On beer frontier, sipping complex brews that defy convention

March 10, 2002|By Rob Kasper

The other night, I treated myself to an after-dinner drink. It was a dark, rich beverage poured from a handsome decanter. It reminded me of one of my favorite after-dinner libations, vintage port.

What I was sipping however, was an after-dinner beer. It was Sam Adams Utopias MMII, brewed by the Boston Beer Co. It is the latest example of the increasingly complex and unconventional bottled beers made by a few craft brewers that are being distributed nationally.

These are not mass-market beverages. Indeed, the most popular beers in America are light and simple brews easily quaffed at any time of day. But at the other end of spectrum, even beyond the pale ales of the microbrewers is the darker, quirkier side of brewing.

Jim Koch, head of Sam Adams, likens his Utopias to cognac, suggesting that it be served two ounces at time, at room temperature. The comparison is apt. The beer was aged for a year in port, scotch and cognac barrels. It is not carbonated. While most beer is about 5 per cent alcohol by volume, this is 24 per cent, a level that, according to Koch, makes it the strongest beer in the world. Moreover, its price -- the 24-ounce kettle-shaped vessel I saw last weekend in a Baltimore liquor store sported a $135 price tag -- might make it the most expensive beer in the world.

When I tasted a sample, I fell in love with it. It had a pleasing, nutty aroma, a smooth combination of malt and grape flavors, and a pleasing, faintly sweet finish. One glass and I was ready to fade gently into the sweet night. I could get hooked on this stuff, if I could afford it. It is in limited supply, with only 3,000 bottles distributed to stores in about 35 states.

Koch made the beer as "part of the Star Trek impulse ... to go where no beer has gone before," he said in a telephone interview from Boston. "I was trying for a whole new form of alcoholic beverage. This is what microbrewers are supposed to do, to push the envelope. To brew really cool beers."

Another unusual, well-made beer is Midas Touch. It is a brew that King Midas and his buddies used to quaff, some 2,700 years ago. The recipe was reconstructed by molecular archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania Museum who conducted space-age detective work on the residues found in a drinking vessel in the king's tomb.

Midas Touch contains barley, honey, white Muscat grapes and saffron. It is quite good, although the sample I sipped reminded me more of wine than beer.

My appraisal of the brew did not seem to surprise its maker, Sam Calagione, president of Dogfish Craft Brewery in Lewes, Del. "Midas has some characteristics similar to Chardonnay," said Calagione. A bottle of Midas Touch, which has an alcohol level of 9 per cent, looks like a bottle of wine packaged in a 750-milliliter vessel. It sells in the Baltimore area for about $10 a bottle.

"Technically, it is a beer," Calagione said, "because the majority ingredient, barley, is 51 per cent of the mixture." Grapes, he said, compose 25 per cent of the recipe.

Calagione said his beer is sold in 18 states. "We have developed a niche, brewing strong, exotic beers made with nontraditional ingredients," he said. "Rather than getting the Coors Light drinkers, we are probably going to get the people who drink single-malt Scotch, who are familiar with complex flavors."

While the fans of these ultra-beers are not legion, they are loyal, Calagione said. "Every Monday, I get a few messages on the office voice mail. Callers tell me they thought they never would have liked a beer made with grapes and saffron. But they tried, they liked, and now they are converted."

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