DRAFT PICKS: American strong ales

At the start of a recent cold, blustery weekend, I had an opportunity to enjoy beer the way it should best be enjoyed — in the company of good friends around a civilized, well-laid table.

There were a good number of carefully considered, and well-selected beers offered in small sips with just enough in each glass to enjoy the aroma and taste while discussing the fine points of each style.

The table was graced with good meat, and good cheese — all aimed at highlighting the finer points of each lager and ale on the menu.

There were a number of types of glassware as well as more simple sampling cups, all chosen, once again, with an eye to bringing out the best in each beer — visually, aromatically, and taste sensually.

And there was great conversation. Some silly, some serious. Some focused, some frivolous.

This is what “it” is all about.

The highlight of the evening was a chance to sip a sample from a bottle of collectively purchased American Strong Ale — Sam Adam’s Utopias.

It was special.

But the question begs to be asked, “What is American Strong Ale?”

Well ...

In England there is a category of ales on the market call “Strong Ales” which basically are pale ales that register at higher than 5-percent Alcohol By Volume, (ABV.)

In the States, however, the designation usually indicates beers that are considerably higher — from 7-percent ABV and upward.

When these brews, (usually pale ales), hit 12-percent ABV or more, they are considered pretty potent.

There seems to be a friendly competition among brewers, (especially those in Europe), to create the strongest ale on the market. The strongest to date is the amazing Armageddon, produced in small batches by  Brewmeister Brewery in Scotland.  Armageddon logs in at 65-percent, (that’s 130 proof!), and is by my accounting the strongest beer in the world.

American Strong Ales are generally pretty wide-ranging in style and it’s hard to peg any single factor — other than the ABV rating — that makes one stand out from the other. Sometimes American Strong Ales are actually double India Pale Ales.

Because of their age, (and generally their punch), barley wines are very often tagged as American Strong Ales.

In many cases, such as in the brewing and aging of Utopias, American Strong Ales are casked for varying lengths of time. This certainly adds to both the heftier alcohol levels and the richer, bolder flavors.

Beer Advocate rates American Strong Ales in a category that can potentially see crossovers from other brew lists. The Top Ten on the Beer Advocate’s list for American Strong Ales include:

Bell’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Batch 9000 — 14.90% ABV Bell’s Brewery, Inc.

Matt — 11.50% ABV Hair of the Dog Brewing Company

Bourbon Abominable Winter Ale — 11.00% ABV Fremont Brewing Company

Samuel Adams Utopias —  27 % ABV Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams)

Melange No. 3- 15.50% ABV The Bruery

Gold Stock Ale — 6.50% ABV New England Brewing Co.

Double Bastard Ale — 11.20% ABV Stone Brewing Co.

Maple Tripple Ale — 12 % ABV Lawson’s Finest Liquids

Deliverance — 12.50% ABV The Lost Abbey

Ozymandias — 15 % ABV Cambridge Brewing Company

A listing of the top three American Strong Ales by RateBeer shows a couple differences, but one similarity.

Hair of the Dog — Matt

Samuel Adams —  Millennium

Port Brewing Older — Viscosity

American Strong Ales may be a bit too ... hearty ... for some explorers, but they really should be carefully considered and sampled because of their full-bodied flavors and exciting


Enjoy. Carefully, please ... and preferably with good friends.

Samuel Adams Utopias

10th Anniversary Edition

Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams)

Boston, Mass.

Truth be known, it’s unfortunate but most readers will never taste this ale. It is too expensive, and there aren’t enough bottles on the market. The only practical way one might break open a bottle is exactly the way I enjoyed this wonderful brew — with four or five friends on a special evening dedicated to tasting this and other exceptional beers.

I would guess that by the time this article is read, there’s a good chance there’ll be no more bottles left in Michigan. It is marketed as a very, very limited edition.

Utopias is arguably the premier American Strong Ale. At 29 percent ABV, it certainly has more ‘muscle’ than any other American brew, but Utopias is even more. It has body, and it is simply packed with flavor.

Utopias pours a dark, dark, color  gently shifting between a luxurious dark chocolate, and an incredibly rich black silk with glimmers of a plush, deep ruby red escaping from the outer edges. There is no carbonation, so Utopias produces no head or foam, and little hint of lacing.

This brew pours like a dark liquor, and gives all the appearance of a dark liquor.

Poured into a small snifter, Utopias released an astonishing bouquet of sensual aromas. Explorers taking part in the tasting reported, (and largely agreed), on a rich licorice scent, as well as dark fruits — plums and currents. There is a huge backdrop of chocolate, and deep, deep tones of brown sugar as well as hints of molasses.

One pilgrim noted an almost toffee-like scent. All agreed there was a brandy-esque quality to the brew.

For some, it may be difficult to keep sight of this wonderful ale’s roots in the beer world.

Those roots are there — deep and secure.

At first sip, the warmth of this ale is undoubtedly evident. For whatever reason, there was a sense of sipping on a highest quality chocolate covered cherry! There were hints of hazelnut, and reports of a sense of maple tucked away in the background.

This ale begins smooth and rich, and finishes full-bodied with stunning balance.

There are layers and layers upon layers of flavor. The mouth-feel starts out a bit thick, but ends on a more silky note. Despite the readily evident sweetness, Utopias ends dry and without a cloying reminder of itself.

Utopias was almost buttery in feel. Smooth and calm despite the ‘heat.’

This is not the type of ale I’d suggest with any meal whatsoever.

Leave food out of the mix, or at least allow a reasonable amount of time to pass between your last bite and first sip.

There was a consensus that Utopias would be well served with a few quality chocolates, and even the non-smokers suggested this would go exceptionally well with a really fine cigar.

All in all, the experience and the fellowship is worth the investment — as was the ale!


The Lost Abbey

San Marcos, Calif.

This stunning brew — unfortunately not available in Michigan — was sent to me by a friend in Massachusetts. (God bless good friends who aren’t afraid to send good beer through the mail!)

Deliverance is an American Strong Ale that comes in at 12.50 percent ABV.

It is no surprise that this, (as with many other ASAs), has virtually no head. It pours a deep, almost burned brown, with lighter tints struggling to be released from the outer darkness in flashes of light.

There is a fruity, most pleasant aroma released almost as soon as the bottle is decanted — an exciting mixture of darker fruits with a touch of nuttiness and all the more standard scents so common to malt-forward brews of this type. The background is heavy with chocolate and molasses. There is a certain residual smell that reminds one of a well-aged bourbon barrel. (I’m not sure if Deliverance is casked, or not.)

Deliverance delivers on taste. The heat is evident early on but does little or nothing to disturb the fine composition of this excellent brew.

As with so many of this style, there is a raisin, plum, and prune taste blend that is pretty easy to pick up on. There is a strong vanilla tone, with shadows of coffee or espresso at the back of the palate.

This is definitely a slow sipping beer. There is simply no way an explorer can appreciate the complexity of Deliverance if they are knocking it back like a much weaker lager.

With little or no carbonation, this is a beer that needs to be poured early and allowed to develop in the glass so that the aroma and taste reach their fullest potential.

Despite the inherent sweetness, (promoted by the light heat), there is no overly sweet finish.

A fine, fine after dinner drink.