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The Nibbler

For beer lovers, utopia has arrived

Published June 18, 2003

[Times photo]
Samuel Adams Utopias is a limited-edition beer with a record alcohol content of 25 percent. It comes in a bottle shaped like a brew kettle.
[Last updated June 24, 2003]

EAST LAKE - The crowd at the Monday night stammtisch at Hoppers knows beer.

Along with his family beer recipes, Austrian brewer Franz Rothschadl brought to his Brooker Creek brew pub the European custom of a "stem table" set aside like a captain's table on a ship for the owner's family, friends and regulars. Here it's just a few round high-tops lined up on Monday nights, but a special camaraderie survives.

The glasses are filled with the same stuff as at any seat or bar stool in the place: a dozen hand-crafted stouts, porters, bocks, lagers and ale on tap, home-brewed root beer and Rothschadl's clean and crisp world champion Pilsener.

On this night, the stammtisch included fellow brewer Michael Bryant from Dunedin Brewery, builder Dan Carlson, Rothschadl's girlfriend Carla Bleistein, who grew up with Peru's strong beers, certified beer judges Ken Koenig and Cathy Schulz, plus two food importers from Italy, Emanuele Pepe and Gianluca Quatrano.

The Tippler might not fit into such a heady group, but my special guest certainly did: bottle No. 4,060 of Samuel Adams Utopias, a limited edition, after-dinner beer with a world-record alcohol content of 25 percent. It will not be sold in Florida and will carry a starting price tag elsewhere of $100 before beer nuts start bidding for the limited edition of 8,500 bottles.

Utopias is Samuel Adams' fourth edition in the growing niche of "extreme beers." They started with a triple bock in 1997 and produced two Millennium beers. The beer is fermented at great length and care to produce alcohol percentages that break through double digits, prices that leave $2 bottles in the dust and break out of the beer category altogether.

For centuries, brewers made stouts and India pale ales that hit 6, 7 and 8 percent alcohol, enough to preserve them for months, in great heat or in long shipments from England to the subcontinent. Raising that level has challenged alchemists from Belgian monasteries to the newest U.S. microbreweries.

Brewers start with the same malted grain, hops and yeast, and then, through complicated fermentation, they produce beers made to age, to cellar and to sip and savor by 1 ounce or 2 in a brandy snifter.

In Utopias, Boston Brewing Company thinks it has achieved a Cognac of beers, one that truly transcends mere beerdom - and an over-the-rim gift for Father's Day.

I thought the locals would be leery of Samuel Adams as the Goliath that commercialized the craft-brewing revolution, tarnishing a great momentin the revival of American food and drink. Not to mention the overpackaging, overpricing and hype of Utopias.

Not at all. They loved it, from the numbered porcelain bottle shaped like a brew kettle all the way through to the taste.

They don't think of Samuel Adams the corporation; they drink to Jim Koch, the brewer. He's successful but still a colleague, with generations of brewing history in his family.

"He makes good quality. I see a lot of batch diversity that shows they're not too standardized," says Koenig, known as K.K. in his commentaries to the beer community. He keeps a 20-case cellar of fine beer at home. "It's sad he caved in to make Samuel Adams Light," but Koenig calls Koch's double bock a personal favorite, and the main-line brews a good step up from Killian's.

Rothschadl, too. Sure he got a big "Take that, Sammy" smile when he beat Koch's brew at the Great American BeerFest in 1999. And right now he has his own outer-limits beer advertised as the "strongest beer in Dixie."

He nursed his 44 Magnum up to 22 (and now 23) percent alcohol with aging, three yeasts and Florida cane syrup, so he appreciated the technical accomplishment without a moment of jealousy, only a little envy of Koch's barrels. "I had mine in stainless kegs in the office." Utopias was aged in old oak barrels that once held port, Cognac, whiskey and sherry.

That was obvious as soon as we opened Utopias. I poured small tastes into a dozen glasses and a sweet perfume permeated our corner of the bar, as if we had dropped a bottle of port or maple syrup. Rothschadl was delighted, "It's so plummy."

Indeed the aroma was like a young port, full, sweet and fruity and without the hot-nose high alcohol. Visually, the beer has the dark amber of a good Cognac, bright and shiny without an atom of carbonization.

The taste is astonishly unbeerlike. My first sensation was sweet vanilla, butter and mild candy spices combining into an elixir of toffee with a mouth-feel more like Drambuie. It then thinned out and became crisper and slightly piney, like a dry sherry or a mild single-malt scotch. It finished dry, clean and not too long.

For me, the total effect was slightly off-balance, because it thinned out too early. The hops had been vanquished by the malt. Utopias did beat out two other extremes I've tried, a French Belzebuth, a devilish honey blond that weighs in at 13 percent, and a chocolatey 8 percent weizen-eisbock from Aventinus in Bavaria. Both seemed too frizzy and fuzzy as they crossed the border between beer and the great beyond.

On the final question, is it $100 worth of liquid pleasure? Not for me; that price would buy a couple of 2000 vintage ports or V.S.O.P. Cognac, not to mention several cases of fine microbrew. Although Samuel Adams is pitching this to wow port and Cognac drinkers with a showoff "beer," I think the real market is craft beer aficionados.

I was the only quibbler at the stammtisch. The beer enthusiasts compared it repeatedly to port and Cognac. They marveled at Utopias' long "legs," drifting down the goblet like an aged wine, picked out the sherry notes in the taste, hunted for the smoke from the malt and disputed whether they could pick up hints of maple.

"This is beer?" asked Eddie Coquelet, and the answer, bursting with pride, was a full-bodied yes. Great brewing can produce anything, and Koch's Utopias is an accomplishment, akin to walking on the moon, of the discovery of a philosopher's stone to change beer into gold.

Koenig's verdict: "I was expecting a triple bock. This is very different. This is quite an achievement," and he predicted it would age well in a cellar and might keep three to six months once opened.

For the Italians, Pepe explained "We are not a culture of beer," but he could pick out hints of whiskey plus raisiny notes similar to passato, wines made from grapes left in the sun.

(For the record, the hops used were Hallertau, Mittelfrueh, Tettnang Tettnanger, Spalt Spalter and Czech Saaz; the malts are 2-row Harrington, Caramel, Vienna, 2-row Moravian and Bavarian smoked malt; there were three yeasts, including a Champagne yeast. Trust me, these are first-class ingredients.) For a passionate beer drinker to taste such a rarity, Bryant said was easily "$100 worth of experience, just being here with friends talking and tasting."

A great glass of beer does that, in many price ranges.

If you want to taste the ever-expanding variety of beers, Hoppers now has microbreweries at East Lake (36221 East Lake Road; 727-786-2966), Trinity (8817 Mitchell Blvd.; 727-375-2667) and Westchase (12227 W Linebaugh Ave.; 813-814-7748. Dunedin Brewery (937 Douglas Ave.; 727-736-0606) and Tampa Bay Brewing Company Bar & Grill (1812 N 15th St., Ybor City; 813-247-1422) serve a wide range of handcrafted beers. For the largest retail selections of microbrews and imports, including "extremes," try World of Beer in Clearwater (2809 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd.; 727-797-6905) or the Brew Shack in Tampa (4025 W Waters Ave.; 813-885-4544).

Swinging doors

Seven years after its dramatic splashdown in the culinary barrens of mid Pinellas, the Grill at Feather Sound has gone dark.

When the grill opened in 1996, it delivered a showcase of chef Tom Pritchard's nouvelle meat and potatoes and uptown vegetables plus the first taste of hip design in the county.

The restaurant and its bar drew a big crowd from neighboring condos and the executive suites of Home Shopping Network. But Pritchard moved on, and the food slowly lost its flair. Last year, it imported Louisville chef Marshall Jewell from Lilly's, but he left as well.

The owners decided to close for the summer and reopen this fall with a new concept, under a new name or the familiar Grill marquee.

Also closed for now is Bertoni's. It has vacated its location in downtown St. Petersburg to move to Pass-a-Grille, where its new space is still under renovation (709 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; 727-363-1998). New tenants for the downtown space have not been announced.

[Last modified June 24, 2003, 14:00:52]

Elsewhere in today's Taste

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  • Cake recipes
  • Food file
  • Dish: explanations from the inside out

  • The nibbler
  • For beer lovers, utopia has arrived

  • You asked for it
  • Bread pudding: Who said it can't be exotic?
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