Samuel Adams just released its 2017 batch of Utopias, which will cost you $200 for a bottle. The barrel-aged brew is technically a beer, but it’s not what you’d expect from something called “beer.” This stuff is 28 percent alcohol by volume — most beers are only about five percent ABV — and we’re told it tastes more like a port than a pilsner. The trick to crafting this dank brew, according to Sam Adams, is a secret type of organism known as “ninja yeast.”
It’s been hard for anyone to track down what exactly this mysterious yeast is. Samuel Adams representatives didn’t respond to Inverse’s request for information on the so-called ninja yeast, and others on the booze beat haven’t fared much better. “I haven’t gotten them to spill on what it is exactly,” Nickolaus Hines, associated editor at alcohol lifestyle site Vinepair, tells Inverse.
What we do know is that ninja yeast is an informal term that brewers used to describe many types of yeasts capable of producing high alcohol levels during fermentation. Brewers call the resulting high-alcohol fluids, like the Utopias, “high-gravity” — a reference to “specific gravity,” the measure of a liquid’s density.
We also know that ninja yeast is the key to Utopias’ high alcohol content, but it can’t do the job all on its own.
To brew beer, brewers use yeast, a living organism that converts sugars in the starting liquid into alcohol and carbon dioxide. But simply adding more sugar and more yeast won’t necessarily produce more alcohol.
A process called ecological succession is to blame. In a brewer’s fermentation tank, as in a natural ecosystem, certain organisms are best suited to certain environments, and yeast is an organism, just like moss or a worm or a human being. So, even though a typical brewing yeast might produce the alcohol necessary for a typical beer, it can’t be left in the tank forever in hopes of producing more alcohol. At a certain point, the environment in the fermentation tank becomes inhospitable to the yeast and it stops working at its full capacity.
That’s when a different organism, like champagne yeast, which functions in higher-alcohol environments and is also thought to be involved in the production of Sam Adams’ Utopias, must take over. The same roadblocks eventually stop champagne yeast from functioning properly, which is when the “ninja yeast” comes in.
You can think of it like shifting gears in a car. You wouldn’t cruise on the highway in first gear, but you can’t get moving from a stop in fifth gear. So while a brewer’s yeast is like first gear for beer, “ninja yeast” is like fifth gear. And the product is quite different from a typical beer.
“When you drink it, it’s pretty warming like a fortified wine as well and even though it’s stronger than a fortified wine the alcohol is pretty well hidden,” says Hines. “It’s super thick as well, and it’s not cloyingly sweet or sugary.”
If you want to try your hand at the ecological succession of brewing beer, you can pick up high-gravity “ninja yeasts” from homebrew suppliers to make your own version of the Utopias.
If you liked this article, check out this video on what alcohol does to your brain, as explained by a drunk scientist.