Friday, September 6, 2013

Heady Topper Clone - Tasting Notes & Side-by-Side Comparison

Brewery: Beacon Homebrewers Club
Style: Imperial IPA
Brewed: 7.28.2013
Kegged On: 8.18.2013
ABV: 7.5%

As promised (and hoped), I was lucky enough to get up to Vermont last weekend, and even luckier to still snag some fresh Heady Topper on a Friday afternoon. Man, that stuff is getting scarce. You Vermont-based beer traders must be living it up right now, huh?

As also promised, I was able to set up a small side-by-side taste comparison of Real Heady Topper and our group-clone brew (recipe here). I had no doubt about being able to tell the beers apart, having drank them a few times side-by-side this week, so I set things up as a blind taste test for the rest of the guys with myself pouring and supervising.

While the picture above makes it seem as if the smaller glass of beer (real Heady) was lighter than the clone, we determined this was merely an illusion by eventually pouring each into an equally-sized glass, at which point, the color was spot-on. So it would seem the grain bill is pretty much nailed. However, as the guys were fairly familiar with the clone — two of them have had the beer on tap for the last week — it was not a shock that everyone deduced which was which fairly quickly. I believe that the recipe is maybe 90% there, with a few process hiccups dropping our approximation down to about 85% of the real thing. Other's estimates of our closeness where higher, but I prefer to be conservative in judging such efforts. Heady Topper is a lofty goal.

Heady Topper Appearance: Creamy head, cloudy, amber orange. Highish carbonation. The head pours a bit thicker than our clone, with better retention. Less cloudy than the clone, as well.

Clone Appearance: Creamy head, super cloudy, orange milkshake consistency. Medium carbonation. Retention not as high as real Heady. Totally spot on color, though Heady's appearance has cleared up some in recent months due to the Alchemist expanding capacity and allowing the beer to spend more time in the brite tank.

Heady Topper Aroma: Raw fruity hops, led by Columbus. Very dank, with complex fruity undertones. Has an aroma closer to opening a bag of hops — vivid and pungent, slightly earthy, but very juicy.

Clone Aroma: Intense orange, peach, marmalade. Vivid and very fruity, though not as explosively aromatic or "raw" as the best cans of Heady I've had — a difference that is probably attributable slightly to process and slightly to recipe, but still a fantastic smelling beer. Most surprising in the clone: it's very, very dominated by the Conan yeast character as compared to the real Heady. Seems to be missing some Columbus character and general hop dankness — the aroma is great, but off by a few degrees, and too reliant on Conan for fruitiness. I'm beginning to think that Columbus plays the largest (majority) role out of all the hops in Heady.

Heady Topper Flavor: Fruity, bitter hops, berry, mango, peach. Wonderful interplay between the harsh earthy bitterness Columbus provides, the nuanced fruity berry character that Columbus also provides, the piney funky tropical depth of Simcoe, and the softer peach character of Conan. Conan is much more balanced into the character of actual Heady, providing an underlying fruitiness that mostly just supports the hops. More bitter than I remember it being, and far more bitter than the clone. The resinous character of the hops shows through in the tongue-coating mouthfeel quite a bit, and I think this accounts for a large bit of flavor difference. You really feel saturated by all the hops that went into this.

Clone Flavor: Peach, orange, mango. Some of that vague berry-medley character I now associate with Columbus, and to a lesser extent, Simcoe. Close, but not quite a cigar. The bitterness is much too soft, which, considering the insane amount of hop extract tossed into this, plus high-alpha late additions (they still contribute IBUs), I'm guessing must be a water issue plus fermentation issue, and maybe a gravity issue (not dry enough). We treated the water, but perhaps not aggressively enough — or perhaps the slow fermentation that we experienced knocked too much bitterness out, which will happen. As a result, the flavor midsection is kind of "flat", with an empty, sweet transition between the opening salvo of tingly bitterness and the closing notes of hoppy depth.

A high finishing gravity of 1.016 did us no favors, either: the extra few points of sweetness do make themselves known on the palate, and muddle the clarity of the flavor. Peach dominates as the beer warms up, actually over-powering the hop character to a surprising degree. I'm guessing this clone's character was altered by the extended fermentation, bringing the Conan to the forefront in a way that actual Heady shifts more in favor of the hops.

Final Impressions: I love the clone, and think it's a more delicious IPA than most commercial IPAs, but it's definitely not as refined as genuine Heady. Some differences are likely process discrepancies, and some are possibly recipe discrepancies. When drinking side-by-side, the most jarring contrasts were the sweetness, and the presentness of the Conan yeast character in the clone (which was greatly accentuated by the sweetness). When drinking the clone on its own, I hardly noticed the extra sweetness, but real Heady has dried out some with the Alchemist's process improvements, and the beer is getting more consistent than it was earlier this year. Real Heady was actually the less fruity of the two, though I did prefer the raw, bright hop character from the real thing, as the intensely peachy, sweet character of the clone betrayed the sweetness.

The intensity of the Conan yeast character is probably easily explained, as my co-brewers (remember, I did not ferment this batch, or directly monitor it after pitching the yeast on brew-day) reported a wonky fermentation, with the gravity dropping rapidly to 1.024 within a few days, but then slowly climbing down to a terminal gravity of 1.016 over the next two weeks. Conan is typically a rippin' fermentor, with some reporting up to 86% attenuation (I typically see between 80-82%), and finishing in three or four days. Our immediate concern for this batch was the health of the Conan yeast, which I harvested from some fresh cans of Heady. Regardless of how fresh the Heady is, there's no way to tell what generation the Conan itself is, and therefore what sort of health it's in. Still, I'm hard pressed to explain this wacky fermentation, as the yeast seemed plenty healthy when I was making the starters, and I made sure to aerate with pure O2 for a solid minute and a half. As the batch wasn't fermented at my house, I can't really make too many guesses, but I suppose possibly-weird fermentations are one risk of culturing yeast out of a can — at least for the first brew.

However, based on reports that the Alchemist ferments at 68 F, I'm thinking a high-60's ferment actually reduces the peach esters of the yeast, even though that's a bit unintuitive. While I would need to do an actual split experiment to confirm this (and I plan to), my guess at the moment is that a low 60's ferment (or an otherwise slow, drawn-out ferment) will highlight peach esters from Conan, while a vigorous high 60's ferment that finishes quickly will leave the beer with only a background of esters, and give more space to other elements in the beer. Either way, I continue to love the way that Conan allows for a dry, hoppy-finish, while creating a body that is both full, creamy and rich-tasting. This was a real fun batch to brew with my friends, and a wonderfully tasty batch to drink. We'll almost certainly be giving it a second go in the nearish future.

For the recipe, brew-day photos, and original notes, please click here


  1. What would be the explanation behind increased ester production at lower temperatures? It seems that yeasa universally produce lower esters at lower temperature and higher ester production at higher temperatures.

    I have a pure culture of Conan that I received from Al at ECY, and it seems to stall at 1.018. In my experience, Conan is a poor attenuatoe.

    1. I really don't know, to be honest. Just not enough of an expert on yeast to make any educated guesses. It's definitely just a theory at the moment, which I need to test, and definitely un-intuitive, but I've heard others describe similar results with other strains. Off the top of my head, I think there are some Belgian / saison strains that get fruitier at lower temperatures, but more phenolic and yeasty at high temps. And actually, a couple people have reported that Conan gets pretty Belgiany at high temps (though I haven't experienced that myself). So much to learn.

      Conan seems to mutate drastically, and I've now experienced a few "harvests" that would stall at a high FG. I discarded them and moved on to other reserves that I knew to be in good health and get good attenuation. I think it must have been really pushed, genetically, to hit that high attenuation, and with continued use it slips back into a more natural attenuation range. Or it just mutates and gives up, maybe. Still, it's very interesting that Al was the source for yours... can't even begin to guess what's going on there, but that's a real bummer. Hopefully you get a nice aggressive version next time.

  2. Try 1 or all of the following:
    1-pitch colder,62-64, then raise to 68, (because of 'fermenter depth' breweries temperatures can be higher than Homebrewers'. Pressure limits ester production! 100% of yeast in carboy or bucket is under less pressure than 70%-90% of breweries, meaning that only 20% of their yeast is producing as much ester as 100% of yours!)
    2-pitch a little more yeast, growth equals esters, ferment contributes little to no esters,
    3- less O2, Sacc. Cerv. cant ferment in presence of O2, but they do grow(=more esters),
    4- maybe separate out 1-2 gallons of batch and ferment with WLP090 San Diego Super yeast, then blend after day 2-4 to help drop gravity. My last IPA was 1.071-1.008 with no O2 with 090. Also, very clean yeast, probably won't compete w/ Conan yeast flavor. I think this better than just adding a vile of 090 to existing full batch cuz 1-090 will already be active when added to main batch and 2-090 will already be acclimated to the environment and be ready to help finish out the beer. This is also a good option for saisons and wit's since they don't always like to dry out, either, despite the necessity of dryness for the styles.

  3. FACT...Heady Topper ferments at 63 until the last few days in which it is raised to 72 to finish...Also, Comet is believed to be one of the "mystery" hops...Super dank hop.

    1. Thanks for the info! That's interesting about Comet. I've been meaning to play around with that hop, I can't think of many things I've (knowingly) had it in, but it sounds intriguing. Have to bump it up the priority list!

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  5. US-05 has a reputation for throwing peachy esters if fermented around 60F, so it's not a unique phenomenon


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