Beer(s) of the Week: Pliny the Elder & Heady Topper

I recently acquired a four pack of Heady Topper, brewed by the Alchemist in Vermont, from the best person on the planet, cause he sends me awesome beer. So for this Beer of the Week, I decided to do a head-to-head, side-by-side, tasting of Heady Topper and Pliny the Elder, one of (some people would say THE best) the best IPAs in the world. I am a lucky man right now.

Ok, full disclosure. I live in Santa Rosa. I drink Pliny like water. It is by far my favorite IPA/DIPA/TIPA (I should copy write that) ever, based on every day availability. I admit I’m a fan boy. And I have had Heady before, so I have my opinions on both. Another thing to admit; this was not a blind tasting. I know that would be ideal and remove any biases, but anyone who has had a Heady would know that it has an insane amount of hop particles floating in it. Having the glasses side by side, I would know which one was the Heady immediately, so I figured there was no reason to even pretend to do a blind tasting. And I know the Alchemist tells you to drink it straight from the can, but if I’m judging it against another beer, it is only far to enjoy both of them under the same conditions (I ever chose identical glasses).

And, with that out of the way, here we go.

First up, Heady Topper. It pours out a brilliant, pretty much opaque, golden body. Thick, lace white head sits atop and settles down to a pool of bubbles. If it wasn’t for the pungent hop aromas emanating from the glass, you would judge this a hefeweizen based on appearance.

There’s a large amount of hop aromas on the nose, with aromas of leafy, vegetal hops and tropical fruit sweetness. There is also a good dose of pine in there too. Very faint aromas of caramel malts, but this showcases the hops all the way.

The first flavor in the mouth is of dry, cracker malts. Upon actually swallowing the beer, the hops come on like gangbusters. Big, tropical fruit sweetness, some leafy, grassy flavors and then a big punch of bitter pine hops. There’s a little spice in there too. The finish has a lingering bitterness, with vague fruit sweetness and just a touch of alcohol burn.

Time for Pliny to step up to the plate.

It has an equally brilliant golden body, but is much clearer. There is a slight chill haze to it, but I can actually see through this one. The head is moderate in size, lace white in color, and settles to a pool of foamy bubbles. The head on both actually look very similar.

The nose leans toward the floral side, although there is some pine in there, as well as fruit aromas, mostly of grapefruit, but with some peach as well. There is also some alcohol esters as well.

The malt base here is crackery as well, but a little more downplayed. The hop bitterness does seem to come on a little quicker with this one. The dominate flavor is grapefruit, but there are some floral tones, and the finish is a bracing pine bitterness, with a warming alcohol burn.

There are definitely differences between the two, albeit pretty subtle. The Heady had more tropical fruit flavors and Pliny tended more towards the grapefruit side. Also, Pliny was more floral while Heady was more vegetal, which gave slightly different flavors.

So who is the winner? Well, Me, of course. These are two world class beers, with one being the venerable number 1 on a lot of people’s list, and the other being the new kid on the block (at least on a widespread scale) trying to claim the throne. The differences are so subtle, that it makes it hard to declare a winner. If I had to, I would say I’d choose Heady Topper, by an ever so slight margin. I really enjoy tropical fruit flavors in my IPAs, so that’s the only reason I would choose it. But you offer me one of those any day of the week, and I will never turn it down. Man, we really are blessed with amazing beers these days.


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