Drinking Pliny the Elder a few weeks ago with Tim, we got to musing over whether or not there’s any reason to rank beers. If a beer kicks your palate’s ass, then why start rating it against other beers? Why do humans feel the need to categorize and make best-of lists?
As humans, we like to order our world, even if our orderings are erroneous. Just look at how many times science has had to correct itself over the past 10,000 years.
Being the human I am, I’m going to try to answer the question: Which beer is better, Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Elder or the Alchemist’s Heady Topper?
In recent posts, I attempted to pin down each beer’s respective taste notes.
Here’s a recap of my Pliny experience:
The best way I can describe the drinking experience of Pliny the Elder is saying that there is a taste wave the drinker experiences. First, of course, is a hop insurgence that gives a full-bodied citrus wallop to the tongue, but not an obnoxious wallop. There’s a moment in Pliny’s taste wave, like when a surfer first hits a big wave, where everything feels like it might go wrong. I’ve had plenty of imperial IPA’s that start off magical only to land hard on a sour taste note. Not Pliny.
The next part of the taste wave is a fresh bittering flavor that lingers on the back of the tongue with a clean pine taste. It’s different than that first citrus hop hit. What you’re left with is wonderfully different than the taste you started with.
The citrus-to-pine taste wave makes you want to go back for another flavor ride.
Now for my summation of the Heady Topper taste ride:
What hits your tongue first is a hop wall. Like the brewer decided to bring in all of the artillery in the first lines. As the flavor spreads across the tongue the finish is clean. The hop feel at the back of the tongue lasts long, but isn’t offensive like some over-the-hop West Coast IPA’s. Every moment of this drinking experiencing is world class. Comparisons with other IPA’s is challenging, because this beer truly deserves the nods it’s getting for originality.
I poured my second Heady Topper into a glass. It has a yellowish color and is filled with sediment. I wonder if they want you to keep it in the can not to maintain the “essential hop aromas that [they] have worked so hard to retain,” as the can suggests, but, rather, to keep the feint of heart from seeing the unruly brew they’re imbibing.
Now that you’ve read the two descriptions, here’s my choice as the tastiest imperial IPA in all the land. It’s an East Coast vs. West Coast showdown. A battle of two beers nearly impossible to stockpile in your fridge. Beers whose tales of unavailability make them mythical in the beer world. It’s 8% alc/vol vs. 8% alc/vol. Goliath vs. Goliath. It’s…
Ok, I’ll stop.
The winner: Heady Topper. It’s more unique. It’s stranger. It’s got a little bit more magic. For me, these factors inch it past the mighty Pliny. It’s a photo-finish, and the Topper just noses past the Elder.
Of course, being from New England I’ve had many more cans of Heady than the one bottle of Pliny I’ve imbibed. Oh, and I grew up in Vermont. So, like any best-of list, you should take my answer with a grain of hops. I’m just another human trying to make sense of the beer world he lives in.
Both beers are first-rate. Both beers are worthy of putting on a last-meal list. You know what, for my last meal, I’ll have a Pliny for dinner and a Heady for dessert.
My suggestion? Drink as much of each of these beers as you’re able to get your hands on.