In the beer industry, Jim Koch is a bit of a weirdo. Neither well-paid monkey of Anheuser-Busch nor enterprising Belgian monk, he hovers in some Middle Earth of American microbrewers—all resolutely banded together to protect the craft from watered-down corporate schwag or foreign-import invasions. Koch’s second-tier status only seems to energize him—the founder of The Boston Beer Company tastes every batch of Sam Adams before it leaves his factory, dunks himself in stale beer at festivals to prove his devotion to freshness, and since 1993, has tried to market some of his beer as a fancy after-dinner drink, on par with the finest sherry.
His latest contribution is the 2005 reissue of Sam Adams Utopias, a 50-proof beverage the Guinness World Records deems the strongest beer in existence. It is grouped under the realm of extreme beers, a movement Koch himself started that indulges in the “lunatic fringe”—brews characterized not only by their high-alcohol content, but also by their ability to test the boundaries of what is considered beer. “I realized that the limitations that brewers had always accepted—the alcohol level in beer, and hence, the fermentation character, could be broken. It was kind of like realizing you could break the sound barrier—you’re in a different world when you get on the other side.” It all sounds a bit Twilight Zone, but Koch goes on to explain: “You can start to create an entirely new set of flavors, because the yeast is now in an environment it’s never been before; it’s more highly stressed. And as you go further, as you get higher and higher alcohol levels, you begin to have to deal with the alcohol itself as a significant flavor component.”
Of course, the record that Koch keeps breaking is his own. Before Utopias, the strongest extreme beer had been Sam Adams Millennium, and prior to that, Sam Adams Triple Bock. Like its predecessors, Utopias is a noncarbonated brew to be served at room temperature; aged in oak-barrel casks, it has a rich and complex malt flavor with a bit of vanilla, oak, and caramel. Resolutely convinced Utopias can stand up to posh after-dinner spirits, Koch has been pitting Utopias against those options in blind taste tests—and many experts can’t tell the difference. “I’m trying to give people an idea that’s hard to accept in some ways, that’s counterintuitive and countercultural: the idea that great beer is as good as great wine, great cognac, great brandy. The only way I know how to do it is get it in front of them and have them taste it.”
Of course, pairing up with a chi-chi Upper East Side restaurant is another way of selling beer as upscale liquor: The brewmaster recently enlisted irreverent chef David Burke to create a dessert for the davidburke & donatella menu, a Jell-O shot spiked with Utopia beer rather than vodka. Given Utopia’s suggested retail price of $100 per bottle (but select bars have it by the glass), the restaurant’s sommelier offered up this unofficial title: world’s most expensive Jell-O shot.