Good Beer Hunting

The Dystopian Media Coverage of Samuel Adams Utopias

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A few days before Halloween, Boston Beer Co. announced the forthcoming release of Samuel Adams Utopias, a high-strength, high-cost, barrel-aged sipper that company founder Jim Koch says belongs to the “lunatic fringe of extreme beer.” And for fine reason: Utopias, out now for the 10th time since 2002, clocks in at 28% ABV and costs around $200 per bottle.

Given these extreme specs, the media jumped at the announcement, but not merely to cover Utopias as a beer release. Rather, innumerable national magazines, local TV news affiliates, large regional newspapers, and even golf magazines together latched onto one news peg in particular: “Samuel Adams just released a $200 beer that’s illegal in 12 states.” If you’re anything like us, people who spend a goodly amount of each day reading about beer, the online echo chamber was a little odd to say the least. But at least it made for some hilarious Google searches:

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Meanwhile, the ubiquitous headline gave way to a ubiquitous story about a singular beer whose alcohol content precluded it from being sold in a dozen states. A fine general interest story! A quirky thing for beer and non-beer people alike! Unfortunately, everyone got it wrong.

To start, it isn’t entirely accurate to say Utopias is banned in 12 states. It’s worse. Utopias isn’t available in 15 states because of individual laws relevant to alcohol thresholds, according to the company. Those states are: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia. But the lapse in coverage doesn’t end there. In fact, many—like, very many—publications erroneously made reference to specific states for outlawing the product, despite the product’s current availability in said specific states.

Washington, for instance, has been widely reported as being a state where Utopias would be considered illegal contraband. In reality, though, Washington does not impose an alcohol cap on beer at all and Utopias is already available there (one need only consult Sam’s own beer finder to figure out where in Washington one could procure some Utopias). This has perplexed the state’s Guild.

“I’m not sure why we would have been included on the original list published,” Annie McGrath, executive director of the Washington Brewers Guild, tells GBH. “As I understand it, you can get Utopias at numerous WA retailers now, though I would recommend picking up a WA beer while you're at it.”

And Washington isn’t alone. Tennessee has found itself mixed up in all this, too. Although this confusion is a little easier to understand. The Volunteer State does, in fact, limit beer to 8% ABW, or about 10.1% ABV, meaning Utopias is nearly three times stronger than the legal limit. Despite that cap though, Utopias is being sold in Tennessee, contrary to reports. What gives? Reached by GBH, Boston Beer says Utopias actually “falls under a different alcohol beverage category” in Tennessee, absolving of it of required beer cap fealty.

Regardless, the near-universal amplification of these factual inaccuracies leaves open one major question: How’d this all happen? It’s difficult to say definitively. The company itself made no reference to the product’s legality in any of its own marketing materials (not that marketing materials would or should be considered some sort of be-all end-all). Furthermore, the Utopias coverage has been largely derelict of specific citation, making it difficult to even trace this back assuredly to a single source that got it wrong. One thing’s for sure though: “Samuel Adams just released a $200 beer that’s illegal in 12 states.”

—Dave Eisenberg