West Coast-East Coast IPA Throwdown: Pliny the Elder vs. Heady Topper

By Robin Coxe

After a nearly two year hiatus, Kegomatic is back!   Amy and I have by no means stopped drinking beer, but life got the better of us for a while.   Our stints as volunteer bartenders at Venture Café reached their logical conclusion in early 2015.   In September 2015, I succumbed to the Sirens’ song of Silicon Valley and decamped from Boston to San Francisco to take on the role of Pointy-Haired Boss of the R&D team at Ettus Research, a National Instruments Company in Santa Clara, CA.

 During the interview process, my new employer latched on to the mention of this blog on my resumé and enticed me with a description of Friday afternoon Ettus Research Beer; the tale of this longstanding tradition shall be the subject of a future post.   I soon discovered that beer aficionados abound at National Instruments and broke the ice with many new colleagues in Santa Rosa and at NI’s corporate headquarters in Austin with spirited discussions about our favorite brews.   After 16 months of buildup, this beer banter came to a head (bad pun intended) last Wednesday 18 January 2017 in Conference Room C at NI Santa Rosa.

I dutifully sent out an Outlook calendar invite several days in advance entitled Very Important Meeting: Pliny vs. Heady Topper Blind Taste Test.   Needless to say, all recipients RSVPed in the affirmative almost immediately.   [I should note for the record that I did have several legitimately work-related reasons to visit NI Santa Rosa that day.  Trust me.]


Although I am not typically a lover of IPAs– I often compare the experience of drinking most of them to consuming Pine-Sol— I had been talking up The Alchemist’s signature brew, Heady Topper, an 8% ABV double IPA brewed in Stowe, VT, for quite some time.   I eventually took the exhortations of my high school English teachers to “show, don’t tell” to heart.   Because The Alchemist does not distribute outside of Vermont, these deprived Californians had never experienced it.

Even though Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County, is squarely in wine country, it also happens to be the home of Russian River Brewing Company, widely considered  to be one of the finest breweries in Northern California.   As it happens, Russian River also brews an 8% ABV double IPA with legendary status, Pliny the Elder, named after the Roman naturalist (23-79 AD) who discovered hops and perished in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.   As a recent transplant to the Bay Area, I had never had the opportunity to sample it, setting the stage for a head-to-head battle of epic proportions.

During my one previous visit to the Russian River brewpub to fête the release of a product aptly code-named Evil Twin, I focused my beer consumption on the world-class sour ales, Supplication and Consecration.   Allegedly, upon tasting one of these polarizing concoctions, one of the more unsubtle VPs visiting from Austin bellowed “this beer tastes like vomit!” within earshot of the entire establishment.   But I digress…

Heady Topper and Pliny the Elder have achieved cult followings in the craft beer community on their respective coasts, due in a large part to scarcity marketing.  The popular press has written strikingly similar articles about the great lengths that consumers obsessed with Pliny (Exhibit A) and Heady Topper (Exhibit B) go to acquire their limited allotments.   Anecdotal observation has revealed that a vast majority of the people who schlep to Stowe or Santa Rosa and stand in line for hours to buy these beers are white men in the 30-44 age demographic.   Craft beer makers take note: the Brewers Association has identified women and Hispanics as the principal growth markets for craft beer in America (and, not surprisingly, millennials).

Dan Wertz made good on the promise he had made the week prior while visiting my office and acquired the requisite Pliny the Elder from Russian River.  The difficulty of procuring Heady Topper from Vermont presented a more daunting logistical challenge.   I had a fortuitously scheduled a 48 hour visit to Boston the weekend before to visit family and friends, and I know People.  More specifically, Amy knows a Person, Mike Yeh, who not only owns a condo in Stowe down the street from The Alchemist, but also loves beer. [Mike and I randomly met up for a few drinks at the now-defunct, but allegedly re-opening Mikkeller Bar in Stockholm in the winter of 2014 when we both happened to be in Sweden on business.   Happily, there is also a Mikkeller outpost in San Francisco.  Yes, it’s in a dodgy neighborhood, but that has hardly prevented me from spending some quality time there.]   I was the lucky beneficiary of Mike and Amy’s inscrutably complicated beer trading scheme, ending up with six cans of Heady Topper, eight cans of Focal Banger, one of El Jefe, and a Double Down Gose IPA from Fort Collins, CO.  I’m saving that last one for the next time I order pad thai for delivery from my iPhone in SoMa instead of actually cooking.

The United Airlines website confirmed that passengers could transport unlimited quantities of alcoholic beverages in checked luggage on domestic flights.  I forked over $25 to The Worst Airline in America and hoped for the best.  My down parka and various articles of clothing served as padding for the precious cargo.   Zipping the bag shut proved somewhat difficult, but persistence paid off.    The transcontinental journey went off without a hitch for both human and beer.

In preparation for the tasting event, I assigned a homework assignment, Amy’s Kegomatic post from April 2015, IPA: Which is the Best Coast?  East Coast IPAs tend to have a stronger malt presence and make more use of European hops with spicier flavor profiles than their West Coast cousins, bombs of hoppiness cultivated in the Pacific Northwest.   Another older post of Amy’s full of IPA factoids also helps to set the stage.

Photo Credit: Justin Magers

At the appointed time, the two contestants prepared for battle and the eager tasters convened.   Justin Magers donned his Pliny the Elder t-shirt especially for the occasion.  Trang Nguyen, although not a beer drinker, found herself caught up in the significance of the moment and prepared to tabulate the results on the whiteboard.   Given that we had ten participants and only four cans of Heady Topper, we had to ignore the exhortation on the can to drink directly from it and had no choice but to ration out the beer in plastic cups.   Unfortunately, the office refrigerator was not up to the task of cooling the cans to the perfectly chilled temperature of the bottles of Pliny, handicapping the East Coast entrant from the get-go.   And the taste test did not end up being blind.  I lacked the time or opportunity to set it up properly, but never mind.

This crowd of beer connoisseurs took their responsibilities seriously and displayed their sophistication and discerning taste by evaluating the two samples properly.  A random guy on the Internet named Otto describes the process pretty decently: 1. See, 2. Swirl, 3. Smell, 4. Sip.   Ruan Lourens declared that Pliny “probably has the best nose of any beer out there,” an assessment that is difficult to dispute.

Then the double fisting started…

The beers were rated on a scale from 1-5. One is undrinkable. Five is the best beer in the universe. Behold the raw data:

Even an avowed non-hophead like myself could not deny the almost transcendent quality of both of these beers, warranting ratings ≥ 4.0.  These two specimens represent craft brewing of the highest order.  If I were rewriting the rules, I would insist that each individual must select a winner.  Go out on a limb and express a definitive opinion, I say!   

Now for the results.  Drumroll please…

Heady Topper [4.38 ± 0.39] edged out Pliny the Elder [4.27± 0.38] , but not by a statistically significant margin.

We made the tactical error of tasting The Alchemist Focal Banger last.  Although this beer garners a perfect score from Beer Advocate, all of us unanimously agreed that it was disgusting.  I offered to ship it back across America to Amy, who professes to like it and expressed dismay that we had spurned it.   Instead, she found a happy home for the remaining six cans with her friend Dan who lives in Noe Valley. I am holding the lone can of El Jefe black IPA hostage in my cubicle and intend to use it as bait to lure the Santa Rosa team south to Santa Clara.

Although the label on the can carrier chides drinkers not to be d-bags and to recycle, my sources report that Justin and Dan kept Heady Topper cans as souvenirs.

Inevitably, the conversation turned to the impending arrival of Pliny the Younger, named after the Elder’s nephew and adopted son who lived from 61-c.113 AD and Russian River’s seasonal triple IPA [ABV 10.25%].  Pliny the Younger will only be available from 6-17 February 2017.   We agreed that in spite of a significant fraction of us being summoned to Austin for management meetings during that time period, we will do our utmost to ensure that sufficient quantities of Pliny the Younger will be acquired and savored.

In the end, Heady Topper successfully infiltrated enemy territory.  Although the upstart from Vermont did not emerge with an incontrovertible victory, it proved itself to be an extremely worthy opponent.   Mission accomplished!

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