Heady Topper, Second Fiddle, and Lost Galaxy Walk into a Bar…

IMG_1761My how time flies. A fluff piece I started back in sunnier times as a way to have a little fun with some two-week-old, hopped-up beers finally comes to roost in the dreary, wet weeks of fall.  The dust’s been blow off, the final keyboard keys have been pecked, and this experiment in blind public opinion is done.

So, just what will the general public think of some of Vermont’s finest when they don’t know they’re drinking it? Read on to find out.

The Setup

I did a podcast a few weeks (nay months) ago that took three of Vermont’s big hitter IPAs and subjected them to the equivalent of a beer bottle knife fight by semi-blind taste testing them to see which reigned supreme. The tasters all knew that Heady, Sip, and Second Fiddle would be featured somewhere in the tasting, but we also threw in another 5 beers to mix it up and potentially throw us off.  You can listen to the surprising and not so surprising blind results here.

But why stop there? What else can be done with a couple cans of Vermont gold (besides drink them, I mean, come on!)? Well, why not get a bar full of craft beer nerds to unwittingly blind taste some of the most wanted beers on the planet. Namely, Heady Topper, Second Fiddle, and, seeing that I was fresh out of Sip of Sunshine, Lost Nation’s Lost Galaxy. Including what is essentially a juicy, but dank, session IPA against sweet imperials might be enough to get this thrown out of court, but I adapted to what I had available and one that most bar patrons in Lancaster, PA could not readily identify.

I considered including some locals, Dirt Wolf for instance, but getting the OK to do this in a bar, a functioning, money-making bar mind you, I didn’t want to push my luck giving away beers that patrons could and should be buying. So this wasn’t as expansive as it could have been, but it was a random idea executed in a very short span of time. As a proof of concept, it was successful, though not definitive. I think it is an experiment worth revisiting with a greater variety of brewers and in a more controlled, scientific manner.

IMG_1703Irregardless, (back-off! It’s been recognized as a real word and I wanted to take for a spin. Now that I have, no amount of brain scrubbing will clean away the filth) the real trick here was not giving away the beer’s identity instantly with some signature pounder-sized cans of silver and green.

My solution was to transfer the beer into generic, sanitized 12 oz amber bottles and cap them homebrew style. Simple, elegant, and far less time consuming than my original idea of creating individual beer blinds that would cover the can, but allow the beer to pour freely. It’s a marvel I can find the door sometimes.

The Grift and Results

While I could go on and on, I’ll spare the details except to say I headed down to a local pub, got the OK from the friendly neighborhood bartenders, and waited. It didn’t take long for one curious person to bring over another (of course without spoiling the sanctity of the experiment) until all 48 ounces were gone, three shot-sized pours at a time.

A total of 10 participants weighed-in, only 8 of which were factored in due to the beer warmth,  and they each ranked them in order of preference. So 2 for the best, 1 for second and 0 for the worst with the highest number the victor. The results are below:

Beer Results



I think several things can be ascertained from this. First, it was a near dead heat between Heady and Second Fiddle, coming down purely to individual tastes. Admittedly, the cannabis/skunky and session quality of Lost Galaxy isn’t as accessible, however I think it is just as expertly crafted for the respective style. Also, there were no expectations from the participants, so it’s purely taste-based and not meant as a best representation of a DIPA. 

Second, while not definitive, the warmer the beers got, the better the Lost Galaxy did. We can’t remove the bias of people’s palates, so this is just a potential effect. I can say from experience, letting Heady or Second Fiddle hit room temperature turns them into malty hop candy that lacks character and any reason to drink it frankly. Temperature is a HUGE factor here, so at least start drinkin’em cold folks.

The third factor doesn’t come from the static data, but the comments made by the participants. Two marks, both of whom I know are well-acquainted with Heady Topper, and several other participants found Heady Topper to be almost cloyingly sweet. They readily identified a pervasive flavor of honey malts that intruded on the smooth, cirtusy hops and quaffable bitterness. This led many to prefer what they perceived as the hoppier beer in Second Fiddle. The lighter body of Lost Galaxy made it the better beer over time, but most were drawn to the bolder flavors of the DIPAs.

Final Thoughts

When I revealed the actual beers to the participants, the reactions varied from a pleasant head nod and smile to a proclamation of mind blown. I believe 4 had never had any of these beers prior to the experiment, so they really were tasting this objectively for the first time.

One participant, who accurately described parts of the beer profiles (specific hops and malt), was impressed by Lost Galaxy and ranked Heady Topper last. Once “the jig was up” as the kids say, he admitted to never liking Heady and wasn’t surprised by his ranking. I’ve found that a consistent and knowledge palate like his is a rarity among beer nerds when it comes to blind tasting.

Another participant, a self-described Heady Topper fan, was flummoxed when it was revealed she ranked Heady below Second Fiddle (a beer she also had on many occasions) and that she didn’t readily identify it. Her shock was genuine, but to what degree it may effect her future beer purchases or perception of beer, I can’t say.

So that’s it. Does it really prove anything scientific or tell beer drinkers something they don’t know? No, but it’s a fun (at least for me) way to demonstrate that anticipation and label expectations can color our perceptions almost as much as our actual experience tasting a beer.

I plan on further exploring the notion that we taste as much with our eyes and wallets as our tongues, comparing some “upper tier” beers along with some readily available, quality shelf beers that we’re so used to seeing they practically become invisible, to really investigate the hype that is becoming the norm in the beer industry. Till then, drink’em if you got’em.

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