To play with the hearts and minds of beer geeks in the greater Seattle metropolitan area, Utopias is back in town. I last attempted to get my hands on some during the Seattle International Beerfest in July. The word on the street was that it would start pouring at 17:00 on a Friday. Unbeknownst to me, the doors actually opened around 14:00 and by 15:30 a line with more people than pours available had already formed at the appropriate table, patrons foaming at the mouth and demanding their taste of heaven. By the time I showed up at 16:45 (having left work early!) Utopias was already but a distant memory in the festival volunteers’ hippocampi.
Today’s tasting was a little bit different. Rather than commune together under the authority of some organized festival, today’s gathering would bring Seattle’s ale aficionados to a place where the Gatorade flows like wine and Tias battle with Doritos for shelf space. A place known as Super Deli Mart.
An ancestral cousin to Chuck’s Hop Shop, Super Deli Mart is a convenience-store-turned-bottle-shop-turned-sort-of-neighborhood-bar offering pints and growler fills next to tampons and motor oil. It, too, is owned by a Korean, Min, but I did not ask if he knew Chuck because I am afraid it would be construed as racist. They also have a rather extensive bottle collection but most of that I ignore.
I was here for one purpose, and one purpose only. To snag my white unicorn. Despite my comfort with and knowledge of Chuck’s I find myself a stranger in a strange land here. Drinking beer that retails for $190 a bottle next to Xtremo Mango and Spongebob ice cream does not compute. There are precious few places to sit, and so I wander the aisles as if I can’t decide what flavor of Funyuns to buy.
Eventually I step into some kind of line as I figure this is as good a place as any to start. My hunch is proven true when the placeholder in front of me declares that he had not purchased an advance ticket and inquires as to whether he is standing in the correct spot. Min answers in the affirmative. Counting back from the front, I reach twelve before counting myself. I refuse to believe that it is merely coincidence that my lucky number has historically been thirteen.
A pony-tailed woman behind the counter, who later identifies herself as a Sam Adams shill, makes a snide remark about the lack of ladies present. There is some soft chuckling from the Line, but it is mostly out of politeness as we have yet to be served. To me, it appears that she is chiding us Men in the room for not doing more to engage our better halves in the enjoyment and fulfillment we receive from drinking preposterously expensive beer while simultaneously establishing her dominance over what few Women were there due to her ostensibly enviable insider position. Or it could have just been a crude joke about sausage fests. Either way it was a deft move and left an appropriately bad taste in my mouth.
I start to get nervous when I see people plunking down cash for more than one ticket, but by the time I am within two persons of the register I feel rather confident that I will receive what I have rightfully earned. At this point a customer at the counter begins to raise his voice in a less than celebratory tone. He has short-cropped salt and pepper hair, is wearing glasses and a black leather jacket, and sports a single earring in his left ear. In his prime he may have been an intimidating figure but now his frame is lean and he looks to be pushing sixty years old, or perhaps a hard-lived fifty. I can’t help but overhear:
Customer: “So, you’re telling me that the tickets at the door are $36 instead of $30?”
Min: “Yes, sir”
Customer: “And I don’t even get to take home a commemorative glass?
Min: “That is correct, sir.”
Customer: “That’s unbelievable”
Min: “I could give you a refund.”
Min: “That’ll be $39.42” [unbearably long pause] “with tax.”
Like a Bachelor contestant with stars in her eyes and ulterior motives, the retired biker with the goatee obviously did not come to this particular tasting for “the right reasons.” Despite the unannounced cost hike, I pay with a credit card and little fanfare. Unlike most of the other attendees I see drinking out of dainty 5 oz. schooners, I receive mine in an embarrassingly large goblet. Given there was only one ounce of liquid in the glass, this makes it rather difficult to drink in small sips. I swirl. I sniff. I walk around with it for a good ten minutes before it even touches my lips. The delayed gratification is important. It’s what separates us from beasts.
Surprisingly, it tastes similarly to how I imagined it would. I’ve read enough reviews of this particular beverage to have a rather accurate characterization of it on my “mind’s tongue” . The alcoholic heat is intense, though more so in my nose than in my mouth. It is creamy and velvety smooth on my tongue but tastes remarkably sweet. Not malty, though. This is something else entirely.
For a moment, I daydream about how hilarious it would be if I were to start bouncing around the room swatting the miniature glasses out of people’s hands. I hypothesize that I would probably ruin about eight people’s night before I am violently tackled. It’s at this point that I suddenly have a profound realization as to what #firstworldproblems means on an intrinsic level and I am ashamed. But only for a moment. This beer (a term I use liberally and loosely) is fantastic, but there is so little of it and I have six tickets with which I may try several more.
Tasman Red is a good one to choose after licking the glass my Utopias came in. Not too light so as to be washed away by simply looking at the legs of the Utopias, but not too boozy so as to taste too similar. Like Indy in the Last Crusade, I feel I have chosen wisely.
I am waiting in the increasingly long line to be served. In front of me is a group of three men conversing about the proportion of homebrewers in the crowd. The younger guy guesses 70% (which I think is wildly high). The older gentleman whispers something and pulls out a flask to pour in the younger’s empty cup. Through further eavesdropping I uncover that The Whisperer is a home distiller. They do their best to keep it on the hush with a combination of eyebrows and a psuedo-code apparently made up on the spot. I understand distilling at home is illegal, but I’m pretty sure nobody from the WSLCB was there on the prowl. Or maybe that’s what they want you to think. Just before I’m able to get to the counter, a helpful employee strolls by with a growler, taking tickets for pours. I ask her what it is and she tells me it is New Albion Ale. There is a story that goes with this beer but it is boring. An apt description for how the beer tastes as well.
My next time up I decide to crib a tactic from some of my fellow beer snobs and request two samples. I receive a Grumpy Monk Belgian IPA and a Double Bock. The Grumpy Monk is not my preference and I drink it quickly. The Double Bock is a ghostly image of the Utopias. I savor this one and nurse it longer than I should. The lines are getting longer and more disorganized.
Everyone milling about is getting louder, smilier, and friendlier. I strike up a conversation with a shorter man in a bunnet. He explains to me that he purchased two tickets and is planning to take his second glass of Utopias home, cover it in Saran Wrap and let it age some more. I asked him why he would want to do that and he replied that if it’s this good now, it could only get better with extended aging. I remind him that some of the liquid in his glass is already nineteen years old and wish him much patience in the future.
To my right is a crowd of beer distributors and marketers. I spent several years working in convenience stores and can spot these guys a mile away. They’ll stroll into your store every so often and try to impress upon you, the proprietor, the importance of selling this beer or that. Depending on the franchise, they’ll even come in and rearrange your beer shelves in an effort to optimize sales. They are salesmen disguised as beer lovers. In general they are Caucasian males between 35 and 55 years of age. They range in build from solid to slightly bulbous and approximately half of them are bald. The flock of five in the corner are no exception. They are all wearing indistinguishable black shell jackets and they are all drinking New Albion Ale. I notice that even the female Sam Adams shill is not allowed in their inner circle and I now sympathize for her.
I have two tickets left but there are four more Sam Adams beers to try. I am getting tired of standing in line and working up a good buzz due to lack of food. I decide to forego purchasing two more tickets and instead make the not so difficult choice of the 13th Hour Stout and the Merry Mischief Gingerbread Stout. The Merry Mischief is decent, but I prefer my stouts less sweet and más robusto. The 13th Hour on the other hand floors me. What a beer to finish on. A stout with a slight sour tinge to it that makes me tingle all over. I entertain the thought of a full pint, but I am over an hour away from home and I am starving. I grab some chips and a couple of dunkelweizens before heading home, contemplating though ultimately rejecting the idea of a bottle of Dom for the Missus.