Posted By on October 31, 2014

Heady Topper Beer canIt may not be so hard to find for hop-heads in the know, and close to the brewery’s limited area of distribution, but for the rest of us Heady Topper is almost as elusive as Bigfoot. Still, Cryptobrewology went on the hunt and succeeded in capturing a couple of cases of this big brew.

One day a fellow craft beer lover told perpetually-out-of-the-loop me about Heady Topper, the acclaimed Unfiltered Unpasteurized American Double IPA. He raved about how delicious “Heady” is and how hard it is to find. In fact it is not legally available for sale outside of the state of Vermont, where it is brewed by The Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury.

While Heady Topper is their main beer they do brew monthly specialty beers like Ouroboros, El Jefe, Focal Banger, Petit Mutant and others. The latter two are also canned in limited release and sold in special truck and tent sales. You can learn more about their special releases, future new brewery and get other updates at The Alchemist Blog.

Originally served exclusively on tap, Heady Topper has only been available in cans and in a wider distribution since 20011. Still, despite growing interest and demand, Heady Topper is fairly impossible to get unless you go to Vermont to find it. If you do, make sure you’re in the right place at the right time.

The Alchemist currently brews 180 barrels per week, canned and delivered to a relatively short list of restaurants, pubs and package stores in the Burlington, Stowe, Waterbury, Montpelier and Mad River areas. They provide a list of establishments where you can buy Heady Topper, but it can still be tough to get your hands on.

My wife and I had a trip to the Adirondacks scheduled, in a little town about an hour west of Burlington, VT. We had planned on taking a day trip to Burlington while there so acquiring some Heady Topper became a mission for us. The urgency of our mission increased drastically — especially for Cindy who has become quite the IPA fanatic — when we actually tasted Heady Topper at Manhattan Pizza and Pub in Burlington, VT.

We arrived in Burlington around 11AM on a Thursday. After a must-stop at Magic Hat for free samples and SWAG, we stopped for lunch at The Farmhouse Tap & Grill (Top notch, great beer selection!), then dropped in at the Vermont Pub and Brewery, where we learned a bit more about the man behind Heady Topper, The Alchemist, John Kimmich.

Kimmich actually started working for the late Greg Noonan as a waiter while he learned the craft of brewing from him, and was eventually asked to step up as Head Brewer. It’s a great story you can read here, told by Kimmich himself.

In 2003 Kimmich and his wife opened a brew pub under the name The Alchemist, where they began offering Heady Topper on occasion. Demand grew, even surreptitiously as some folks took the beer offsite illegally, initially unbeknownst to the owners. Kimmich then opened a separate brewing facility to brew a larger supply and meet a growing demand. During the same month, and mere days before the first cans rolled off of the canning line, the brew pub was destroyed by Hurricane Irene.

No official word if The Alchemist will open another brew pub, but I heard a rumor to that effect. Unfortunately the brewery is closed to the public, so no tours, but maybe that will change in the future. At the very least we can hope The Alchemist Brew Pub comes back, somewhere. It would be a great place to visit during one of our next excursions into the north woods.

Case of Heady Topper CansMaking off with The Goods
Stoked by the stories and the mystique of Heady Topper (and after actually tasting it!) we located the package store where we planned to purchase our prize. Cindy and I stood online for about 45 minutes, hearing more stories from other eager Heady-heads, before they opened the doors to the cooler.

This particular location receives 2 deliveries per week, Tuesday and Thursday, 100 cases each of those days. They release 50 cases in the morning and 50 cases in the afternoon. We arrived in line at 5:15PM, and they started handing out the beer at 6, first by the case and then, as the supply reduced, in half cases, then finally in four packs only.

For our first trip through we scored a half case each, then Cindy went back in and got in line again to snag another full case. Our mission a success, we locked our precious cargo in the back of the Cryptomobile (my Dodge pickup), hidden safely beneath an unassuming blue tarp.

We drove west out of Burlington and back into the dense wilderness, eagerly anticipating our first sip of Heady Topper around the fire pit at our secluded Adirondack retreat.

Heady Topper poured into glasses to see color and head.The Big Heady Topper Flavor
Heady is a big beer, but the secret to its continued success has everything to do with the amazing balance of malts, hop bitterness and dryness; the flavor is huge but not overbearing. Heady is so big that you almost don’t notice the 8% ABV, but it can sneek up on you so sip and enjoy what is has to offer.

A proprietary blend of 6 hop varieties offers quite a complex nose and flavor profile. On their website The Alchemist asks what we may identify, “Orange? Tropical Fruit? Pink Grapefruit? Pine? Spice?” Yes, and yes. The hop notes run far and wide, taking their turn with your senses as you inhale the aromas and let the beer drift across your tongue.

Clearly indicated around the rim of the can, The Alchemist recommends that we “Drink From the Can” for optimum flavor and freshness, but I chose to pour it into a glass so I could see the color and build an appropriate head to release more hop aroma. Along with a great flavor, Heady Topper is a nice looking beer too, pouring a slight pale yet fruity looking amber-orange color. I didn’t notice a huge difference in flavor or nose between the glass or a can, but hey.

In all Heady Topper is an excellent beer, for us it was well worth the trip and the wait in line at the store. The beers reputation is bolstered by a great story of a man who packed up his life to pursue his dream and found success.

More info can be found at Wikipedia.

Posted By on April 8, 2014

There is misinformation circulating the web about “bad ingredients” in some beers, specifically the use of fish bladders, MSG, Propylene Glycol, GMO corn, high fructose corn syrup and caramel color in the production of some beers.

The data presented in articles I’ve read is either erroneous or based on true brewing practices and technologies that are misunderstood by the authors (Food Babe, et al.) and subsequently misrepresented.

These articles, with titles like “Beers You Should Stop Drinking,” “The Shocking Ingredients In Beer,” or “What If Beer Companies Told the Truth?” spread hype without fully understanding the methods of production and use of adjunct ingredients, processing agents or additives. Let’s break it down here.

Does Guinness Stout contain Fish Bladders?
“Fish Bladders”
Let’s clear this one up: Fish bladders are not in your Guinness Stout. I guess it is possible that a minute particle of isinglass made it past the filtering process, but it is extremely unlikely. It is far more likely that someone’s nose hair will drift into your pint.

Isinglass, a form of collagen derived from dried swim bladders of fish (a by-product of the fish industry, and not a bladder that holds pee), is used as a flocculant, or fining agent, to bring yeast cells out of suspension and clarify beer prior to filtering and bottling. It is not directly part of the filtering process, and occurs before mechanical filtering.

After filtering you should have no bladder concerns other than yours filling up as you drink your Guinness Stout. With regard to High Fructose Corn Syrup, see the section on GMO Corn below.

With regard to whether or not Guinness can be considered “vegan” I think there is far more to worry about in the world for the so-concerned than what a beer is fined with, especially since it doesn’t end up in the finished product.

MSG – What We Need to Know
I’ve never heard of MSG being used in any beers. The MSG scare began, spread and persists solely on anecdotal evidence with no substantial scientific data to support it. Studies have found no causal relationship between the ingestion of monosodium glutamate and perceived side effects when MSG is ingested in small quantities as an additive in food. Read this. With that in mind MSG is really irrelevant as an argument to avoid any food.

Propylene Glycol
It sounds just awful right? Especially when it is hyped up as super bad along with the phrase “an ingredient found in anti-freeze!” That’s true, it is found in some antifreeze because it lowers the freezing point of water, and incidentally is much less toxic than, say, Ethylene glycol or Methanol, which are downright poisonous. So PG is really the lesser of evils and really not all that evil itself.

Propylene glycol is an organic compound used as a preservative in some foods and as a solvent in some pharmaceuticals. It is considered generally safe by the FDA. Oral toxicity of propylene glycol is vey low and it is metabolized into pyruvic acid (sounds worse than propylene glycol) by the body and converted into energy, so it’s not gonna kill ya. That said, aside from glycol being used as a refrigerant to keep tanks cool during fermentation, I’ve never heard of it being used in actual beer production.

In any case, the amount alcohol in any beer is far more likely to cause harm than propylene glycol. That includes damaging brain cells as well as potentially causing you to fall over, run off the road or injure others. All things in moderation and with due responsibility of the individual. CYA: Do not drink propylene glycol or anti-freeze!

Is there GMO Corn in beer?
GMO Corn and High Fructose Corn Syrup
The GMO controversy is generally a matter of opinion. Conspiracy theories aside, the scientific consensus is that GMO foods are just as safe as their “organic” cousins. Most craft brewers will not even consider using GMO corn in the first place.

Interviewed for the TimesUnion Beernut Blog article, “Debunking 8 Beers that You Should Stop Drinking Immediately (posted April 2014), brewer Todd Parker states “While we cannot guarantee that nobody uses GMO products, they are not generally available to the majority of brewers. Most craft brewers are against their use and will never use them.”

Genetic modifications made to grains increase their heartiness in diverse climates, and resistance to disease and pests, allowing farmers to supply a larger world population.

GMO Corn and High Fructose Corn Syrup are fairly irrelevant with regard to beer anyway because by the time beer is fermented, bottled and on the shelves there is no corn syrup remaining in their original form, GMO or otherwise.

The alcohol in beer comes from fermentation of sugars. The primary form of “fermentable” sugar in beer is derived from malted barley. The more malted barley you use the greater the amount of sugar and the higher the alcohol level, but this also creates a thicker beer, so corn is used as an “adjunct” (in addition to barley) in the production of some beers, mostly the lighter lagers. The fermentable sugar obtained from corn boosts alcohol without contributing to the body of the finished beer so it is a little less heavy and “less filling” for some people, while the alcohol level is maintained.

Corn syrup is fermented into alcohol and is not really an ingredient in the final beer.

That’s something to consider; beer is not a mix of ingredients bottled and presented as is for consumption like some processed foods. The main ingredients and their production lead to a final product that is very different than what went into it. There is no “ingredient list” on most beer labels that I read, but a short list of things it was “made with,” which are typically barley, hops, yeast and water. Exceptions may apply in the case of colorings and preservatives.

Also a good note: in some cases adjuncts used in beer are mentioned on labeling as “select grains.” These select grains can include barley, corn and rice. Rice has the same effect as corn in the production of some beers.


Caramel Color (E150)

I won’t really defend this one, I think artificial colorings are a huge blunder in alcoholic beverages for pure aesthetic reasons. In my opinion the color of the finished alcohol product should be the result of a proper and careful craft brewing and/or aging process, for beer as well as Whisky. Unfortunately commercialization drives industry and that is driven by the bottom line and consumer demand. Funny that the ones creating the demand are the ones who complain in the end when the manufacturers figure out a way to get products to market quicker.

There are four classes of Caramel Color E150 which range from E150a, no ammonium or sulfite compounds, to E150d which contains both sulfite and ammonium compounds. The latter is used in some soft drinks.

Caramel Coloring E150 in Newcastle Brown AleIn the case of Newcastle Brown Ale the ingredient is referred to as simply E150, but a little deductive reasoning (i.e.: looking at the chart on Wikipedia where it says, “Used In” … “Beer, sauces, and confectionery”) we can assume that the classification of Caramel Color E150c is the type used in Newcastle Brown Ale and some other beers. Also, the charge of the proteins in the additive must match the charge of the proteins in the product being colored, so E150a, b or d are not likely to be used in beer.

I refer you to this brief on Caramel Colorings at DDWColor.com for more information. While you’re there pay particular attention to the part that says, “Caramel color is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) as a miscellaneous and/or general purpose food additive under CFR section 182.1235, and is deemed to be GRAS by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, FEMA Number 2235.” And this, “The percentage of caramel color needed to impart the desired color is normally so low that caramel would have no measurable impact on the nutritional profile of a product.”

No, I don’t really want artificial colors in my drink, be it soda, beer or whisky, but if we’re worried about cancer the levels used are so small that we should stress more about whether or not to have another cigarette, or how many candles we want to light in an enclosed space.

Again, it’s about moderation. The fact remains that the level of alcohol and the amount you consume are the greater risks in drinking any given beer or alcoholic beverage. To stop drinking a beer you enjoy because isinglass was used as a clarifier, or because they used High Fructose Corn Syrup as a fermentable sugar, is ridiculous. Learn the facts.

The rest is a matter of personal preference or standards of purity really. The food coloring, preservatives, MSG or GMO corn used in production are not going to kill you, the alcohol is more likely to assist there. But it’s always a good idea, and healthier all around, to just drink a little bit less.

Many people would rather stand up and yell as if we’re all being duped and poisoned by the big companies. While unscrupulous activities surely exist in big and small business, what’s worse is a misinformed public spreading unnecessary panic without fully understanding the facts.

Humans don’t need any help, we poison ourselves with poor logic and over-consumption.

Posted By on January 10, 2014

Contaminated Beer painting by Drew Vics, January 2014In an older article — written very early on in the life of Cryptobrewology, when I knew very little about beer or home brewing and even less about microorganisms — I think I said something about the alcohol level in beer probably being substantial enough to kill off bacterial contamination if the method of sanitization was not optimum. [Kicks self in the ass.]

My naive logic at the time figured that, during fermentation, bacteria would be killed off as alcohol was produced by yeast and increased in the solution.

While the rising alcohol level will minimize it to some extent, it’s not guaranteed.

In cases of very mild contamination yeast, during its growth, can choke out other microorganisms that might otherwise succeed in establishing themselves, though that is not guaranteed, and it won’t completely eradicate them. Any microorganism that remains will begin to reestablish itself.

If the yeast does stifle the growth of bacteria during fermentation the resulting alcohol level may be enough to slow regrowth for a period of time after the yeast becomes inactive, but contamination will remain. The bacteria will grow and greatly reduce the shelf life of the beer. Microorganisms are a pretty hearty bunch.

It takes a lot of alcohol to kill germs, and there is just not enough alcohol in beer or wine to do the trick. Wine actually is conducive to the growth of bacteria!

Cecil Adams, author of The Straight Dope, found that “[Wine] resulted in the biggest and most abundant colonies, even more than in the raw sample.”

Hops is the boon to beer. Antibacterial qualities of hops reduce the growth of most microorganisms except, luckily enough, yeast. Still, this is not a sure thing, bacteria will always find a way.

There is no substitute for cleanliness and good sanitizing techniques, but if you’re not handy with Spray Nine or a mop bucket, brew a Double IPA and you should be okay. For a little while anyway. There is no way to completely eliminate bacteria. The idea is to work clean and sanitize to minimize contamination so that alcohol and hops can be more effective in lengthening the shelf life of your brew.

Here’s to clear, refreshing beer!

Posted By on November 8, 2013

Okay I’ll admit that, though it gets easier with time and experience, home brewing is never quick. but jazzing up your beer into a more hearty holiday offering may be easier than you think, and if you have an un-carved pumpkin sitting on your doorstep like I do, you can still use it before it rots or gets smashed. It could help you get smashed!

Spiced Holiday Ales and Pumpkin Ales
A simple way to spice things up is to add some spice to your pale ale, brown ale or porters and you’ll create a nice winter warmer for the holidays. Add pumpkin puree to your fermenter, or near the end of the boil, and you’ll get a nice spiced pumpkin ale.

When adding fruits or spices to your beer you first need to adjust your hops. Bitterness and various floral components of hops can interfere with the effect you are trying to achieve. To keep it simple, stick with hops that have a mid to lower alpha acid content (8% or less) and also have complimentary aromas.

Good Hops for Spiced Holiday Ales and Pumpkin Ales
Hops with pine, spice, citrus or floral notes fit right in with Fall and Winter ales. Some good choices for this type of beer might be Cascade, Athanum, Fuggles or Kent Goldings. A suitable yet more fruity and floral, and somewhat spicy hop would be Crystal. While some of these may be used for bittering, their AA% is lower than more aggressive bittering hops. Also, you will add less hops than usual, only an ounce or so for a 5 gallon batch, and add them in the last 10 minutes of the boil, to extract only aromatic compounds.

What Spices Should You Use, and How Much to Add?
Common spices used for making holiday ales are clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. Even some corriander or ginger can add a nice spicy note to a beer. Use spices sparingly though, especially the heartier nutmeg, clove and cinnamon, they can ruin a beer if too much is used.

Spiced ales and oak aged beerSpices can be very overpowering, and will continue to spice the beer as it sits, so consider steeping the spices within the last 10 minutes of the boil, or add the spice to the secondary, whole in the case of cinnamon, or coarsely ground nutmeg and clove, in hopsacks or nylon stockings.

If you add them in powdered form and leave them in suspension they will continue to add spice, making the beer eventually undrinkable.

Since we’re trying to affect the nose, it’s probably a better idea to just steep the spices in the last 10 minutes of the boil, as you would with aroma hops. This will also cut down on potential contamination that is possible when adding things to the fermenter.

For cinnamon, nutmeg and clove keep the addition below an ounce or so for a 5 gallon batch. You can use a little more, 1 1/2 ounce say, for things like corriander and ginger.

Adding some orange peel is also a good way to compliment the spice and add a pleasant citrus note to the finished beer. You can zest an orange yourself or find dried orange peel at your local homebrew supplier or try the Sweet Orange Peel at MoreBeer.com.

A blend of these spices, along with the orange peel and hops mentioned above, makes for a very interesting and fulfilling experience.

Making a Spiced Pumpkin Ale
Now that you have some spice, take your beer to another level by adding some pumpkin notes to the flavor and aroma.

The easiest way to do this is with a can of pumpkin puree, but in some cases pumpkin puree may lead to a sweet, rich pumpkin pie flavor, which might not be what you’re shooting for. In my opinion, residual sweetness in an ale, especially holiday ales, should come from the malt, not adjunct sugars.

For a true pumpkin flavor and aroma try using a real pumpkin. If you’re brewing your seasonal in the early fall you should be able to find one around.

If you’re brewing an extract recipe you will add the pumpkin to the boil. Pop the top, scoop out the pumpkin guts and take out some meat, cut it into 1 inch cubes and carmelize to strengthen the flavor. You will want to use about one pound of pumpkin, that’s a good starting point.

To carmelize the pumpkin, heat a large skillet over medium heat and arrange the pumpkin in a single layer if possible. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring or rolling the pumpkin to heat it evenly. After that, let it cool, then mash it up and you can store it in the fridge until you use it.

Add the carmelized pumppkin to the wort during the last 10 to 15 minutes. Longer time in the boil will impart more pumpkin flavor and aroma, less time will have more effect on the aroma.

If you’re doing an all grain batch you can roast the pumpkin and use it in the mash. There is a great guide to making an all grain pumpkin ale at the American Homebrewers Association website.

What else can you do with a pumpkin? Why not make it into a keg!

Hope this helps you get a good start on holiday brewing. Enjoy, and as always, Happy Brewing!

Posted By on October 9, 2013

A few posts back I gave a quick review and overview of the new BrewDemon beer making kit. Well, BrewDemon products are now available at Amazon.com.

Get started with their Basic Beer Kit, Plus Beer Kit, and Signature Beer Kit, or buy components separately, like their 2.5 gallon Conical Fermenting System, bottles, or Basic and Plus refill kits, including American Prophecy Ale, Dante’s Delight Weizenbier, Hellfire Deep Red, or Twisted Monk Witbier, just to name a few.

Visit the BrewDemon page at Amazon.com and browse their selections.

A BrewDemon kit makes a great gift idea for the holidays, get someone you know brewing up some of their own homemade beer this year!