This last weekend, Gail and I took a trip to Waterbury Vermont to tour the Ben & Jerry's factory. We had a beautiful day that also included two unusual stops for donuts, a nice sampling of Cabot's cheeses, and a not-so-nice sampling of spirits. But that's not the point of this article.
As it turns out, besides being home to great ice cream, Waterbury Vermont is also home to one of the worlds best beers: The Alchemist Heady Topper. This is a beer that some rate #1 in America, but most put in the top ten. And it is only available in Vermont. And ... only on certain days ... and only at certain liquor stores. Let's say, it's difficult to come by. No wonder that beer lovers make pilgrimages to Waterbury.
If you are out of luck and in town on the wrong day, your best option is the Prohibition Pig restaurant, which sometimes has some on stock. But we were doubly out of luck: no Heady Topper left. Nevertheless, sitting on their deck on such a beautiful day with my wife, a cuban sandwich and pulled pork tacos was close to heaven.
What Prohibition Pig did have was a second offering from The Alchemist: Focal Banger. Before we talk about Focal Banger, though, we need the context of Heady Topper. Heady is a double IPA, which doesn't really describe it much, because it's so unusual even as a double IPA.
I've noted before that hops in beer has three characteristics: bitterness, flavor and aroma. Heady turns up the flavoring hops to a crazy level, like drinking a flower garden that has grown under a grove of pine trees. If you aren't into aggressive beers, you could either hate it or love it. Hard to tell. Taste it if you get a chance.
Focal Banger is Heady Topper's little brother. It's labeled an IPA, but I think it's best to think of it as an IPA and a half. It has the same flavor profiles as Heady, but at about 75% intensity. And it keeps the same level of hoppy bitterness. This is truly a remarkable beer. Beeradvocate rates it 100. If it falls short anywhere, it would have to be that it is balanced slightly over bitter for my taste, which becomes more evident as it warms up. A minor flaw, if that. Even more amazing, The Alchemist doesn't even give it a nod on their web page, "We are currently focused on brewing one beer perfectly – Heady Topper, an American Double IPA." It was a real treat to miss out on Heady Topper, since this was the consolation prize.
I was talking to Gail tonight about the Beeradvocate rating. I said I would probably give it a 98, as I opened a bottle of Pretty Things FlowerLand. 98 is a pretty good rating, but I wanted room for something better. Did I mention I was pouring a bottle of Pretty Things FlowerLand?
FlowerLand is labeled an "Overgrown IPA," a nod to the agressive use of four different kinds of hops. The best comparison I have for FlowerLand is of course Focal Banger. For what it's worth, I think FlowerLand is better, so I'm glad I left myself some room with my 98 rating for Focal. I'd give FlowerLand a 99. To describe it in similar terms, it's like drinking a flower garden that has grown in a caramel factory. And the bitterness level starts out perfect, but drops off a little as the beer warms. Move over Meadowlark; I have a new Pretty Things favorite.