Thursday, May 1, 2014

Shrunken Heady Topper - Tasting Notes

Beer: Shrunken Heady Topper
Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Session IPA
Brewed: 3.23.2014
Kegged: 4.14.2014
ABV: 5%

Appearance: hazy orange, murky, thick creamy head, good retention
Smell: rich fruity hops, peach, mango, berries, melon, very little dankness
Taste: fruity hops, peach, melon, berry, subtle sweet malt, mild bitterness, lingering richness
Mouthfeel: medium carbonation, medium body, light, soft finish

For all the excellent advice dropped by John Kimmich in interviews, perhaps the most important statement he made was something no homebrewer can really account for in their recipe planning. With fields of hops devoted exclusively to Heady Topper, the Alchemist's beer will theoretically find more consistency and grow incrementally further apart from other IPAs brewed with the same types of hops. As homebrewers, most of us don't take into account the variety within varieties, because most of the time... how could we? We know that noble hops grown abroad and domestically will not taste the same, but what about different Simcoe crops from different farms around the northwest? (What about when patents start expiring years from now and we can grow Simcoe and other popular hops in the northeast US?) Homebrewers don't generally have personal relationships with our suppliers, and short of stock-piling large quantities of a good crop from a single source, we're usually not in a position to be too picky.

Add to that the complications of storage and supply: I buy most hops by the pound now, which means I can keep many of the hops I really like in stock, but this often leaves me with a few dubiously-packaged (vacuum-sealed) ounces that I just can't use up as fast as I maybe should.

Point being, cloning beer is a rather complicated undertaking, adding a whole bunch of factors when you're trying to hit two targets (good beer, and good beer that closely resembles an existing good beer.) Consistency is doubly hard when you aren't brewing the same thing consistently.

[To paraphrase Tenacious D: "This is not the greatest beer in the world, no. This is just a tribute."]

I don't feel too bad about this not being a perfect clone of the basic Heady essence, but it does make me wonder whether the major changes needed here (with the goal of more accurately capturing the Heady essence) are to the recipe itself, or just to the various techniques and tools and fumbling start to kegging that go into making and serving [my] beer. But after I gave a pint of this to a friend and asked them to describe it — without said friend having any idea what the batch might be — and their first thought was "it kind of reminds me of that Alchemist beer," it's reassuring to think that the ratios and timing of my hop bill are at least on the right track. Let's say 92%, this time.

Aroma-wise, Actual Heady strikes me as pretty heavy on the Columbus and Simcoe, more dank and resinous than any of my versions have been. Heady drinks so juicily, especially when fresh, that I often forget just how dank it actually is — but evoking a comparison [to this lighter, softer beer] definitely draws out the dank. That dankness is contained mostly within the aroma, with the flavor dropping that juicy succulence that sticks with me. Fresh Heady is like a cold bubbly glass of juice smoothie, with a heavy focus on creamy orange and rich melon, mango and grapefruit. There's just enough bitterness to balance it out, but it's hardly over the top.

Shrunken Heady is a bit like all of that, but slighty re-arranged, a recognizable but imperfect facsimile. Anyway, since I was only trying to capture the spirit of Heady Topper in a smaller, more sessionable form, I'm not going to put too much weight into the side-by-side comparison. The main differences come in Shrunken Heady Topper with the mouthfeel and drinkability; it definitely doesn't have the same bite or bitterness, and as a result the taste seems a little... subtler. You could call it cleaner, or you could call it muted, but it's obvious that it's a much lighter beer, and it finishes more rich than bitter. Dankness and resin is almost non-existent. The less crisp bitterness, with less heft and bite at the end, means the body comes across as... not thin, but smoother. This is more juicy, more focused on the citrusy soft fruit character — though notably the same juice smoothie blend of creamy orange, rich melon, mango and grapefruit, just in slightly different arrangements. The bitternesss could be dialed up maybe just a notch, to help provide some more footing once the aromatics begin to fade a few weeks in.

And I'm afraid they have — my kegging technique is still not perfect. Surprisingly, and a little frustratingly, the aroma in the first kegged IPA I made held up better over time, and that beer may have actually been better overall. How does that happen? I clogged the diptube of that beer four times before I got it to pour, which is telling of the amount of hop matter that remained in the beer during its whole cycle. Here, I over-compensated, filtering the hop matter out at every opportunity, and perhaps squeezing too many hops into too little space a few times, all for the sake of, you know, being able to pour the beer in the end. There doesn't seem to be an easy solution from my perspective — the ability of the hop character to fully permeate the beer clearly suffered from stuffing the hops into muslin bags (in the boil) and a stainless steel mesh filter (for the dry-hop), which are I things I have never really bothered with before. This is one of those beers where you throw an obscene amount of hops into it and, despite the great flavor and aroma, you can't help but have that nagging thought: that's all I got out of those?

Kimmich says that he doesn't add nearly the amount of hops that he sees in some clone recipes, so maybe we're still over-compensating. I wonder if that over-compensation helps to make up for process differences, or if whatever it is he's doing to dry-hop is even possible to duplicate on the homebrew scale. I wonder what I'm going to do with the insane amount of hops in my freezer before they get old. I wonder if I need to learn something from every batch, or just be happy with having a couple gallons of a beer that tastes great. Even if this does fade a bit, I'm quite happy with its proximity to Full Size Heady. I feel like only a few small tweaks are really needed to really get there — if the full Heady is what you're after.

For the recipe and original notes on this beer, click here.


  1. Do you know if the Alchemist stir/agitate their product during dryhopping - as that could be one of their methods to use less hop than expected - as there is a greater extraction of the aroma compounds and stronger sensory characteristics than hops just thrown in the fermenter.

    1. I strongly suspect that they do. No idea what their exact methodology is, but I think most of the great IPA brewers right now are doing this. Kimmich has indicated that there are major process differences between what he does and what the average homebrewer does, and this would certainly be a big one.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I have seen footage of of people using their conical and recirculating through a pump. But from Kimmich's comments, they would be using a perialistic pump. I am contemplating a 1g batch, and using the slow speed on my stirplate to mix the beer. May create more oxidation issues than its worth, but if I manage the speed to just mixing the bottom layers rather than madly spinning the beer, it might be ok.

  2. As you know, I'm in the exact same boat as you. With my Maine Beer Co. MO clone and Alpine Duet clone, while I really enjoyed both beers, I was disappointed that all those hops at flameout and dry-hopping didn't come through MORE. That's why with my most recent beer (the Societe The Pupil clone), I actually held off a bit... just a bit, mind you!

    I also wonder sometimes how I'm going to go through all of these hops. I can't stop buying them, but I can't possibly brew/drink enough to use them all while they're fresh!

    1. And your Younger clone too, right? I think the lesson is that there's a hard rule of diminishing returns or something. Adding tons and tons of hops worked when it was all about bitterness, but for aroma / flavor, it seems like you can only get so much before it becomes more about efficiency / extraction / packaging than about the amount you throw at the beer.

    2. Exactly. When I read about hop-steeping, dry-hopping, etc. a few years ago in some publication or another, they said that there was no ceiling effect with these methods. But I don't know if that's true.

      Not only does adding a crapload of hops at FO and DH not necessarily add more than, well, half a crapload, you have to wonder if maybe it makes the beer a little... harsher. I've had a couple of IPAs that had that astringency in the mouthfeel, and weren't brewed any differently, really, from other IPAs I had done... but I had really dry-hopped the hell out of them.

  3. I think it has a lot to do with hop-to-wort contact ratio. As homebrewers we struggle with over loading our hops in a carboy or kettle. A professional brewery will have larger tanks and kettles that provide a different contact ratio. That's one reason they have better extract efficiencies. I don't think its necessarily amount of hops as much as it is hop contact with the beer.

    My procedure, which seems to have helped, is to dry hop in a keg without a hop bag. Every now and then I shake and flip the keg to increase the surface area contact (obviously the keg has been purged). I also try to keep my dry hopping time to around 3 days, then cold crash and rack to a different keg. Ideally I would like to get another dip tube and use it as a bright tank that I can use to rack off the hops with out exposing the beer to more O2.

    1. Similar principle to what I mentioned above. The wort and hop matter is kept in suspension through slowly pumping wort through the fermentation vessel, rather than letting it settle on the bottom of the conical cone.

    2. Exactly. I just don't have a pump, or a conical. :(

      You can also get quicker extraction that way

  4. I dry hop in the keg. I put the hops in a paint bag and weight it down. Then suspend in the beer with floss. I don't remove the hops from the keg. I've had a beer dry hopped this way on tap for about 7 weeks now and the aroma has not faded at all, nor has the beer developed a "grassy" character.

  5. When you dry hop after a couple of days Hook up your C02 line to a aeration stone and bubble up from the bottom to resuspend the hops ;-)

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