Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer, took some time to talk with us about the history and inspiration behind their ABV behemoths Millennium and Utopias, giving us some insight into their production and plans for the future.
CB&B: What was the inspiration for Millennium? What were you hoping to achieve?
JK: The motivation was kind of a Star Trek thing—to take beer where no beer had gone before. Since I first brewed Boston Lager in my kitchen in 1984, one of my goals has been to stretch the boundaries and challenge the notion of what beer can be. We brought out our first extreme beer in 1994, when we released Triple Bock, which at the time was the world’s strongest beer at 18 percent ABV. Triple Bock was the inspiration for Millennium, a once-in-a-lifetime beer brewed to commemorate the third millennium.
We wanted to celebrate the millennium with a beer just as exciting as the Y2K milestone. Millennium had a 21 percent ABV and was packaged in cobalt blue bottles encased in a cherry wood box. We brewed just enough beer for about 3,000 bottles, making it the most limited beer we had ever sold at that time. We numbered each bottle, and I signed each one. It took all day just to sign all the bottles.
CB&B: Was Millennium a blended beer (including Triple Bock)? Or was all “new” beer used?
JK: We tried twenty-six different trial fermentations, seven different types of yeast, and some pretty crazy brewing techniques to create Millennium. Yet it all came down to the basics in the end: Malted barley and Noble hops along with some maple syrup and two unorthodox yeasts are what brought this unique beer to life. The beer spent four weeks in primary fermentation and was then aged in bourbon barrels for a year. A touch of five-year-old Triple Bock was added to the brew before bottling for a final note of complexity.
CB&B: Have you drunk a Millennium recently? If so, what developments did you observe? Would you age it further?
JK: It’s always fun to taste saved bottles that have been aging in the barrel room and see how much they have changed over time. We have only a few bottles left of Millennium, which we save for special occasions at the brewery. The last time we shared Millennium, it had more sherry-like notes and some sweet, acetic balsamic notes compared to its original malt and oak flavors with notes of vanilla, butterscotch, and cinnamon.
CB&B: When you were first designing Utopias, why did you decide to push the ABV further than Millennium?
JK: Why not keep pushing? We wanted to make an even more complex, otherworldly beer. At a time when light beers were growing in popularity, we wanted to continue to explore the other end of the beer spectrum, so we introduced Utopias MMII in 2002.
CB&B: When you blend Utopias to go in to the barrel for the final rest, about what percentage is “fresh” beer and how much is from the vintage barrel library?
JK: We begin with a “fresh” batch of Utopias for each vintage and then blend in previous vintages to create the final blend of beer. Some of the previous vintages are more than twenty-one years old—old enough to drink themselves—which is pretty cool. Aging the beer over a longer period of time accentuates distinct vanilla notes and creates aromas of ginger and cinnamon.
Throughout the year, Utopias is transferred among barrels, many of which have housed spirits and previous batches of Utopias. Each barrel used in the Utopias barrel-aging process imparts unique characteristics to the final brew to make each vintage of Utopias distinct.
For Utopias, we also use a blend of beer “finished” in a variety of barrels. “Finishing” is a creative way for the brewers to impart flavor from a variety of barrels before the beer is bottled, and this final step of the process lasts several months before the beer is bottled. Finishing imparts flavors ranging from fruit-like cherry and raisin to chocolate, leather, and oak to create a profile reminiscent of a rich vintage port, fine cognac, or aged sherry.
CB&B: Who participates in the blending decisions in Utopias? How does the blending process work?
JK: We have a lot of fun in the blending process, and it takes a team of us to create the final Utopias. We taste test different barrel-aged beer separately, determine which flavor profiles we really enjoy, and then blend different percentages until we nail down the perfect blend. We taste test the aging beer at several different times throughout the process, and we also determine which finishing barrels will create an added layer of complexity to the beer we’ve blended. For example, for our tenth anniversary Utopias, we finished the beer in rum barrels to add a layer of spiciness, and for our 2015 release, we used White Carcavelos wine barrels to bring out off-dry and nutty aromas and flavors in the beer.
_CB&B: Do you feel Utopias develops further in the bottle? Is it worthwhile for consumers to age them longer? _
JK: Because of its complexity and alcohol content, Utopias ages extremely well and is meant to be savored for years to come. The bottle can be opened and re-sealed and is best served as a two-ounce pour in a snifter glass. To celebrate our thirtieth anniversary, we tasted all vintages of Utopias, which needless to say was an intense experience.
CB&B: Triple Bock led to Millennium, which led to Utopias. Any thoughts on whether Utopias will lead to something else?
JK: We are always thinking about what’s next and how we can go where no brewer has gone before. When we first started Triple Bock, we could not predict it would lead us to Utopias. Utopias has provided and, no doubt, will provide inspiration for future brews. Since the first release of Utopias more than twenty years ago, we’ve experimented with blending and aging in our barrel room and have released beers such as Tetravis, American Kriek, New World, Stony Brook Red, and Thirteenth Hour as part of our Barrel Room Collection beers. And most recently, we’ve brewed a limited release of our Sam Adams Kosmic Mother Funk Grand Cru, which is the backbone of all of our Barrel Room Collection beers.