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The Alchemist Brewery – Heady Topper

The Alchemist Brewery – Heady Topper
Gabe Bellegard Bastos

I still remember vividly my first can of Heady Topper. I was out celebrating my birthday with my girlfriend, a burger, some oysters, and beers. Inexplicably, The Alchemist’s Heady Topper was listed on the menu, here in Boston. To this day, that’s the greatest beer miracle I have ever experienced. Just the fact I remember it so well shows that we are talking about a special beer. I’ve had Heady Topper a couple other times before going straight to the source, but that was still the defining memory. Drinking it from the can, on a special date, with my favorite foods. And, my god, it tasted so much better than I could have ever expected, even though I had heard so many great, hyperbolic things about it.

If you live anywhere outside Vermont [1], chances are, that’s your relationship to Heady too. A really special, delicious, balanced, fresh, hard/ impossible to find beer. I have used it in blind tastings and I can assure you, if you’ve had it once, you’ll be able to pick it out of a line-up in no time. It’s not aggressive or boozy like most DIPAs, but it’s so much more flavorful and complex than even the best IPAs. It’s also not just floral hops with no backbone. Or just bubblegum and fruit. It’s at once the best aspect of all those and not at all like any of them. I have simply never had anything like it before.

In one blind tasting I purposely picked one-dimensional IPAs, beers that focus on one aspect of what an IPA can showcase. Essentially, I wanted to see if Heady could beat those beers at their game. And somehow it does. Even in the middle of a stacked lineup, as soon as I caught a whiff of what turned out to be Heady, the first thing I wrote down was “Heady/ Grrreaaaaat”. It is absolutely unmistakable. What’s even more remarkable is that the brewers ask you to not pour it out since that “releases essential hop aromas that [they] have worked so hard to retain”[2] but even in the can, you still get an amazing bouquet. Very fresh citrusy hops are the first thing I smell and, for the rest of my life, I will remember that as the Heady smell. It’s also the first scent I caught when I was at the brewery, and one of my favorites. It just sticks with you.

I poured out one of my cans into a stemless Heady Topper tulip-like glass I bought at the brewery so I could finally see what it looks like. It’s surprisingly beautiful, and at first I felt sorry that most drinkers don’t get to see it. It is much lighter than I expected—a perfect, hazy amber as if the sediments were telling you your head is about to go on an incredible hop adventure. However, some people might not be into seeing them—I speculate this might be one of the reasons why you are discouraged from pouring the beer. The other reason is that, having drunk it both ways, I can say that the can is a superior drinking experience. And if we are judging the can’s appearance, well, it’s one of the coolest ones out there.

Regardless of how your drink it [3], or what you think of its can, I feel confident that what will amaze you is the flavor. As with its smell, refreshing citrusy hops are the first wave. But then it develops into other more tropical fruit notes briefly before the herbal and floral hops and resin come through. Even when those notes hit though, they don’t knock you out and it’s never unpleasantly bitter. It’s just enough to finish with a very bright, dry note that has unforgettable traces of fresh grass and pines. Heady is very lightly carbonated, and swirling it in your mouth is perhaps the only way to detect any malt in this beer. It drinks more like an IPA than a DIPA, and at no point in time does it hint of how much alcohol that 16 oz can conceals.

Heady is a dangerous beer because it’s refreshing and pleasant and goes down so easy. I always open one and tell myself “alright, I am going to savor this one and sip as slowly as possible” and, next thing I know, that can starts feeling really light in my hand. Maybe the fact that it comes in tallboys falsely triggers a “drinking lawn-mower beer” switch in my head, but whatever it is, I feel as though I could drink an entire case of it in one sitting. That would be a huge mistake. Not only because here at PorchDrinking we encourage moderation or because this is a high quality beer and if you are just knocking them back without thinking about their taste you are doing it wrong, but also because Heady packs a 7.2% ABV (again, in SIXTEEN oz portions) that goes down like maaaaybe 4%.

I have been avoiding one aspect of this review because I really want you to realize Heady is, in and of itself, an amazing beer. But now I need to acknowledge the big elephant in the room: Heady Topper is currently the #1 beer on BeerAdvocate. Yes, unsurprising and boring that numbers 1, 2 and 3 there are IPAs. Most craft drinkers love hops (a little too much) and IBUs so every brewery makes roughly a million [4] different IPA variations. The more interesting angle is that among a very crowded field, some 3k+ folks have decided this is the best. This is interesting because it proves that the way to make great beer is through balance and harmony, not excess. This isn’t the hoppiest, the most aggressive, or the booziest IPA out there, not even close. In a very democratic way, beer enthusiasts have chosen a versatile, year-round beer over “extreme” or seasonal beers that narrowly tailor to one specific “mood”, season, or occasion.

I have not tried every beer that one might argue is “the best,” so I feel uncomfortable proclaiming it. Part of the reason why I resorted to a blind tasting when writing about Heady is to try to gage the merits of that claim. What I can say is that there certainly is an argument to be made for Heady. Every single can has amazed me and I have yet to find a significant flaw in it. Putting it side by side with other great beers, its quality and unique character allow Heady Topper to stand out. Counterintuitive-ly, Heady stands out because there is not a singular stand out note, just one exceptional experience of waves of flavor that you just want to keep going back to. In fact, Heady is so perfectly balanced it could be your go-to beer.

And that’s where things get weird. To me, Heady no longer feels as special as it did before I went to Vermont. This isn’t to say I think any less of the beer, because since I never get tired of it and it’s always perfect, I actually respect and love it more than I did before. It’s just, things lose a little bit of their mystique when they become ubiquitous.

IMG_1453One night walking around Montpellier, after a couple drinks at the Three Penny Taproom[5], my girlfriend and I came across a street sign for the Skinny Pancake advertising “Heady Hump Day” with discounted Headys and hot dogs. At the time, it seemed so absurd that I took pictures of the sign and posted it on Facebook. But sometime between that and when we headed back to Boston, the shock and surprise wore off. I don’t know if it was visiting the brewery two days in a row, or ordering Heady with casual Mexican food, or being offered it at every[6] liquor store I stopped at, but eventually I came to feel as if Heady was almost overly accessible.

It wasn’t always like this. The Alchemist Brewery completed its latest expansion last winter and until then shortages, even in restaurants in the Stowe/ Waterbury area, where their brewery is located, were common. The expansion is by any measure a good thing, because if nothing else, it means more people are enjoying one of the finest beers out there. Given how versatile a beer Heady is, and the Alchemist’s focus and commitment to producing exclusively that beer year round, it all makes sense. I am honestly fascinated by their vision.

They’ve created a beer you want to have all the time so they are making sure you can have it all the time. They keep no stock, sell it to as many places as possible, put no limits[7] on how many you can buy at a time, and strongly discourage hoarding it, especially since you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t drink the beer fresh. Heady is unique and innovative because it goes head-on against two major trends in craft beer: gigantic beer lineups with increasingly unconventional[8] recipes and limited[9] availability, and releases for “special” beers.

IMG_0018However, if there are positive aspects of innovation, one negative aspect is that it can make those used to “the good old days” a bit uncomfortable. I am not an old-timer, and I love almost every decision they make. But I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t do a double take when I saw Heady Topper umbrellas, or that no part of me worries about the future of this beer I love so much. I worry because I have seen how much my own relationship to it changed in a matter of days. Old me would have auctioned off my right arm for a single can of skunked Heady. Post-Vermont me complained about Heady prices at a restaurant and drank multiple cans in a twenty-four hour span. My pops always warned me how quickly we get used to the very finest things, and that lesson fits here perfectly.

Luckily, there’s a quick cure to these worries: one can of Heady Topper. Drinking it, I am immediately reminded why I fell in love with not just this beer, but with Beer. It simultaneously transports you to all the other times you had it and makes you particularly aware of your current experience of it. It floods your mouth with flavors but they are so harmonious and refreshing you keep coming back for more. Then, I am also reminded that if there’s one concept John Kimmich, Heady Topper’s brewer, understands, it’s balance. Not just with flavors because that’s evident in every can, but also with his brand. So far, he has deftly navigated every step of Heady’s growth without compromising quality and more remarkably, managing to impress drinkers who open a can expecting the “best” beer in the world.

[1] This was supposed to be the year Boston would get a steadier supply but Vermonters are drinking more Heady than expected. I can’t blame them.

[2] Taken straight from a Heady can.

[3] I mean, can or proper glassware. Please don’t use it in a beer bong, or shotgun Heady Topper. I shouldn’t have to tell you this.

[4] By my estimates. I could be slightly off.

[5] One of the great beer meccas of the world, by the way. It makes your local “brew pub” and its draft and bottles list blush with shame.

[6] I swear this is not a hyperbole. As soon as I busted out my MA driver’s license I would get the “we just got some cans today” spiel.

[7] Almost to a fault. While I was waiting in line at a different brewery I overheard someone selling cans of Heady from the back of their truck because he bought too many and maxed out his credit-card.

[8] How many tea beers do we need? Or, as a very wise friend of mine pointed out, it’s shocking that there’s more than one Watermelon beer out there.

[9] “Hey, this is the best beer we make, that’s why no one gets to drink it”. WHAT?

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