Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway).
We’re not going to waste any column space today because I have a very special tasting note that I want to tack onto the end for you all. Holiday and winter seasonal beers are among the most popular of the year, and like everyone else I have my favorites. This close to Christmas, many of the holiday releases have already come and gone, but it never hurts to ask of something’s still available. Now, in no particular order:
Blue Mountain Brewing Company: This Virginia brewery produces three great winter beers: Lights Out marries the spiciness expected in Christmas Ales with a just-malty-enough Old Ale. Blitzen is a classic Belgian-style Noel, with one of the best labels you’ll see out there. I opt for the Long Winter’s Nap; a 10% Blond Bock-style Lager that is as balanced in feel as it is rich in flavor.
Mikkeller: The father of “gypsy brewing” always celebrates the Christmas season with special beers, and this year has been no exception. The 2013 Red/White Christmas and Santa’s Little Helper are great as always; the former being a blend of a Belgian-style Wit and a hoppy Red Ale and the latter Mikkel’s take on a Noel-style Ale. This year we also go Via/To/From, a spicy Porter with a nifty gift tag printed right on the label; and Hoppy Lovin’ Christmas, an IPA made with ginger and pine needles that is very cool and recommended.
Heavy Seas Yule Tide: If you’ve been passing up the Uncharted Waters Series releases from Heavy Seas this past year, fix that mistake in 2014. Heavy Seas closed out this year with Yule Tide, and Imperial Red Ale with ginger and aged in Rum barrels. There are still some bottles of this floating around out there; if you can find one give it a go.
Honorable Mentions: Port City Tidings; Vicaris Winter; Hardywood Gingerbread Stout; Sly Fox Christmas; St. Bernardus Christmas; Dogfish Head Piercing Pils. Now it’s time for a very special…
What I’m Drinking This Week
Thanks to a friend who had opened one at a bottle share and gave me a few ounces, I recently got to try the 2013 edition of Sam Adams Utopias. Produced since 2002, this is the $200 bottle that is notoriously hard to come by and involves blending batches of up to 19-year old cask-aged beer with a final ABV upwards of 28%. If you’ve never tried Utopias before, it is most often compared to fortified wines and spirits like Sherry, Madeira, and Brandy.
Utopias does in fact smell very much like a strong Sherry or Madeira, with the cask-aging of the older beers contributing nuttiness and oxidation. Utopias separates itself on the palate; the dominant flavors are molasses and almond, as you’d expect from something Sherry or Madeira-like, but it’s the structure of the beer that threw me for a loop. The heat from the high ABV level in the 2013 Utopias, usually balanced by an accompanying richness of mouthfeel, is overwhelming—as is its acid level.
This year’s Utopia’s saw Sam Adams add a new element into its blend; Kosmic Mother Funk, a base Sour Ale used to make some of their Barrel Room Collection beers. As much as I love Sour Ales, I think it’s use here actually hurts the Utopias. The intensity of KMF’s acid level is distracting in the beer and comes across as more of a “Hey, look what we did!” move rather than an honest attempt to develop the beer’s complexity and, for lack of a better term, its “chops” as a world-class beverage. That sounds harsh, but given the cost of Utopias it is going to be judged to a higher—possibly unfair—standard.
Fortified wines like Sherry and Madeira have centuries of production history behind them; it is patently unfair to expect a beer just entering its second decade of existence to measure up. But alas, that price…
I don’t want to come off sounding like I disliked the 2013 Utopias. I’m actually somewhat in awe of the commitment Sam Adams is making with Utopias: the investment required in cellaring beers along with the cost of making new batches for it, not to mention the sheer ability involved in brewing it is nothing short of astonishing.
I do believe that someday Utopias will hold a place alongside the best wines and spirits in the world: with time, older and older component beers will contribute complexity and depth of flavor. Even if it’s not quite there yet, the process of its growth is fascinating to observe. That doesn’t make the cost of Utopias worth it, but I really couldn’t afford it even if there were enough bottles out there for me to find one. The bottom line is this: Utopias is a stunning achievement in brewing, and if you can afford to indulge your curiosity by all means have at it. I’ll just be over here with a wonderful bottle of Bual at one-fourth of what that Utopias cost.