For a long time, fat cats looking to burn cash and impress friends with their cellar collection did so in the fine-wine scene—specifically at rare-wine auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Skinner, where dropping $5K on a case of Bordeaux is relatively commonplace. So when bottles of Boston Beer’s Millennium made it onto a rare-wine auction list that included some of the world’s finest vintage Burgundies and Châteauneuf du Pape, you could say that more than a few wine lovers’ heads were turned.
Envisioned by Boston Beer Founder Jim Koch as “kind of a Star Trek thing—to take a beer where no beer had gone before,” Millennium is an ultra-strong (21 percent ABV) barleywine that, when released in 1999, blew the lid off of the rollicking nineties “extreme” beer scene. Only 3,000 bottles were produced and given to friends and press or sold to the company’s best accounts. The beer world didn’t know quite how to react to Millennium’s release, with its retail price of $200 and presentation in an elegant wooden case, complete with silk embossed travelling bag.
Yet with time, tasting reviews have revealed a wealth of complexity: fig, raisin, bread pudding, toffee, and chocolate—all delivered with a drinkability that far exceeded everyone’s expectations for such a bruiser. These rave reviews and the beer’s rarity eventually drove the status of Millennium (or MMM as it’s also known) to the epic proportions it now enjoys.
However, while the folks at Boston Beer have been well aware of MMM’s rise in fame, they eschewed the idea of making another batch and instead decided to up the ante. “Why not keep pushing?” asks Koch. “We wanted to make an even more complex otherworldly beer.”
The result of their exceptionally highly set bar? Utopias—a beer whose impressive strength (varying from 24 percent to 29 percent ABV depending on the vintage) is matched only by the esteem with which the beer world holds it. Unlike the rest of the super-high ABV beers that use ice distillation, Utopias is made using incredibly alcohol-tolerant yeast strains that Boston Beer has carefully cultured over the years.
After primary fermentation, the Utopias base beer is aged in an assortment of barrels ranging from the relatively common selections (bourbon, port) to the ultra-rare options (Carcavelos, Armagnac, and Cognac just to name a few). A team of Boston Beer’s finest then samples the barrels (including those from many years earlier) to discover the perfect blend. This blend will end up including a wide variety of vintages that can range from the year of the release all the way back to 1993. The final blend is then aged a second time in barrels before ending up in the copper-hued, kettle-shaped bottle.
Due to its use of an array of aged beers, Utopias is able to attain a wealth of complexities essentially unparalleled in the vintage-beer world. Not only does it showcase delicate flavors that can only be derived from long-term aging (fig, port, leather, tobacco) and from time spent in exotic barrels, but it also offers the drinker decadent notes of vanilla, treacle, and toffee that you find in younger barleywines.
With so much depth, Utopias inspires a list of adjectives that can get a bit exhausting. What’s surprising, though, is that the negative descriptors often used to describe old barleywines, such as cardboard, mold, soy sauce, and a watery body, are nearly nonexistent. Rather, Utopias ages beautifully, avoiding the various pitfalls that high ABV malt monsters often succumb to over time.
The key to Utopias’s long-term maturation success (and MMM’s for that matter) is a number of factors. These crucial components provide it with the ultimate arsenal to fight the tide of time, namely advanced oxidation. In small amounts, oxidation can be a great thing for a barleywine, responsible for flavors of port, dried fruit, and caramel, but given enough time, oxidation will begin to lend stale flavors and cause the body to thin to a diet cola-like body.
For a beer to avoid a high degree of oxidation, it needs to incorporate one or more of the following: high ABV, acidity, and/or smoked malts. Each essentially serves as a “preservative,” slowing the aging of the beer. When it comes to Utopias, the high ABV box is obviously checked, but the fact that Boston Beer also uses cherry wood–smoked and peat-smoked malts often goes unnoticed. The malt’s smoke phenols play an important part in protecting it against the aging process, much like curing of meats through smoking. When combined, the high ABV and smoke phenols create a formidable opposition to the oxidation process.
Being an aged beer, Utopias also inevitably runs into the issue of its body thinning over time. To avoid this detrimental result, Utopias completes primary fermentation with a bevy of residual sugars. This assures that even as the beer starts to thin over the years, plenty of sweetness remains by the time it makes it to the glass. While this foresight was commonplace with the legendary English barleywine brewers of yore, such a technique often falls by the wayside in today’s quick-to-market scene.
Finally, the hops that Boston Beer has chosen to use complete the vintage success of Utopias and MMM. While much of the dreaded stale cardboard-like flavors in an aged beer can result from oxidized malts, they can also occur with the use of high alpha-acid hops. Utopias instead uses German Tettnang and Hallertau, two hops varietals that have an extremely high ratio of beta-to-alpha acids. This ratio allows the beer its necessary bitterness with a minimal amount of stale-hops potential.
With all these pieces working together, Utopias leaves beer cellarers hard-pressed to find a beer that ages as impressively and gracefully as it does. That recently opened bottles of its predecessor, MMM, are drinking better than ever at nearly seventeen years old is a testament to its durability. And unlike many brewers, Koch encourages customers to age his cellar-worthy beer, “Because of its complexity and alcohol content, Utopias ages extremely well and is meant to be savored for years to come.” It’d be no surprise to many to find vintage Utopias gracing a Sotheby’s catalog in the not-too-distant future.
Millennium and Utopias Tasting Notes, 2015
MMM pours a completely still, deep brown. The aroma manages to pack dark chocolate, bourbon, cinnamon, Madeira, and caramel into a single whiff. Each sip of what should be a 21 percent bruiser is surprisingly smooth with a rich gooey body. In addition to the aromatics, each sip brings to mind maple syrup, vanilla, raisins, figs, and a decidedly vinous, vintage port-like quality. Astoundingly complex and enjoyable, this is one of those beers that make you want to build a time machine so you can stock your cellar to the brim.
2012 Utopias (10th Anniversary)
This Utopias is amber-hued with no carbonation whatsoever. The nose is powerfully strong and whiskey-laden, but hints of toffee, toasted marshmallow, and a cornucopia of candied fruits cut through. The first sip is dominated by alcohol, but after the palate adjusts, there is plenty of sherry, fig, caramel, vanilla, molasses, and a hint of toasted hazelnuts. Three years of age has helped integrate the alcohol, making this an immensely enjoyable sipper. It makes you wonder, though, how good this could become with ten (or even more) years of age.
The pour is totally still and amber-colored. Smelling too deeply heats up the nostrils. The aroma has an immense cognac-esqe alcohol presence that overpowers the maple syrup and vanilla notes hiding in the background. The alcohol, while far from hidden, is not nearly as strong as the nose would lead you to believe and is quite drinkable. The taste is sweet and gooey with loads of toffee, honey, port, and cinnamon. While this is a great enjoyable beer now, it will really sing if aged further. I see no reason why this couldn’t go another twenty-five more years.
**PHOTO: MATT GRAVES
Podcast Episode 21: New Belgium's Wood Cellar Director & Blender Lauren Limbach
Jamie is joined by American sour beer pioneer Lauren Limbach of New Belgium Brewing, and they talk about the evolution of New Belgium’s sour beer program, from the earliest days two decades ago to the advances in analytics and technical process today.