My Heady Topper encounter occurred at Hen of the Wood restaurant in Waterbury, which is just about a half mile from The Alchemist. I was agonizing over menu selections when I spotted the beer on the beverage list. I'd heard Vermont was home to the world's best-rated beer, so I instantly recognized this was an opportunity I needed to seize. And once I'd ordered a glass of Heady Topper on draft, it was easy to select a food pairing: fried oysters.
Facebook friends and Twitter followers had two reactions when I shared a photo of the rare brew: Did I need an assistant? and What did I think? I responded: "I am spoiled for other beers now, so I think I have to move to Vermont."
Normally, I find IPAs bitter. Heady Topper was so smooth and drinkable, though: dangerous for an 8% beer! That's more than double the alcohol content of my usual poison: Amstel Light. With wonderful citrus flavor and complexity that demands leisurely sipping, a single Heady Topper lasted all the way through dessert.
The Alchemist brews just this one beer. Why mess with perfection? And their on-site tasting room and retail shop at 35 Crossroad in Waterbury, Vermont, is a logical place to set your GPS if you're already salivating. As of summer 2013, $1 tastings, sales and self-guided tours are available from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Visit Monday through Wednesday, and you'll get to observe the canning process.
Even though The Alchemist has ramped up production of Heady Topper dramatically to 180 barrels per week from the 30 per week they produced when they opened less than two years ago, there is still only enough of this world-class brew to supply thirsty Vermonters: You won't find it outside state lines. If you hope to sample a glass or take home cans, their Where to Buy guide will help you locate Heady Topper in Vermont's Mad River Valley and the greater Burlington and Stowe areas.
Be forewarned, though: It can be tough to find Heady Topper, even in Vermont's biggest city. During my stay at Hotel Vermont in Burlington, I figured a short walk to the closest Vermont Liquor Outlet would be all that was required. When I asked for Heady Topper at Burlington Bay Market & Cafe, however, the employee laughed a little and explained they typically sell out within a day after delivery and wouldn't have the beer in stock until Thursday... a day after my departure. He generously suggested I might have better luck at Burlington's Pearl Street Beverage, so my indulgent travel companions joined me on a 15-minute walk to 240 Pearl Street. I was overjoyed (yes, the beer is that good) to see a burly man in line holding the distinctive, 16-ounce, silver cans... and hopeful it wasn't the last four-pack in the store because he was too burly for me to wrestle to the ground!
We found a few cases of Heady Topper still available in the walk-in cooler: A four-pack set me back $14.10 after taxes and deposit. I know now how lucky a find it was. When I called Pearl Street Beverage on a Saturday in August 2013 to confirm the price, a store employee answered the phone with: "Hello, Pearl Street Beverage. We are out of Heady Topper."
There was no way I could go home without this sought-after souvenir, though. When I'd texted my husband the news, "I drank the world's best beer," he'd responded with a single word: "Jealous."
But would Heady Topper taste as good from a can as it did on draft? One sip was all I needed to prove The Alchemist has also perfected its state-of-the-art canning process, which protects the golden fluid from oxygen and UV light. "Drink from the can," it says in bold instructions, but when Bruce invited beer-loving buddies to enjoy their first taste, they found they liked it a bit better when poured with a creamy head.
My brother-in-law Bob immediately said: "You can smell the hops," and my husband's oldest friend Alex said: "It's complex. Every time I try it, there's something different." They were picking up that Heady Topper is loaded with a secret blend of six hops--each flower lending a distinct flavor. "It's the hoppiest beer I've ever had," said Bruce, who noted Heady Topper's fruity aroma and floral spice and echoed my initial impression: "You cannot tell this is an 8% beer."
Unlike other potent IPAs, such as the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA, Heady Topper "doesn't have a bitterness that stays with you," Bruce said.
"The first sip, you can feel the alcohol at the back of your throat. After that, it smoothes out, and it's really good," Bob described.
Alex kept it simple: "I'm happy. It's hoppy! I love this."
So, if you love beer, make plans to visit Vermont. But you'd better stay for a couple of days and brace yourself for a bit of a treasure hunt. I phoned The Alchemist while writing this, too, and they were sold out of their own signature brew! Heady Topper's been flying out of their retail store by early Friday afternoons, a recorded message advises, and isn't back in stock until late Monday morning. Vermont may stay the only spot on earth where perfect beer can be obtained for a long while.