December 2018 Archives

Sam Adams Utopias

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Back in the early days of craft beer (we're talking circa 1990 here), small brewers were gaining traction and thus started to test the boundaries of beer. The next couple of decades would lend itself to hops arms races and, more relevant to this post, the competition for most alcoholic beer evar. Believe it or not, one of the opening salvos of this boozy race was Sam Adams' Triple Bock, released in 1994. After playing around with yeast, adjuncts like maple syrup, aging in old spirits barrels, and other manipulations of the fermentation environment, Sam Adams was able to coax a 17.5% ABV beer out of the ether. Ratings for the few releases of this beer are a bit of a mixed bag, with lots of people calling it one of the worst beers of all time due to the way early attempts at high alcohol brewing produced dead yeast cells that lent a distinct "soy sauce"-like flavor to the beer, especially as it ages (and a lot of the reviews you'll find are of long aged bottles that may or may not have been properly stored). Indeed, this is one of the few beers that users of BeerAdvocate would actually write about beyond the standard AATMD tasting notes, with some users waxing poetic about a "beer [that] has been described as with a flavor of 'soy sauce left out in the sun' a texture akin to 'manatee feces' and an aroma simply described as 'do not smell this.'"

Samuel Adams Utopias fancy bottle Samuel Adams Utopias other side of the fancy bottle

Fast forward a few years, and the fine brewers at Sam Adams had gotten much better at coaxing high ABV out of beer without generating the fabled off-flavors that plagued their earlier versions. In 2002, the first release of Utopias happened. Packaged in a swanky copper glazed porcelain bottle made to resemble a copper brew kettle and sporting a $150 price tag, it clocked in at a then-record 24% ABV. Later iterations would top 30%, but the title for highest ABV quickly moved elsewhere, especially as some brewers (notably the Scottish upstarts at Brewdog) started doing ice-distilling to really crank the ABV up into the 40%-60% range. After Utopias, though, Sam Adams thought they'd focus more on flavor rather than just high numbers. Interestingly, each iteration of Utopias apparently has a tiny, solera-like portion of the original Triple Bock included (by now, I'm sure that proportion is miniscule).

Samuel Adams Utopias cap

For a "beer" like this, categorization is a bit tricky. Some have called it a Barleywine, and it does share a certain kinship with that hallowed style (#BiL), but others have simply used the generic American Strong Ale, a catchall designation if ever there was one. None of which really describes what you're about to drink though. The closest thing I can think of is another beer we recently covered here, the experimental Italian barleywine Xyauyù. This is perhaps more due to the completely still nature of the liquid and general flavor family though, as Utopias is pretty clearly doing its own, unique thing.

Samuel Adams Utopias Closeup

I received the 2017 vintage of Utopias as a (particularly generous!) Christmas gift from my parents last year, and, well, when does one crack open a 28% ABV beer? Most of the year passed until I reached by birthday and thought that would have to be good enough to crack open the bottle (it comes with a standard Sam Adams beer cap (see pic above), but there's also a screw top to seal it after you open it - and it's lasted pretty well after my initial taste too, so it's not like you have to drink the whole bottle at once.) It certainly carries a hefty price tag (even when compared to some of the other, more ridiculous alcohol purchases you could make in wine or whisk(e)y) and it's not something I could see myself pursuing regularly, but it might be worth splitting the purchase with a bunch of other folks just for the experience.

Samuel Adams Utopias

Sam Adams Utopias - Pours a very dark auburn amber color with no head whatsoever, but it's got legs, like a fine liquor. Smells amazing, intense, rich maple syrup, caramel, toffee, brown sugar, dark fruit, oak, and vanilla. Taste is super rich, sweet, caramel, maple syrup, toffee, dark fruits, vanilla, lots of booze. It's somewhere between a burley whiskey and a massive barrel-aged beer. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, tons of boozy heat, maybe harsh for a beer, but nowhere near whiskey burn, and if you're used to that sort of thing, it's actually super approachable. I mean, I can't imagine drinking more than, say, 4 ounces in one sitting, but it feels more like a Port wine than a full strength spirit. Overall, huge and complex, this is unlike anything I've ever had before, and it's very nice. A- or A

Beer Nerd Details: 28% ABV bottled (500 ml porcelain). Drank out of a Glencairn glass on 9/14/17. Vintage: 2017. Bottle #: 14515.

Again, at two bills and such a high ABV, it's not exactly an every day beer, but it's a singular and unique experience that should appeal to any beer fan (at least, one that also appreciates big barrel aged beers and whisky, etc...). And yes, I'm way behind on some of my reviews. I shall endeavor to have them all sewn up by the end of the year.

Bourbon County Brand Fun

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Every year, beer nerds bemoan the influence of big beer and in particular the never-ending succession of breweries that sell out to the great satan, AB Inbev. And every year, a not insignificant portion of same line up hours in advance of the Black Friday release of Goose Island's Bourbon County Brand Stout and associated variants. This year, I heard tales of people getting in line overnight and still getting shut out of some of these variants. To give some context beyond the timing component (which is surely enough of a weird thing by itself), in the Philadelphia area, temperatures were somewhere around 15°F, which is mighty cold. Me? I rolled up right as a local beer distributor was opening, and picked up a full allotment... then popped over to another place on my way home and picked up some more. All told, it took about an hour, and most of that was just because the poor sales clerk at the first place was all alone and had to build up all the mixed cases that people were ordering, so it took a while (it was all very orderly and friendly, but I felt bad for the guy anyway). (Update: Even further context - most of this stuff can still be found on shelves somewhere. Maybe a tad overpriced, but it's out there if you're looking for it.)

Taste The Rainbow

Anyway, this year there were 8 different variants of BCBS, though two are Chicago-only releases. As usual, my favorite is the plain ol, regular BCBS. I suspect Vanilla could give it a run for its money over time, if previous iterations of Vanilla variants are any indication (the 2014 Vanilla Rye was phenomenal as recently as 2017). This year also mucked around with my other favorite release, the Barleywine. In its original incarnation, the Barleywine was phenomenal. After the 2015 infection-plagued batch, they tweaked it (in particular, aging it in fresh bourbon barrels rather than third-use barrels), but it was still great. This year, it's not being offered at all, being replaced by a coffee-dosed version and a new Wheatwine. As we'll see below, this represents an interesting change of pace, but ultimately left me craving the old-school barleywine (especially circa 2013/2014). All the other variants have their place and are interesting spins on the base, but not strictly necessary. Alright, enough preamble, let's get into it:

BCBS Vanilla

Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout - Pretty standard BCBS-like pour, black with not much tan head. Smell is more vanilla forward than previous BCBS takes on vanilla, straddling the line on artificial (I mean, not Funky Buddha levels artificial, but it's more prominent than you'd expect), but either way, it smells nice to me. Taste is still delicious, standard BCBS profile with that added vanilla marshmallow sweetness, quite nice. Mouthfeel is thick and full bodied, rich and sweet without being cloying, well carbonated. Overall, it's not quite as great as VR was the last time I had it, but that one got better with time, and it's quite possible that this will too (of course, it's also possible that this will turn into an artificial vanilla flavored mess - only one way to find out). For now, it's my favorite of the variants this year. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 14.9% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 11/23/18. Bottled on: 05SEP18.

Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine Ale

Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine Ale - Pours a clear pale amber color with just a cap of fizzy off-white head that quickly resolves to a ring around the edge of the glass. Smells sweet, candied fruit, maybe banana and coconut, and lots of boozy bourbon. Taste starts off sweet and rich, maybe some light toffee, and that candied fruit, banana with bourbon and a small amount of oak kicking in as well. Mouthfeel is rich and full bodied, sticky, well carbed, with plenty of boozy heat. Overall, it's a nice change of pace, but it's not really a substitute for the regular barleywine. It feels like a slightly more substantial version of pale-colored BBA beers like Helldorado or Curieux, meaning that it doesn't quite take on the BBA character as well as darker barleywines/stouts, but is still pretty good. I suspect this one could grow on me. B+ or A-

Beer Nerd Details: 15.4% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 11/24/18. Bottled on: 13AUG18.

Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine

Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine - Made with Intelligentsia Finca La Soledad coffee beans - Pours a very dark amber brown color with a cap of short lived off-white head. Smells of... coffee, and that's pretty much it. Maybe some underlying sweetness from the malt or bourbon if you really search for it, but mostly coffee. The taste starts off more like a barleywine, rich caramel and toffee, but then that coffee comes in and starts wreaking havoc. Alright, fine, this might be my coffee ambivalence talking, but in truth, it stands out more here than it does in the stout because at least the stout has complementary flavors. Here it sorta clashes. I mean, it's still tasty and it's not like I would turn down a pour, but coffee and barleywine together just aren't my bag. This represents yet another change of pace that is all well and good, but come on, the regular barleywine was awesome, and this isn't really an improvement. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 15.1% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 11/25/18. Bottled on: 27SEP18.

Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout

Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout - Made with orange zest and cocoa nibs - Pours dark brown, almost black, with almost no head. At first, it smells like a pretty standard BCBS profile, but then that citrus and chocolate really pops, especially as it warms. Taste follows the nose, that orange and chocolate popping nicely, especially as it warms. Indeed, the warmer it gets, the more and more this feels like its own thing. The chocolate and orange really overtake the base at higher temps and I'm not entirely sure that's for the best. Mouthfeel is rich and full bodied, moderate carb, plenty of booze. Overall, its a very nice take on the BCBS base, and I tend to like this more than the other fruited variants I've had... B+

Beer Nerd Details: 15.2% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 12/1/18. Bottled on: 18SEP18.

Bourbon County Brand Bramble Rye Stout

Bourbon County Brand Bramble Rye Stout - Speaking of other fruited variants, this is BCBS with raspberries and blackberries. Pours a similar color with a bit more head than normal. Smell is overwhelmed by jammy fruit. Well, "jammy fruit" is the nice way to say it. You could also say "fruit by the foot with a dash of Robitussin", but that's probably a bit unfair. Taste has a nice rich sweetness to it, but that is again overwhelmed by the fruit, not quite as tussin-heavy as the nose, but still not quite "right". It's like they buried BCBS and a bunch of fruit in Pet Sematary and it came back "wrong". I mean, it's not bad, but I'd rather be drinking regular ol' bcbs. Unquestionably my least favorite of the year, and vying for least favorite variant of all time. B-

Beer Nerd Details: 12.7% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 12/3/18. Bottled on: 24AUG18.

Certainly an interesting crop, and the Chicago exclusives like the Reserve (aged in Elijah Craig barrels) and Proprietor's (I think some sort of chocolate monster this year) sound great. Still, I always fall back on the original BCBS, and drink plenty throughout the year. Here's to hoping they bring back the Barleywine next year. In the meantime, stout season will continue with a local brewery's take on a BBA stout series, though perhaps I'll mix things up a bit and review something different next. Until then, keep watching the skies! Or, uh, this space. You'll probably find more beer talk here, and not the skies. But you should probably watch the skies too.

Dark Wednesday 2018

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Eschewing the Black Friday events most breweries seem to favor for their barrel-aged stout releases, Victory has always done their thing a day before Thanksgiving, which they hath dubbed Dark Wednesday. Once upon a time, this was for Dark Intrigue (basically barrel-aged Storm King and probably the first beer release that I'd ever waited in line for), but the past few years have seen the rise of Java Cask, and variants of same. This year, we were treated to three new variants on the Java Cask theme (plus the original). Alas, none of these variants is the one I've been pining for (i.e. one without coffee, so, like, just "Cask" or maybe "Bourbon Cask", though I'm guessing the TTB would have problems with that, but I think I've made my point.) But then, beggars can't be choosers, and despite my coffee ambivalence, I always look forward to trying a couple of these every year. Let's start with my favorite of the year:

Victory Java Cask Maple

Victory Java Cask Maple - Basically Java Cask aged in Bourbon Barrels that were previously used to age maple syrup (a treatment that appears to be gaining in popularity these days) for 8 months. Also of note, if you click on the picture above to embiggen it, you will see that this bottle was signed by Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski... and some guy named James, who I'm not familiar with but who I'm sure is incredibly important. - Pours a deep, viscous dark brown, almost black color with a finger of tan head. Smells of roasted coffee, chocolate coffee, maybe a hint of that maple (a light touch in the nose), and did I mention coffee. Taste starts off with a rich caramel note, followed by maple syrup, then coffee, finishing on that bourbon, oak, and vanilla jam. Plenty of coffee for this non-coffee drinker, but certainly less than the nose would imply. As it warms both the maple and the coffee come out more, so that is a thing that happened. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, ample but appropriate amounts of carbonation, and a pleasant level of boozy heat. Overall, I like this better than the Rye/Rye Vanilla variants and I might even like it better than regular Java Cask, but my lack of coffee enthusiasm is still a limiting factor. Indeed, I might even like this as much as or more than CBS. I'm the worst, but I still give it a strong A-

Beer Nerd Details: 13% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a tulip glass on 11/21/18. Bottled on 14 Nov 2018.

Victory Java Cask Latte

Victory Java Cask Latte - A DONG offering on Dark Wednesday that is basically a milk stout version of Java Cask that is calibrated at a much lower ABV of 8.3%. The addition of lactose is supposed to make up for the decrease in body. I didn't take formal notes for this one, but I did have two small glasses - one on regular tap and one on nitro. I think I liked the nitro one (pictured above) more, but both feel like imitations of their full-strength big-brothers. This sort of thing has its charms though, and I appreciate being able to sample something without taking in too much alcohol. B

Beer Nerd Details: 8.3% on draft/nitro. Drank out of a... small weizen glass? Whatever you call that thing in the picture. On 11/21/18.

Victory Java Cask Gold

Java Cask Gold - Not sure I'm on board with the whole blonde stout thing, but this is a blonde coffee stout made with lactose, brown sugar, cacao nibs, oats, and dark roast coffee, aged in buffalo trace barrels for 7 months. - Pours a clear, pale orange color with half a finger of off-white head. Smells... a lot like Java Cask. Lots of roasted coffee, coffee, maybe a bit of chocolate, and oh yeah, I almost missed... the coffee. The taste, though, does not feel like a stout. Which I guess makes sense, since it's not. Sweet, but not that deep, a bit of caramel, some coffee, but they're not quite playing together as well here; a heaping helping of bourbon, but not particularly well integrated with the rest of the flavors. I like bourbon and all, but it seems to be overpowering the base. Mouthfeel is medium to full bodied, well carbed, and quite boozy. Overall, an interesting experiment, but a little off-balanced and it never really harmonizes into a great beer... but it's certainly interesting! If a tad disappointing. B-

Beer Nerd Details: 11.8% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter glass on 11/22/18. Bottled on 16 Nov 2018.

So there you have it. The Maple variant is the clear winner of the year, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they cook up for next year (fingers crossed for the non-coffee version!) In the meantime, we've got some actual Black Friday releases that we're going to cover, including tons of variants of Kaedrin favorites, so stay tuned.

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This page is an archive of entries from December 2018 listed from newest to oldest.

November 2018 is the previous archive.

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