Earlier in July, I was back in Boston to help judge the annual Samuel Adams Longshot American Homebrew Contest. And while I was there, I was privileged to take part in a special 30th Anniversary Tasting with Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co. and the Samuel Adams brand.
On the program, the complete Samuel Adams high-alcohol, barrel-aged “extreme beer” series, and with it Koch’s narration of his company’s history of “extreme brewing.”
The tasting progressed from 1994 Triple Bock and 1999 Millennium to a full vertical flight of Utopias, beginning with the first 2002 vintage and ending with the latest 2013 vintage. Finally, there was a wee shot of the “in progress” Samuel Adams Boston Lager Whiskey, which is being produced with Berkshire Mountain Distillery.
Though others may not agree, Koch calls Triple Bock the original extreme beer, and said that the term “extreme brewing” was coined back in 1994, borrowing from the extreme sports movement that evolved into the X Games.
“Craft brewing really began with classic styles that were made in Europe but were no longer made in the U.S.,” Koch said. “It was pale ales, porters and stouts. It was about bringing traditional styles back at very high quality levels. But, in a way, that got boring. And in 1992, we started thinking maybe there was another pathway to inventing new styles of beer.
“All beer styles were originally products of the human imagination. Still, at that point, nobody had ever fermented beer over 14 percent alcohol. The strongest beers in the world, like Samichlaus, were all right around that percentage. It was like a sound barrier for beer.”
Best known as the inventor of light beer, Joe Owades, who was Boston Beer’s brewmaster at the time, helped cook up the method for making Triple Bock, which made it up to 17.5 percent.
“It ended up being something like a Christo art project, in that it had two components,” Koch said. “First was imagining something, and second was figuring out how to make it exist in a world of regulations and practical constraints.”
Considering how common barrel-aging is now, it may be hard to imagine that Koch’s biggest eureka moment came at a Home Depot, while he was shopping and mulling over a way to keep the higher alcohol content in Triple Bock from being perceived as too “hot.”
“It was not a pleasant piece of the flavor profile,” Koch said. “But one day I thought, I don’t need to figure this out. It was already been figured out in Bourbon County Kentucky. They figured out how to take the heat out of their white dog by aging it in charred oak barrels.
“About that time, I was at Home Depot and I noticed that there were used Jack Daniels oak barrels being sold as planters. Wow. It turned out that there were plenty of used barrels to be had. I think I bought them for around $10 a piece from the cooperage in Kentucky. The shipping was more than the barrels.”
Surprisingly, Koch nearly succeeded in patenting the process of aging beer in spirit barrels. But famed beer writer Michael Jackson thought someone in Scotland had done it once before, and the patent was ultimately denied.
Bottles of Triple Bock and Millennium, which came in at 21 percent, are very rare, fetching top dollar on the collectors market. But the next phase of Samuel Adams extreme beer experiments, Utopias, proved to be the favorites of tasting.
At this point, Utopias is a blend of batches, some aged more than 20 years in a variety of woods, including casks from Buffalo Trace distillery. The range of aromas and flavors is impressive, and the alcohol tops out at 29 percent in the 2012 vintage. But the beer, or whatever you wish to call it, is as smooth as a fine port, and every bit as enticing.
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