive thanks goes out to Michelle at Sam Adams for coordinating this truly remarkable experience. And, of course, a huge thanks to Jim for his generosity and time.

And one final note from me on the 10th Anniversary Utopias. As I briefly mentioned above, this year’s release is superb. Compared to last year’s release, it has less of the salty, nutty and Sherry notes and more rounded dried fruit and sweet notes that the rum-aged Utopias brings in. I was a big fan of the 2011 release, but I’m an even bigger fan of the 2012. It’s not cheap (approximately $200 retail), but for what it is, I think it’s definitely worth the spend.

 

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  • http://twitter.com/maitlandlewis Ben Maitland-Lewis

    Wow, Terry. This is amazing! Super well written and an absolutely amazing experience that must have been!! The big Jim himself!

    • http://drinkinsider.com Drink Insider

      Thanks Ben!

  • Nitch Richardson

    God lord, I am simply jealous from my toes up! Sounds like an experience in a life time, you lucky dog you! I felt like I was sitting at the table with you two, all be it with a much less awesome beer in my hand. I’ll most likely never get to try Utopias, but it can be christmas listed anyway, eh ^.^ THANK YOU!

    • http://drinkinsider.com Drink Insider

      Nitch – thanks for the comment! It certainly was an incredible experience. Definitely put this on your christmas list. It’s a very special beer.