Utopias of Beowulf

NB: Apologies in advance for still not knowing how to do the jump thingie with footnotes. I WILL figure it out. I hope.


Or: what I did on my summer vacation. For one day.

For reasons not clear to me, I was invited to join a small group of experienced beer writers/tasters/drinkers at a thirtieth-anniversary party hosted by Boston Beer Co. (*1) To say I was thrilled, excited, happy, etc., would be understating my reaction to the invitation.

Anyway: a highlight of the evening, the invitation informed me, was a "vertical tasting" of BBC's Utopias. (Yes, I had to ask someone: What's a vertical tasting? Answer: a tasting of the same product produced in different years.)

Yes, Utopias. You know? --- those beers that run about 27% and taste like brown velvet silk?

Courtesy of Marty Nachel

Courtesy of Marty Nachel

Until last Wednesday, I'd only tasted Utopias once, back in 2006. That encounter nearly caused me to fall from my chair and I suffered months of heartbreak because there was no way I could finish it. (I like to think that had it not been 11 am when I drank it, I might have made it all the way through my snifter.)

This is what it looked like 3/4 of the way through (look close: you'll see that the placemat described each tasting.:

Photo courtesy of Tom Dalldorf/Celebrator News

Photo courtesy of Tom Dalldorf/Celebrator News

I admit: I was nervous. I don't drink much and the idea of drinking a decade's worth of such heavy stuff had me, um, worried. I organized a one-woman pool, betting that I'd only make it through round three.

Hey! I made it all the way through not just the utopias, but the other drinks, too: The two beers we started with, one from 1994 and one from 1999. And a small whiff of a  product-in-process, a whiskey that BBC is creating in conjunction with a local (small) distiller.

(Here's where I should add that the dinner that followed included five more beers. I had one before we started, and a couple of whiffs from a flask one guest pulled from his pocket. So. That was about a month's worth of booze for me.)

I'm not a professional, so the nuances were lost on me, but I was fascinated by the commentary from the folks around me, folks who are pros and can tell a tang from a vinous from a fruit. If you know what I mean.  (*2)

I was, however, fascinated by the mini-lecture that company founder Jim Koch provided as background to the first beer we drank, a 1994 Triple Bock (on the bottom far left of the place mat). He explained the motivation behind the beer and analyzed and dissected all the technical and regulatory problems he and his colleagues encountered while trying to make and market the beer.

This is the kind of commentary/information over which historians drool: what happens when entrepreneurs entrepreneur? (which, no, isn't a verb but you get my drift).

Historian's delight, folks. I was glad the talk was being recorded (one of those big fuzzy, British-palace-guard microphones hung over the table the whole time).

So that was my professional takeaway from the deal. (Our hosts provided us with snazzy notebooks in which we could record tasting notes, etc. I'm happy to report that Jim's discourse provided a fair amount of brain fodder for a new book I want to write.)

But aside from that, here's my brain-level, personal take:

I honestly don't know why I was invited. But it wasn't just that I was invited: I was the company's guest. As in: They flew me there, put me up, chauffered me around, etc.

Hello? ME? Huh?

In my hotel room was a bucket of what I believe is known as swag (again, swag is not me): three bottles of beer, including a big-boy, corked bottle of American Kriek. (Which, no, I didn't taste and sure couldn't take back on the plane. Imagine the tears flowing from my eyes.) And a baseball cap (nice long bill!) And this piece of beer memorabilia:

I'm Adolphus Busch, and I approve of this opener.

I'm Adolphus Busch, and I approve of this opener.

Adolphus Busch, master of memorabilia, would approve.

Nice marketing, eh? Especially because I obviously wasn't taking home bottles of beer and a bucket, so the hotel staff got all of that and, hey!, now they know about Sam Adams beer.

Cool bottle opener aside, there was something inherently weird about attending an event at which everyone expected to be less-than-sober by the end of the evening. For everyone else there, that was business as usual. Not for me. I'd never been to anything like this. (And again: I'm glad I didn't fold after round three or turn into a babbling idiot, as did one poor guy [the youngest guy there. he was in over his head,]) (Also: the abundance of alcohol guaranteed that no one noticed my usual bumbling shyness. I only knew six people out of the two dozen.)

But the most oddball notion that struck me was how much the evening resembled an ancient great hall feast and fest. Think Beowulf. Or, more recently, Game of Thrones (which, for what it's worth, captures the essence of what we know about those ancient feasting rituals better than anything else I've seen or read).

For both the tasting and the dinner that followed, we all sat at a long table, our host Jim in the center on one side. From one end of the great brewery hall to the other rang racuous laughter, even more racuous commentary (I nearly dissolved into blush at one point), shouting up and down the table, toasts, hooting, hollering, table pounding, etc.

The only thing missing was song. During dinner, I asked my closest tablemate, Lew Bryson, to sing (he sings regularly in a choir). He declined, damnit.

Photo courtesy of Jay Brooks

Photo courtesy of Jay Brooks

Delightful, all of it. The most medievalish feasting I've ever enjoyed. (No, I don't get out much.) Also tres cool to join in part of what I assume is a year of celebration for Jim Koch, a man I like as a person and whose intellect I admire and respect.

So that was my summer evening.

PS: here's the "video" I shot for the celebration video shown during dinner.


1. When I got there, I learned that everyone else involved would be "working" the next day to judge the finalists in the company's Longshot homebrewing competition.

*2. I'm a professional eavesdropper, so at events like this, I listen more than I talk. Although, heh, even if I'd wanted to converse, it was, uh, kinda hard to get a word in edgewise. But when I did, well, chops and cheers to my tablemate, Jay Brooks, for indulging my limited but random chatter, most of which had nothing to do with the subjects at hand.