Beer Review 0382: The Alchemist Heady Topper Imperial IPA
This review might get a little long, because I want to tell you the story of this beer, and how I got it. Not to mention there’s a ton of hype that comes along with Heady Topper; according to Beer Advocate, it’s the #1 rated beer in the world; RateBeer has it at #31. (That is, if you put any stock into those lists.)
About The Beer
Heady Topper is an Imperial IPA brewed by The Alchemist, a family run brewery located in Waterbury, Vermont. As of now, they only brew Heady Topper, an unfiltered 8% ABV (alcohol by volume) IPA, brewed with a proprietary blend of six hops, at the pace of 120 barrels per week. The beer is distributed to a few locations in northern Vermont, and it is also sold at the brewery. And sale, it does: each week, The Alchemist sells through all 120 barrels of canned Heady Topper. The math: with one barrel of beer equaling 31 US gallons, that’s 3720 gallons; one US gallon = 128 ounces; multiply that out and you get 29,760 sixteen-ounce cans, sold every week of the year.
It used to be worse: The Alchemist only recently expanded production — the expansion allowed them to double capacity. Now, instead of running out of beer on Friday, it lasts until Saturday. And getting it at a retail location isn’t any easier. According to Montpelier’s Hunger Mountain Coop, they get 24 cases of Heady each week, and it typically sells out within a day, even with a two 4-pack per customer limit.
This isn’t a rare beer by quantity definition; with close to 30,000 cans being made each week, you can hardly call this limited quantity. But with such a small distribution and with heavy local demand, Heady Topper is extremely hard to get unless you happen to live or know folks in northern Vermont.
How I Got Heady
This past weekend, I decided to visit a local shop that sells beer that I’ve never been to. I’ve known about the place for a long time, but had just never paid a visit. While I’d love to tell you the shop, I don’t want to, simply because I don’t want anyone to expect to go there and get Heady Topper. If you’ve read my site for any length of time, you know I’m based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Clearly, Heady Topper is not sold here or within a 500-mile radius. (If you find yourself in the Piedmont Triad area, and would like some bottle shop recommendations, contact me and I will be glad to provide them.)
I picked up a couple of bottles at this (new to me) shop, some beers I had been looking for but couldn’t find anywhere else. As I checked out, one of the best things about craft beer happened: The Beer Talk. What styles you like, specific beers, recommendations. Saying the name of a beer and seeing eyes light up. I mentioned this site and the fact I review beer. The gentleman behind the counter started talking IPAs and went to the back and retrieved a can of Heady Topper, giving it to me. Being as into beer as I am, I immediately recognized what the can was and was very grateful to be getting a can I know I would probably never get any other way!
That’s the beauty of beer. I have given away my fair share of rare or hard to find beers and it has always been paid forward in return. I will definitely return to this particular shop, not because they had a hard to find beer or that I got a free beer, but because you can tell the folks there are passionate and knowledgeable about beer and believe in furthering beer’s good cause.
Never would I have expected getting a can of Heady Topper one random Saturday in May!
Why This Review Will Be Slightly Different
A significant portion of my review score (15 points) is dependent upon the appearance of a beer. Proudly written on the can of Heady Topper is “DRINK FROM THE CAN!” As The Alchemist owner, John Kimmich, explains in this video, the reasons for drinking it from the can:
-It prevents oxidation, meaning the last sips of the beer will smell just as the first sips did
-After each sip, a layer of carbon dioxide sits atop the liquid, protecting aromas and flavors
Mr. Kimmich also cites some environmental concerns, like being able to drink this beer in the outdoors without risking broken glass, and easier recycling.
Traditionally, I review beer based on how the brewer recommends it be served. 99% of the time, it’s in a glass. Sometimes, the brewer will have you leave the final sip in the can or bottle so as not to distribute particles or sediment; occasionally directions will be provided to swirl the remainder of the beer as to distribute that sediment. Since Heady Topper is recommended from the can, I will be reviewing it straight from the can… BUT, I will pour some of the beer into a glass to describe and rate the appearance. I will also note if there are any differences between the poured and canned beer.
Pouring Heady Topper produced an average size, bright white head, which would have probably been much larger had I poured more of the can into the glass. The head was soapy and lasting, and was easily able to regenerate when swirled. Color of the beer was golden-orange; the body was hazy but there weren’t any particles or sediment present, indicating this is a fresh can (and it is — about three weeks old, although The Alchemist doesn’t date cans as of yet). Lacing was minimal but it was hard to really issue a judgment with such a small sample poured.
If you wanted big hops, well, you got ‘em! Huge waves of resinous pine, grapefruit and lime open this up, and it only gets more complex from there. It seemed like each sniff presented something undiscovered — there’s mango, Hawaiian Punch, pineapple, touches of grass, lemons, and a very soft cattiness. The malt body was very minor, giving off some sweet notes, perhaps a bit bready and caramel. And yes, although you aren’t supposed to put this in a glass, I say do at least once so you can get everything this wonderful aroma has to offer, because sniffing the can doesn’t give you even a quarter of the story.
The taste is pretty much a rush of everything on the nose — lots of grapefruit, orange, lime, and passionfruit, followed up by a strong blast of pine that nearly completely takes over the palate, kind of like a menthol throat lozenge. But that Christmas tree blast clears the way for even more delicate hoppy flavors; enter pineapple, hemp, and peaches. Yes, peaches, fresh cut and maybe even with a bit of sugar tossed on them. The finish is a sneaky bugger, too — while you think Heady Topper will be an Imperial IPA that will conclude on a sweet note, that sweetness slowly fades into a sizable note of bitterness that dries out the mouth and makes your taste buds cry for another sip. This beer is full-bodied just because of the intense hoppiness, but the mouthfeel is medium and is foamy when moved about with the tongue.
All those folks screaming good things about Heady Topper aren’t lying: it’s an incredible beer, super drinkable, absurdly complex, and delicious. And yes, I can taste a big difference drinking it from the can versus the glass, albeit sipping from the glass is nothing to scoff at, either. You’ll just have to try it and see. I have never tasted an IPA that contained this much hop flavor, complexity, or one that delivered such a story of sweetness and bitterness.
My eyes lit up at the sight of the can, and nothing disappointed. One of the best!
The Alchemist Heady Topper Imperial IPA, 100 points. Price: A gift to me from a very kind gentleman and fellow beer lover. Again, thank you very much! I hear this goes for $3.00 US per 16 oz. can at the brewery.