The Utopias story

What follows is perhaps my most cringe-worthy personal beer story. I have told this story to a few people over the years and some have told me that it would make a great entry for my blog. For reasons that I’m sure will become clear when you read this, I have never written this down before.

Tonight I’ve decided that enough time has passed that I feel…not good…but perhaps…OK sharing it. You will almost certainly think of less me when you finish this. But you might laugh. So here goes.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past where I was considered something of an “influencer” when it came to drinking and dining in Toronto. For a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that I hate the word, idea, and entire concept of unpaid social media “influncers” promoting “brands,” I am now, of course, just marginally influential at best.

But back in the day there was a time when writing regularly for Toronto publications and this blog earned me enough clout (and even klout! #DatedReference) to not only keep me flush with beer samples, but to also get me invited to the occasional restaurant opening and/or culinary event. This story takes place on one of those occasions.  This particular occasion was a manufactured event intended to create buzz relating to the opening a new location for an existing seafood-focused restaurant chain in West Toronto. A PR company representing the restaurant’s owner had invited me to attend. The place was still under construction, but the concept for the event was that a handful of influencers, myself among them, would dine at the location, cheekily donning construction hard hats provided by the PR company for selfies, preview the menu, hopefully write something about the experience, and, ideally, use the prescribed hashtag(s) to generate that all important buzz for the new opening that the PR folks were paid to bring in. In turn, of course, we would dine (and, naturally, drink) gratis in exchange for our efforts.

(Hopefully, abhorrent as this concept is, it is not a new one to you. This happens constantly and there are entire companies, industries, and *shudder* online personalities built on it. It is the reason good food and booze criticism is becoming increasingly scarce and our culinary culture as a whole is now essentially beholden to vapid, know-nothing water heads with smart phones and a palate as sophisticated as the last PR company that thrust free fucking kobe beef sliders in their direction. But I digress).

On this particular evening wherein I was playing the part of influencer, I had opted to bring along a photographer. This was actually a pretty standard practice of mine for ensuring I had a plus-one and could thus bring a friend. “I’ll need to bring a photographer,” I would say matter-of-factly when invited to such things, as though I was bound by principle to cover the ingestion of fucking arancini with the utmost diligence. In point of fact of course, I often simply brought friends who were comedians or who worked in the arts and I knew would appreciate a free meal. On more than one occasion my “photographer” showed up without an actual camera. No one cared.

For this event, I had happened to bring my friend Mark, who was actually a good photographer and, while I had invited him as an excuse for us to eat and get drunk together, he took to the task of documenting the event with a fervor unbecoming of a man whose work was set to be hastily-cropped and shared on a sparsely read online publication. In short, Mark was trying way too hard.

Additionally, this particular seafood-focused restaurant enjoyed one of those beer “partnerships” I am so fond of disparaging on this site and the “partner brewery’s” sales rep was part of the festivities. And so, in addition to an eclectic menu of upscale blah blah blah infusion, melding the fun of blah blah blah without the fussiness of blah blah blah, all with a subtle nod to blah blah blah, the menu that evening featured not only barrel-aged cocktails, but also a seemingly endless supply of Samuel Adams beer. And so, with my photographer friend working the room hell-bent on documenting the evening like he worked for National fucking Geographic and me surrounded by dutifully Instagramming and ironically-socially-awkward social media influencers, I heartily partook of the drink, as is my wont in such situations.

The night progressed as these things do. The chef and owner gave a heartfelt speech about his passion for being a restaurateur (all his restaurants are now closed, by the way), talked about the inspiration for his food, and, I’d wager, included details about a quirky but hyper-local tidbit related to the location/menu/signage/cutlery that we all enjoyed and took great satisfaction in tweeting. And then, at some point in the evening, between courses of shellfish and presumably between my many refills, an announcement was made. We had all been entered, the PR team organizers told us, into a draw for a basket full of swag to take home. Thanks to my alcohol consumption, I don’t recall the details but I remember the basket included items related to the restaurant and owner and some “partner products,” like the chef’s favoured brand of fucking pickle, for example. Among the partner products though, and presumably added by a swag-flush Samuel Adams rep, was a bottle of that year’s just-released Utopias.For the uninitiated, Utopias is a rarely-released beer made by Samuel Adams that is much sought after among beer nerds. It is an uncarbonated blend of many batches of Sam Adams beers, some aged as long as two decades in bourbon, sherry, and port casks. It is an exceptionally-strong beer, with an alcohol content that has in some years approached 30 per cent, and it is typically enjoyed in a snifter, doled on special occasions by those who spring for a bottle. The year this story takes place, the LCBO was allotted just 200 bottles of the stuff and it sold for $114.95.

As you might imagine, given my increasingly inebriated state and my young(ish) and naive desire to consume such bucket list beers, I became convinced I was going to win that package. I had to. These people, gathered from assorted media outlets and mostly focused on food writing, would never appreciate Utopias the way I might. I told them as much. It is a safe guess that I was not tactful or subdued in the many ways I suggested that I deserved to win the bottle and they did not.

Despite the fact that I was the “beer guy” present, however, and despite my probably insufferable proclamations that I needed to win the bottle of Utopias, I did not. Instead, the Utopias, the pickles, and the assorted bullshit was awarded to a perfectly nice food writer and photographer whose name I don’t recall and who worked for an outlet I also don’t remember. I was bummed, briefly. I made jokes about he and I splitting the bottle and encouraged him to crack it right then and there. He didn’t, but I got over the whole ordeal — probably as fast as the next beer was thrust into my hand.

Eventually, the meal wound down and, even though people were still eating, Mark needed to leave. He was also my ride and, since I had had my fill of barrel-aged cocktails and Boston Lager, we said our goodbyes and made our way for the door. As we did, we passed the swag basket. Mark went outside and, jokingly, I picked up the bottle of Utopias and turned back to the group. “Maybe I should just take this with me!” I said to them as I raised the bottle.

None of them heard me. They had already said goodbye to me and were back to making awkward conversation, scrolling their social media feeds, and taking pictures of their deserts.

This when I made a bad choice.

I’d like to say, standing in a room full of people with no eyes on me, that there was a small devil on one of my shoulders and an angel on the other offering me conflicting advice on what to do in this rare and weird situation, but in that moment, there was no angel; just a lager-soaked devil. And he said, “Take the fucking bottle.”

I listened.

With no hesitation, I turned, tucked the bottle in front of me and made my way across the 10 remaining feet to the door. I don’t know if I thought I was being rebellious about the concept of being an influencer, or if it was my way of saying fuck you to Samuel Adams for buying off this restaurateur, if I was simply drunk enough to think I’d get away with it, or if I thought I was being funny and would return the bottle the next day. I literally don’t recall what I was thinking. But I do recall what happened next.

I made my way to the door and opened it, stepping out to the sidewalk where Mark was lighting a cigarette.

And I tripped.

I went down hard and the bottle came with me, instantly shattering on the concrete. $114.95 of 28 per cent barrel-aged blends was suddenly a puddle on Queen West. I smelled syrupy notes of cognac, tobacco, vanilla, and oak as the rare liquid seeped into my clothes and was rapidly absorbed in the cement around me.

Mark looked at me, cigarette dangling, and saw the mess, including the remains of the distinctive bottle scattered around me just steps from the restaurant doors and knew immediately what had just transpired. He said only, “Dude, what the fuck?”

I was instantly stone-cold sober.  We bolted.

The conversation that followed in Mark’s car was one of those “Why did you do that?” “I know! Why the fuck did I do that?” postmortems you tend to have with a friend when you do a really dumb thing. With Mark’s windows cracked and us speeding away from the crime scene, the Boston Lager and barrel-aged Manhattans were wearing off and the reality of just how stupid my crime was hit home. I had repeatedly, loudly, told an entire room full of people that I wanted that bottle. And, then, when we were the first ones to leave, the bottle had disappeared. And now, even when (not “if” but when) I was inevitably called out and asked to return the bottle, I couldn’t because I HAD SMASHED IT FOUR FEET FROM THE CRIME SCENE.


A period of silence followed while Mark drove and smoked and I sat in Utopias-damp jeans and considered my life choices. And then, as is also often the case when you do a really dumb thing, you somehow, eventually, darkly, start to see humour in it. Mark was probably the first to laugh. “Man, you are fucking idiot!”

Indeed I was.

“What did I even trip on?” “I went down hard!” “That was so dumb! Hahaha. Oh my god!”

We laughed at how the second they all went to leave the dinner they would know. I literally asked the guy for the bottle and then took it. And somehow, dumbfounded shock at my assholery progressed from gallows humour into something like acceptance. “Fuck it,” I mused. It was a free dinner. The bottle was intended as a giveaway. Were they really going to care all that much? The guy who won didn’t even know what Utopias was. The restaurant was going to get their social media love. Samuel Adams had gotten lots of coveted “exposure” and most of the people there were going to write articles about the restaurant’s opening. The PR company that had set the whole thing up got everything they wanted. Was anyone really going to care about one little bottle of beer?

By the time Mark dropped me off, I still felt stupid, but I was definitely less appalled by my behaviour than when I had first hit the sidewalk. Mark and I laughed and shook our heads one last time and I convinced myself I’d probably never even hear about that bottle of Utopias.

I put my key in my front door and my phone buzzed as I received a text. It was the head of the PR company that had invited me to the dinner.

“Hey man. Did you take that bottle??”


4 thoughts on “The Utopias story

  1. I like the part where you mention that you were gracious enough to give your artist friends an in for a free meal but still came off like an inside-out asshole.

  2. Great story, Ben, and kudos for sharing in spite of the shameful, SHAMEful…shame.
    I only wish I could’ve been there and to know what you texted back.

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