On Tap: Worthy Alternatives During the Heady Topper Shortage
Tasty treats for the beer-lover on one's holiday gift list. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Heady Topper, brewed in Waterbury, Vt. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Stop the madness. Bombarding the brewery, raiding stores and even resorting to illegal activity, all just to score some Heady Topper?
I enjoy this Vermont-made double IPA as much as the next person, but the craze around it has now become criminal. By this, I refer to the news several weeks ago that a Burlington woman got busted by the state liquor department for trying to sell five cases of Heady Topper online for $825. Not only is that illegal, but her asking price was more than a 200 percent mark-up on the retail cost. The sad thing is that someone probably would have paid it.
The Waterbury, Vt., brewer behind this phenomenon, The Alchemist, has become a victim of its own success. So many eager hop heads flooded the brewery in search of the elusive Heady Topper that The Alchemist had to close its retail store last month. Apparently, the traffic upset neighbors.
Readers from as far away as California and Oregon have e-mailed me to inquire how they could get some of this legendary beer, considered by at least one beer-rating website to be the best in the world. I’ve had to tell them that it is difficult to find even around here.
The time has come to cool the hype. Heady Topper is outstanding, but while many people have been preoccupied with scoring a case, they may have been neglecting other delicious beers.
Below are a few labels that are worth your attention. Like Heady, each feature truckloads of hops and offer a boozy warmth that is welcome during winter. None replicate the floral and citrus bouquet of Heady, which brewer John Kimmich once told me is an “ode to hops.” But I believe these beers offer their own unique experiences, and should be considered on their own merits. All are sold in Upper Valley stores. And even better, you shouldn’t have to do anything criminal to buy them.
Long Trail Limbo IPA (7.6 percent alcohol) — The guys at Long Trail have been having fun in their pilot brewery in Bridgewater, and this is proof. Limbo was the biggest surprise of the IPAs I tasted for this column. It is a bold beer, with a distinct hop aroma of citrus, mango and other tropical fruits imparted by the Australian and West Coast hops. The alcohol, while pronounced, adds warmth but is not prickly or hot. It could have used a bit more carbonation to push the hop bouquet out of the glass. Nevertheless, Limbo is complex and delicious. The brewery is also local to the Upper Valley, which means this beer should be sold fresh and be in ample supply.
Victory Dirt Wolf Double IPA (8.7 percent) — Of all the beers on this list, Dirt Wolf came closest in matching the intense flavors and aromas of Heady Topper. Like Heady, Dirt Wolf uses American hop varieties that lend a complex aroma, dominated by grapefruit and with some underlying grassy notes. The pale malt base is simple, but stands up to the intense bitterness and alcohol to bring balance. Dirt Wolf is the booziest beer on this list, and even stronger than Heady, but remarkably smooth with no harsh alcohol. A real gem.
Green Flash Brewing West Coast IPA (7.3 percent alcohol by volume) — The West Coast is just silly with IPAs, but this San Diego brewery stands among the best of them. This is a resinous beer, with a hop aroma that evokes lemon citrus, fresh-cut grass and pine. It has a medium-light body and dry finish, but there’s a light caramel in the malt to add complexity. The cross-country trip from California doesn’t do IPAs any favors, as you really want to drink these beers fresh. But this one holds up.
Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA (7.2 percent) — The ubiquity of Sierra Nevada beers sometimes leads to them being overlooked. Beer geeks get excited about the stuff they can’t find, and Sierra Nevada is sold pretty much everywhere. But if you haven’t tried Torpedo, then you’re missing out on an expertly crafted beer. It has spicy, herbal hops throughout, with hints of tangerine and melon. The malt is a tad sweet, but never distracting and instead brings balance, making the beer almost juicy. It is also a pretty beer, with a frothy head and high carbonation that helps the aroma stick around for a while.
Ballast Point Brewing Sculpin IPA (7 percent) — Yet another IPA from San Diego, but I just couldn’t resist. Sculpin is a world class IPA. And somehow, despite traveling 3,000 miles to the Upper Valley, it still tasted fresh and bright. Like Torpedo, it is balanced and has brisk carbonation. The hop aroma features citrus rind, grapefruit and grass. The alcohol is a full percentage point below Heady, but 7 percent is plenty for me. It has just enough warmth to add complexity, but won’t cause your head to slump after one glass. Sculpin is considered by some to be of equal standing with Heady, and indeed, it can be almost as difficult to find. I was able to buy some in Woodstock. Hey, it’s closer than Waterbury.
There are a lot of other big hoppy beers that I left off this list, mostly because they are either sold exclusively on tap or are unavailable in the Upper Valley. But here’s one honorable mention that, while rare, has made an appearance in at least one local store.
Jack’s Abby Kiwi Rising (8.5 percent) — leads the class of the style known as India Pale Lager. (Actually, it’s a “Double India Pale Lager.”) Hopped like an IPA but fermented with lager yeast, this Framingham, Mass.-brewed beer is a showcase for New Zealand hops that infuse all kinds of grassy lemon citrus and melon aromas. It has the malty smoothness of a good pilsner and the cold-fermenting lager yeast gets out of the way of the featured ingredient. It is also a big beer at 8.5 percent alcohol, but you’d never know it.
Released in October, Kiwi Rising has already developed a devoted following. The fervor hasn’t yet matched the craze over Heady. But you might want to buy some before it does.
Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-727-3229 or email@example.com.