On Tap: “World’s Best Beer’’ Is Made in Vermont, but Can You Get It?
Heady Topper from Waterbury, Vt., has been called the world’s best beer by BeerAdvocate.com. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)
Krystal Fuller, member services coordinator for the Hunger Mountain Coop, stands by a cartload of Heady Topper. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)
Patrick Luce, beer buyer for the coop, puts heady Topper on the shelf, where it sells quickly when it arrives on Friday. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)
A sign warns shoppers that they are limited to buying just two four-packs at a time. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)
Montpelier — The shipment was scheduled to arrive Friday around noon, and I’d heard from a guy who knows a guy that I’d better be there on time if I wanted my share.
Sure enough, when I rounded the corner into the beer aisle at Montpelier’s Hunger Mountain Coop, there it was sitting on a rolling cart — 24 cases of Heady Topper.
Employees were posing for pictures with the cases stacked shoulder-high. One customer jerked his head around to have a look, as though his neck had been yanked with a chain.
For the next few hours, Coop employee Patrick Luce spent his time refilling the cooler with four-packs of Vermont’s most sought-after beer as they disappeared from the shelf.
“This is what I do on Fridays,” said Luce, the Coop’s beer buyer.
Made by Waterbury-based brewery The Alchemist, Heady Topper is the world’s best beer. Or, at least, that’s what people have said on the beer rating website BeerAdvocate.com, where this Double IPA has received the top ranking among hundreds of beers. It has earned a rare perfect score of “100” from more than 2,800 customer reviews, making it “world class.” Aficionados talk breathlessly about its big hoppy aroma, like “fresh-cut grass, tangerine and honeysuckle,” “grapefruit” juiciness and smooth drinkability, despite the hefty 8 percent alcohol. The brewer, John Kimmich, has called his creation an “ode to hops.”
People go nuts for this stuff. And, as a result, it is nearly impossible to find.
I can’t tell you how many questions I get asked about Heady Topper. I routinely will interview sources for stories that have nothing to do with beer (I also cover health care for the Valley News) when they suddenly break off the conversation and ask me about Heady Topper. Is it true that The Alchemist is expanding production? Where can I find Heady Topper? Do any stores in the Upper Valley sell it?
So, this week, I’ve set out to answer some of these questions.
As to the first one, the answer is yes. The Alchemist is, indeed, adding fermenting tanks at the cannery in Waterbury. The brewery expansion is mostly finished and production has doubled, now at 120 barrels (or 3,780 gallons) of beer a week, according to Jen Kimmich, who co-owns The Alchemist with her husband, John. The extra capacity has helped keep Heady Topper in stock at the brewery. But not for long.
“We continue to run out each week,” she told me in an email.
Now, instead of running out of beer on Friday mornings, supplies stick around until Sunday, she said. There’s another bump in production planned for this summer, and the brewery could put out 6,000 barrels in the next year.
Kimmich said The Alchemist has picked up a few retail accounts as a result, which leads me to the second question. If you want to know where to buy Heady Topper, the brewery keeps an updated list on its website, alchemistbeer.com. I visited Hunger Mountain Coop because I was told that it was among the most reliable places to find this most elusive of beers.
Hunger Mountain has been selling Heady Topper for a couple years, Luce told me. And while the beer’s reputation has grown, its popularity with customers was immediate. Three weeks after Hunger Mountain began to sell it, the store had to limit customers to two 4-packs per person, he said.
“Heady Topper is huge,” he said. “It’s one of the best Double IPAs, by far.”
As expected, the cans of Heady Topper disappeared from the store as quickly as Luce could put them on the shelf. In the span of an hour on Friday, eight cases had been sold. That translates to one 4-pack sold every minute and a half.
All of the 16 oz. cans of Heady Topper disappeared by 3 p.m., Luce said.
I asked him whether he thought Heady Topper was worth the fuss. Is it really that great?
He thinks it’s one of the best Double IPAs he’s tasted. But the craze is being fed by more than universal agreement over its delicious flavor. Like so many fetish properties that have come before Heady Topper — a Honus Wagner baseball card, Cabbage Patch Kids, free parking in Hanover — the desire for something grows with restricted supply. People just want what they can’t have.
“It’s so hard to get, so everybody wants it,” Luce said. “Then, once they have it, they realize how amazing it is and they want more.”
This is not a new phenomenon with beer, of course, and I was reminded of this by colleagues who recalled a similar frenzy for a product I personally loathe — Coors.
Fans of this swill would drive to the Colorado brewery simply because it wasn’t sold on the East Coast. It was central to the plot for the 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit, in which a rich fat cat and his son search for a truck driver willing to break the law by hauling 400 cases of Coors to Georgia, where it wasn’t sold.
Heady Topper is no Coors. It is so much better, and I’m almost inclined to say that the fervor among faithful fans is justified.
The expansion under way at the brewery is unlikely to change that. Even once The Alchemist triples production, there still won’t be enough beer to cover Vermont, Jen Kimmich said.
“As much as we were hoping to spread Heady Topper around the state of Vermont, we are less optimistic each day,” she said.
Which brings me to the last question I always get asked. Where can I get it in the Upper Valley?
The answer is that you can’t. And you probably won’t be able to for some time. Anyone who wants it will have to make a pilgrimage to Waterbury or get the inside dope on when those precious few cans arrive at one of the retailers listed on The Alchemist website.
I’m ashamed to say that this has made me a Scrooge. When I told one of my editors that I was driving to Montpelier to buy Heady Topper, he didn’t act surprised or ask me why. He asked me whether I’d be willing to part with a can. One look at my expression and he waved off the absurd question. He knew, from my pinched brow and tightly sealed lips, what my answer would be.
No. No I could not. In this game, it’s every can for myself.
Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-272-3229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.