Craftbeer Review: 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!

Joel R. Kolander is the Cheif Blogger for Sud Savant, a beer-savoring blog for the rest of us. We’re not here to get plowed. We’re not here because we are world-famous beer critics. We’re here because we enjoy savoring a great beer with even better friends. Sharing great beer is just as amazing as finding it in the first place. Lets share!