It 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. Alas, Heady Topper actually exists! So we packed up our gear and went on the hunt, heading north into Vermont and staking out a local beer distributor. We succeeded in capturing a couple of cases of this big brew. This is our story…
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.
Making 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.
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.