The Impossible Tasting: Russian River Pliny the Elder & The Alchemist Heady Topper

When I first tasted Heady Topper from The Alchemist, I knew it was special. It was among a bunch of other great beers over the holidays, but it made me stop and say “WOW!” I was taken aback. I’d tasted something like it before, but nothing ever from the east coast. The only other beer like it is Pliny the Elder, arguably the best beer on the planet.
I knew of one other bottle of Heady Topper left “in the wild” and soon parted with a cherished (and rare at this time of year) bottle of STBC Pumking for it. I’d hoped to drink it soon after the new year with friends and fellow craft beer enthusiasts Mike and Shannon, but life got in the way and we were delayed.
Well, delays turned into opportunity. Shannon was able to successfully hand carry six bottles of Pliny the Elder back from a trip to California, so we were able to pull off the impossible: taste these two monster together… in one sitting.
As you can see from the pictures we drank them from a set of mongrel glassware, but that didn’t get in the way of our enthusiasm. We decided to start by trying to “Stump the Monkey”, pouring a bit of each into identical glasses and have Mike try to determine which was which.

A little backstory… Mike is in LOVE with Pliny the Elder. I mean, he doesn’t just like this brew. He’s head over heels for it… with good reason. It’s a phenomenal beer! So he wasn’t taking this challenge lightly.

After a sniff of each beer he was perplexed. A second sniff he was pretty sure which one was the Pliny. After an early taste he declared the one on the left the Pliny, but admitted the one on the right was an amazing beer too. We gave him one more taste, but he didn’t waver… agreeing that they were both great beers, but the Pliny had shone through. Only he’d picked the Topper. It was all in fun and Mike enjoyed the challenge just as much as we did, but it was time for us all to taste.

We agreed the Heady Topper had a more pronounced smell, producing more citrus and pine than the Pliny. Let me be clear, they’re both insanely good smelling, but the HT just has a bit more going on. As the HT warmed I started to smell a freshness I could only describe as “celery”, but neither Mike nor Shannon could find that in there.

The first taste of both is bold and finishes clean. Both have great balance and finish with a nice round of hops. The HT seems to have more depth in the mid-palate… it just seems to have more body and flavor as it’s going down. It also packed more of a wallop of hops at the finish, which is usually Pliny’s trademark.

Both are extremely enjoyable to drink (surprise, surprise). Therein lies the conundrum… Pliny the Elder is brewed on the west coast and isn’t distributed in New England. Heady Topper is brewed in Vermont, but is only available on draft at the pub in Waterbury (this bottle was part of a special 600 bottle run, the only one in 7 years of brewing). So getting these is tough… getting them together for a tasting is near impossible. It took some careful packaging in checked luggage (Pliny the Elder) and divine intervention (Heady Topper) for us to have this tasting.

There is hope though. There’s a rumor (thanks for the heads up Matt) that Heady Topper will come in 16oz cans soon. The next step is to get Russian River to start distributing in New England. What do you think?

Thanks to Mike for being a good sport with “Stump the Monkey.” I wouldn’t have stood a chance in that challenge. Thanks also to Shannon for accepting the challenge to bring back Pliny on a recent trip to San Francisco. Your motto should be “Whatever it takes!”

impossible1 heady topper logo impossible 2 heady label impossible 3 impossible 4 impossible 5 impossible 7 impossible 8 impossible 9 impossible 10

2 comments on “The Impossible Tasting: Russian River Pliny the Elder & The Alchemist Heady Topper

  1. Great review! Hopefully if/when these cans come out I can get my hands on one! As far as CBS posts, this is one is pretty epic and it is going to take a lot to top it. I found yet another beer in this category that is extremely tasty, Bells Hopslam, which only comes out once a year. Of course, Bells does not distribute to either Massachusetts or Delaware. I also really enjoyed Dreadnaught, one of the many DIPAs produced by Three Floyds Brewing Company.

  2. It was pretty epic. Talk about the stars aligning. We actually talked about Bell’s Hopslam last night and there’s a chance it’ll be making it’s way here sometime soon. We also talked about adding another page to the site called "Challenges." The premise there is that there is beer we want to try, but for one reason or another can’t get our hands on it. We’ll make it possible for people (anyone) to accept and (hopefully) complete the challenge. Shannon set the gold standard by hauling six Pliny the Elders back on a recent trip, but I’m sure there are some other great ones out there. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *