A beer festival conjures up images of inebriated 20-somethings wearing six-pack boxes as hats and generally behaving boorishly. But as such events go, The Boston Beer Co.’s soiree during Toronto Beer Week in mid-September had very little, if any, of that. Dubbed “For the Love of Beer” and held at 99 Gallery, an event space that doubles as a gym in the trendy West Queen West area, younger folks clad in the city’s hip uniform of dark jeans and black tops (even the band was dressed in all black) were throwing the beer down — but not the way Blue Jays fans do.
On draft or in bottles was an array of brews such as Samuel Adams Rebel IPA, Octoberfest and the near-ubiquitous Boston Lager, the flagship responsible for making Boston Beer the largest craft brewer on the continent. If chai tea was more your jam, there was a Chai Saison on tap that brought a lot of cinnamon and nutmeg to the party; if something smokier to match your eyeliner was needed, perhaps Cinder Blonde Gratzer hit the spot.
One beer was conspicuously missing from the free-flowing taps — Utopias — and for good reason. A 710-ml bottle of this 28 per cent alcohol nectar will set you back $112.25 at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the crown corporation that controls liquor sales in the province. Let’s repeat that: one beer, $112.25. And that’s cheaper than it can be bought anywhere else, even in the U.S. In Ohio, for example, that same bottle costs about US$200 now that the state has allowed high-alcohol beers to be sold.
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Earlier that day, however, Boston Beer founder and brewer Jim Koch led a tutored tasting at the LCBO’s swanky Summerhill location that included one-ounce sips of all the same beers that were available at 99 Gallery with the exception that Utopias was the crowning glory. The tutorial’s $75 cost covered the seven ounces of beer, but gave patrons the option of buying one of just 350 bottles of Utopias that the LCBO sold through its stores this year (another 350 were sold through its Vintages website five days later and quickly sold out).
The buzz about Utopias — and you will get a buzz if you drink the whole bottle in one sitting, something that is not advised — is more than just a one-off sideshow. The first Utopias was released in 2002, but it contains beer that is even older than that. The 2015 vintage that was available at the LCBO this fall has beer that had been aging for 22 years — now 23 years, given that it’s already spent a year in the bottle. Many will let it age even more, adding further value on the resale market. For example, a 2003 vintage of Utopias was available on eBay Canada in October for $1,088.42.
Why so expensive? “Effectively, it’s the same thing that causes wine to be so expensive,” says world-renowned beer expert Stephen Beaumont. “There’s a rarity factor and there’s an age factor.” For one thing, unlike just about every other beer, Utopias is not a single beer, but a blend of beers and each has its own characteristics. Some have been aged in wooden bourbon barrels, some in brandy barrels, some in wine barrels, and then they are all put together as one.
“I’ve tasted this beer since its very first incarnation and most, certainly not all, but most of the different versions since then,” Beaumont adds. “And it just keeps getting better and more interesting.” In the Pocket Beer Guide 2015: The World’s Best Craft and Traditional Beers, Beaumont and co-author Tim Webb give Utopias their highest rating: four stars.
This is one of those beers that is technically impossible
Adding to the rarity factor is that nobody outside the brewery can figure out how Utopias can continue to age when its 28 per cent alcohol should kill off the yeast that keeps beer fermenting. “This is one of those beers that is technically impossible,” Beaumont says. And yet it exists. One theory is that the brewer adds yeast and sugar in the form of maple syrup throughout the aging process to generate higher levels of alcohol, but that’s entirely speculation.
Aside from the lack of technical know-how, another reason more beers like Utopias aren’t available is that they simply don’t make any money for the brewer, even at a price point well above $100, given the time and expertise it takes and the warehouse space that has to be set aside.
“This is a marketing exercise, it’s not about making money for Sam,” says Beaumont, whose latest collaboration with Webb, the second edition of the World Atlas of Beer: The Essential Guide to the Beers of the World, was published in September. But the strategy of generating publicity by making one-offs and seasonals, while making money off core brands, has become quite prevalent in the industry thanks to Boston Beer’s success with it.
As for those lucky enough to get their hands on a 2015 Utopias, you could, as Beaumont did with the 2010 vintage, experiment by exposing it to air now and then, giving it a shake or exposing it to different temperatures, and then every so often taking a sip to see how it has changed. Or you could store it for 10 years and make some extra bread on eBay.