Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Alchemist - Heady Topper

Out of the blue, an old college buddy named Wilder texts me.  This is the transcript.

Wilder:  Hey question for you.  You still doing that beer review?

Sud:  I still have it, but I haven't written on it for quite some time.  Though I know I will when I try some on my bucket list that I want to remember.

Wilder:  Is Heady Topper on that list?

Sud:  I would say so.

Sud:  Consider my curiosity piqued.

Wilder: My dad just came back from VT and brought 7 cans with him.  I asked if he'd be part with 1 to another beer nerd who named their first kid the same name as my brother.  He said sure.

Sud:  You keep this shit up and I'm gonna name the next one Wilder.

At that point, in the true spirit of craft beer altruism, he also tried to tell me he wanted nothing in return and offered to transport the beer to me!  Thrilled enough with the prospect of finally being able to try Heady, I gave him a Prairie Artisan Ales "Christmas Bomb" and went to pick the beer up myself.  However, this did not diminish my appreciation one bit.  Heady is obtainable in the Midwest but typically one must be willing to part with some pretty primo barely pops in order to do so.  That said, this opportunity is being relished for the gem it is.  Let's pour!

***Note:  Both of my prized tasting glasses from Port City Brewing have met rather unfortunate ends; neither at my hands.  Also, my typical "beer reviewing space" is in the process of being remodeled.  Those two things in mind, there has been a rather unceremonious change in glassware and location, both of which are temporary.***

Aroma 12/12
Strong pine followed by aromas  of its cannabaceae relative and some distant mustiness.  All of this is sitting atop a large supporting cast of sweet malts that are difficult to discern through the wash of citrus nectar.  If there's something that The Alchemist is missing here, I can't think of it.  Color me impressed.  As the beer begins to warm the pine is replaced very distinctly by the tropical fruits and the slight sting of resin.

Appearance: 3/3
A pleasant bright and hazy ochre with accents that, appropriately for this time of year, remind one of a ripe cantaloupe.  Head is thin, nearly as white as the paper on which I'm taking my notes, and thin - taking very little time to settle as a barely a film on the beer's surface.  Translucent.

Flavor 20/20
Initial flavors were hard to isolate because this beer jumps right into the body.  Very reminiscent of grapefruit, with a mixture of bitter and citrus sweetness dancing together as able partners.  At first, the main body offers mostly bitter flavors, but once the mouth has conditioned to that a wonderful array of flavors takes over: resin, honey, and grapefruit.  I'm going to take a minute to make an analogy about the grapefruit in this beer.  It's like Jelly Bellys to regular jelly beans.  Jelly Bellys are amazing, right?  Why?  Because they taste exactly like what they say they will.  Pear?  Buttered popcorn (my favorite)?  Mango?  Jelly Belly nails it every time.  Heady Topper is like tasting a grapefruit flavored Jelly Belly.  Sure, using a standardized vocabulary you state that many beers offer grapefruit flavors.  That's like comparing a red jelly bean to Jelly Belly's cherry flavor.  Jelly Bell actually tastes like the real thing.  So does Heady Topper.  It tastes like honest-to-goodness grapefruit.  No analogy.  No kinda-sorta-almost.  Grapefruit is in there.  And the strange thing is, I don't enjoy eating that actual fruit, but I dig this beer.  

Anyway, like I was saying: resin, honey, grapefruit.  But as it warms, much like in the aroma, those tropical fruit flavors are becoming more pronounced and getting ready to party.  The aftertaste at first was musty, but again, after the mouth becomes conditioned, things change.  It went from musty to almost the complete opposite end of the scale by showing off its sweet tropical hoppy flavors.  Finish is a bready sweetness with a true, but never overwhelming, bitter earthiness that lasts and lasts and gives the beer's final impression.  Maybe even a little peppery?  Yes, definitely peppery, but only after the 8% ABV has subtly and finally revealed itself ever so briefly.  This is not a palate wrecker by any means, but more of a showcase of what hops are capable of in skilled and nurturing hands.

Mouthfeel 5/5
Just wow.  Bigger beers should take note.  There is plenty of sensation of carbonation on the tongue, but never in danger of becoming prickly nor effervescent nor heavy and sluggish.  It's perfect.  Furthermore, it helps cover up the medium-heavy body of this DIPA and makes it ridiculously drinkable.  Even the alcohol warmth is all but invisible until well after the swallow.  Well done at every possible turn.

Overall Impression 10/10
Confession: Heady Topper didn't instantly "wow" me.  It was not some beer that kicks your palate's face and then demands its lunch money.  There was no wide-eyed epiphany, pillar of light, or chorus of angels.  This beer's approach was much more cerebral.  It shows you one facet, then quickly changes to show yet another.  Before half the beer is gone, you've tasted 8 or 9 very different flavors, and smelled nearly as many aromas.  This is a technical masterpiece of hops.  Admittedly, it seems unfair to label something as "technical" when it abounds with such pleasing aesthetic qualities, but with such complexity I find anything else less plausible.

Total 50/50
Much like cooking, the brewing of beer is as much science as it is art.  People like Alton Brown have shown us the science behind delicious recipes and combinations, and others can combine ingredients without any training except experience in a way that bends chemistry to their will while simultaneously ignoring it.  Which does Heady Topper do?  I'm tempted to say the former.  The mastery of hops in this beer is so complete that I find it hard to believe that anything but careful study and tedious practice could be its foundation.  Regardless of its origins, the beer has clearly earned its reputation.  I am typically skeptical of such widely-acclaimed brews, but the endless complexity, drinkability, and perfect mouthfeel have easily won me over and earned a perfect score.  I have never had a more complex beer that changes more in the glass than Heady Topper.

Speaking of complexity, Heady is a beer I would love to do a vertical of week by week.  I feel that its complexity warrants it and new flavors would come and go as the beer ages and changes.  To anybody who has that access and opportunity, a toast to you.  Don't let that opportunity slip by.

Thanks Wilder!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Russian River - Pliny the Elder

I knew this day would come.  Tolstoy once wrote, "The two strongest warriors are patience and time."  I have been as patient as a statued saint and have watched years pass before this day would come.  Today, I get to sample one of those most revered, sought after, and highly touted beers in America - Pliny the Elder.  While our friends on the West Coast don't have as much trouble as the rest of us acquiring this elixir, it remains a "whale" to the population at large.  Well, today call me Captain Ahab because this is one whale I intend to slay.

However, as excited as I am to finally taste Pliny in all its glory, I am also somewhat apprehensive.  I mean, Pliny is every definition of a whale.  It has limited production, acclaimed flavor, is highly sought, and is far from being distributed on a national scale (as far as I know).  I've heard about ol' Pliny since the early days of my craft beer drinking experience.  Can it possibly measure up to the hype?  Can all the searches and all the trades that happen around the country be worth it?  I'd be lying if I said my heart didn't feel the suspense a little bit.  Time to go whaling.  Let's pour!

Aroma 11/12
A snifter is not required to draw the strong and complex hop aromas from this pint.  Straight from the bottle is a rush of pine, grapefruit, and sweet, sweet malts fighting a dissonant resin.  No tropical fruits are detectable as in many of the more recent contenders vying for "King of the IIPAs," but a more traditional IIPA aroma is not a hindrance in the least.  Warming slightly, the sweet malts come more into play and their sweetness mingles in harmony with the citrusy cloud of hops.

Appearance 3/3
For how "big" the beer smells, its 8.0% ABV, and its reputation, I was quite surprised to see how light in color Pliny was.  Bright as a sunny day and nearly as golden, Pliny's high clarity added to its brilliance in the glass.  An ivory colored head fades to pure white head as the beer seeps down and through.  It enjoys a moderate retention, but rests mostly as a ring on the beer's surface.

Crappy picture measuring EBC.
Flavor 20/20
Do I have to stop smelling it?  All right.  The big moment.  Here we go.  Things start out much less sweet than I had anticipated based on the aroma.  First notes are grassy, peppery, earth, and already the hop bitter is present in a nicely understated role.  Other sips yielded similar earthy notes, but the beer comes alive when you take a big ol' mouthful.  My timidity in the effort to savor the beer would have ruined it, had I drank the whole glass in the same fashion.  A healthy swig brings those sugary, honey-rich malts out to play as a fine balancing ingredient to the bitter hop flavors.  These larger gulps also let the sweetness of grapefruit and malt become factors much earlier (and likely as my tongue further acclimates to the hops).  Good heavens, for a hop heavy style, the balance is spectacular and easily one of this beer's strengths.  Lots of woody hop flavor in the backbone with plenty of sweet grapefruit and classic IPA malts.  The finish, of course, emphasizes the bitter as the beer washes over those rearmost "bitter" taste buds, but despite this biological disadvantage, the sweetness from both hops and malts remains remarkably persistent.  There's even a freshness there that I can't quite explain.  The aftertaste is resinous, pleasantly sticky, and finally betrays a slight warmth on the exhale.

Mouthfeel 5/5
Tremendous in every aspect.  The brew is wonderfully smooth, with a perfect carbonation that makes it presence known, yet refuses to interfere.  A quick swish in the mouth turns things even more creamy.  It has a hearty body that carries the flavor well without being cumbersome or sluggish, and as mentioned in the "flavor" section, the ABV is all but hidden for nearly the entire experience.

The whale stands alone.
Overall Impression 9/10
Well, I don't know how anything could measure up to the reputation this beer has.  However, if I were to be ranking a beer of any other name, its superior qualities would still stand out.  Not only is this beer to style, but it does so in excellent fashion.  Beautiful aroma, well balanced, and a perfect mouthfeel make it easy to see why people clamor over it.  So why the score only of 9 in this category?  I just didn't get as excited about it as I do some other beers.  It's an outstanding beer, no question.  I just didn't fall in love.

Total 48/50
While far from a bad score, the 48 points may be a bit lower than most folks would rank it given the hubbub surrounding this brew.  Technically superior and certainly savory, I enjoyed my first bottle of Pliny quite a great deal.  That said, after sipping I did not pull it away from my lips and in wide-eyed enthusiasm exclaim, "Wow!"  There are beers that will do that do me, many of which are stouts, that absolutely floor me with their strength, flavor, creativity, and complexity.  Pliny, impressive as it is, did not earn that high honor.  It's still an honor roll, 'A' student, just not A+, valedictorian student that also attends space camp.  I love the balance, I love the mouthfeel, and I very much look forward to the next opportunity I get to taste this elusive treat from Russian River.

Note:  For those wondering, this particular bottle was bottled on 11.21.2014 and consumed on 1.03.2015.  That's 52 days for you counting at home.  Not its absolute, most fresh, but still within the guidelines for IPA freshness.