When Bad Beers Happen to Good Breweries: The Case of Infinium

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Like a sudsy caped crusader, Boston Beer Company has two identities. During the day it's Sam Adams Boston Lager, the macro-est of the microbrews, the flagship brand of a publicly traded company that recorded $453.4 million in 2009 revenues.

Then there's the dark side. The first extreme beer I ever sampled was Sam Adams Triple Bock, a syrupy concoction I discovered in the mid-90s in, of all places, Colonial Williamsburg. At 17.5 percent ABV and aged in wood barrels, it was said to be the booziest beer in America. There was only batch ever made, and after three bottlings it was gone. Since then BBC has rolled out a limited-production beer every year and a half or so: There was Millennium, with only 3,000 bottles made, and the Barrel Room Collection, three Belgian-style beers. In 2007 it started Utopia, a 27 percent ABV strong ale that retails for $150 or more. Most people found the Triple Bock too thick and rich, but the more recent releases have won rave reviews.

One of 2010's most anticipated releases was Infinium, a collaboration between BBC and Germany's Weihenstephan, the world's oldest brewery. For months beer-geek message boards popped with rumors: It had been three years in the making. It would taste of coriander and apricots. It would come with real pieces of Samuel Adams (or what's left of him) floating inside.

Infinium, ladies and gentlemen, bombed. Not only did it fail to make any top-ten lists, but many reviewers considered it one of the worst releases of
the year.

Jim Koch, the founder and beer-Yoda of Sam Adams, isn't humble about Infinium, which hit stores late last year. In interviews he bragged that entirely new brewing techniques had been developed, then cast aside in favor of even newer techniques. At an Infinium launch event he called it a "watershed moment" in American brewing, the creation of a new, champagne-style beer "with some of the dryness, the freshness, the crispness, the effervescence and acidity of champagne, but the texture and mouthfeel and structure of a beer." The result was dry, light on the palate, but also high in alcohol. Sounds great, right?

Infinium, ladies and gentlemen, bombed. Not only did it fail to make any top-ten lists, but many reviewers considered it one of the worst releases of the year. While it has its partisans, negative comments on Beer Advocate ran into the hundreds: "A drain pour." "The taste/yeast flavor completely through [sic] me off." "Infinium: Latin for disappointing?" Most took a shot at the price tag—$20 for a 750-milliliter bottle, well above a typical high-end craft beer. "Seems if I want champagne, I'd get a bottle of Korbel Natural ... not a Beer poser at twice the $," wrote one.

Infinium is no doubt a well-made beer; the finished product is neither traditional American nor German, nor even French or Belgian, but sui generis, unlike anything I've ever tried before. It just doesn't taste very good. It's effervescent, like champagne, but not sweet; it tastes flinty and bitter. It opens with some apple and persimmon, but those drop off quickly, leaving behind yeast and malt as the dominant flavors. It may be a technical achievement, but so was Frankenstein's monster—and he wasn't winning any beauty pageants.

So let this be a cautionary tale for craft brewers: You can do a lot of cool stuff with beer, and you may produce some technically wondrous brews, but if the customers don't like it, you've failed. Or, as one commenter put it, "Two world class brewers made a beer for themselves ... we the consumers were not part of their equation."

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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