Over the past few years, one beer has maintained an iron grip on the top slot of the Beer Advocate rankings: the elusive Heady Topper.
For the uninitiated, the 8.00% ABV American Double IPA is currently the most highly regarded beer in America. Sold only in cans and on tap within a 25-mile radius of its birthplace—the Alchemist brewery in Waterbury, Vermont—its high-quality and limited production make Heady Topper the most sought-after craft beer in the U.S.
“We make 9,000 barrels per year,” says founder and master distiller John Kimmich, now a legend in the beer world. “We do not have any plans on making any more than that.”
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The brewery originally opened its doors in the fall of 2003 as a seven barrel brewpub. “We ran that business for eight years until it was destroyed by a flood during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011,” says Kimmich. “It was around that same time that we opened our current business, the Alchemist cannery, where we produce Heady Topper.”
As for the name “Alchemist,” it was inspired by Kimmich’s late friend and mentor Greg Noonan, owner of the Vermont Pub and Brewery. “In the Vermont Pub and Brewery's old logo, there was a tiny symbol,” says Kimmich. “He told me that it was the alchemical symbol for fermentation.” Kimmich and his wife Jennifer loved it so much, they named their brewery after it. “We have always been striving to turn matter into gold.”
Kimmich brewed the first batch of Heady Topper in January 2004, but the unfiltered IPA went through a few changes throughout the years. “The recipe was pretty much set a year or two before we opened the cannery,” Kimmich admits, but he still messed around with it here and there—he just doesn’t like to tell anybody. With its bold flavor of six different hops, a touch of malt, and a world-class rating on Beer Advocate, Heady Topper’s cult status has grown steadily with positive word-of-mouth. In fact, the brewery does next to no marketing or advertising.
Still, Kimmich downplays the Heady Topper hype, insisting that on the surface there really isn’t anything unique about the beer. “Heady topper is nothing more then an American double India Pale Ale. We just try to make it the absolute best that we can every single time. If it didn't taste good, customers wouldn't be nearly as excited to tell their friends about it.”
Unless you’re willing to make a trip to Vermont or have a good friend in the area, it’s damn near impossible to get your hands on a case. As a result, Heady Topper has an outrageous black market value—one woman tried to unload five cases for $1,250 on Craigslist and it’s been reported in D.C. as going for $18 a can.
“There's nothing we can do about people trading it and selling it for more than it is worth,” says Kimmich. “My real concern is that people keep it refrigerated and treat it with respect.” Alchemist works hard to ensure that the beer’s selling price stays fair in authorized retailers, which are designated in the Waterbury area with a special sticker on their doors.
The good news is it might be slightly easier to obtain Heady Topper in the near future. They're currently going through the permit process to build a second brewery in Stowe, Vermont. “We hope to break ground on that first thing this spring, and be open for business one year later,” Kimmich says.
And this doesn’t just mean more Heady Topper for the masses. Once the new brewery and its tasting room are built they will also begin producing a couple of new beers—Focal Banger (American IPA) and Beelzebub (American Imperial Stout).
In the meantime, we've culled a list of our favorite Heady Topper alternatives. They're not the same, but they'll do.