It's 8:55 a.m., and I'm standing in line for a store that doesn't open until 10. I'm not hoping for a crazy bargain, and I won't even enjoy what I'm patiently waiting for until at least after lunch. But here I am, at the Beverage Warehouse in Winooksi, Vermont, on the quest for Heady Topper. And 14 people are queued in front of me.
If you're not familiar with the lore of Heady Topper, it's one of the highest ranked beers in the world on BeerAdvocate.com and RateBeer.com. It sits among beer geek legends like hop bomb Pliny the Younger and the monk-brewed Westvleteren 12. Heady Topper a uniquely balanced 8-percent alcohol IPA that despite an aroma bursting with hops, is not an aggressively bitter beer. Its brewery, The Alchemist, adds the vast majority of the hops late in the brewing process, which extracts flavor and aroma compounds, but little of the bitter oils. Many IPA brewers follow this basic formula, but the Alchemist's specific (and massive) mix of hops — a well-kept secret — and careful fermentation techniques layer more hop character than you'll find in practically any other beer; everything ranging from the likes of grapefruit zest, orange seed, tropical punch, and a fresh herb garden.
Tracking down a Heady is scarcely as easy as strolling into a bar and asking for it — but far be it from me, a Brooklynite on vacation, to know that. My first taste came at Radio Bean, a crunchy bar-coffee shop hybrid on a side street in Burlington. A tattooed bartender pushed a silver 16-ounce can across the wooden bar top when I asked for her favorite Vermont-brewed beer. $9 later, I'd had my encounter with the drink that has risen into beer mythology. It was there I also learned that you'll generally have better luck spotting Champ, the Lake Champlain monster, than finding a can of Heady without careful planning. Good luck with both.
Heady Topper isn't, however, one of those limited, seasonal releases, like Russian River's renowned Pliny the Younger imperial IPA — available on draft for just two weeks in February. People have been known to lineup for hours at the Santa Rosa, California brewery to get the few glasses they're granted. Clamoring around a strict release like this is justified — or at least understandable. Plenty of rare beers are released on rigid schedules, be it to create demand and mystique, or because of a brewery's small-batch capacity. But Heady is, instead, available all year-round, with no specific limitations on its availability, and no gap in time during which its brewers aren't canning. Its scarcity is just a matter of supply and demand: there just isn't enough to go around.
"A lot of people have this idea that we're really small and that we're purposely not making more to keep demand there. That's crazy!" says Jen Kimmich, one of the founders of The Alchemist. "We're making Heady Topper every single week of the year, as much as possible."
Jen and husband John first brewed the beer in 2003, and kept it exclusively on tap for eight years in their brewpub (since closed) in Waterbury, Vermont. But it became clear that they needed a way to get it out into the world. "People were buying our pints of beer, going into the bathroom, bottling it, putting the cap on, and then they would go online and download the artwork from our T-shirts and sell it. That's when we realized we needed to take control and put our beer in a package to get it out on the market." In 2011, they built a new brewery devoted entirely to manufacturing and canning Heady. They currently brew 180 barrels (360 kegs worth) per week in twelve 15-barrel batches at their closed-to-the-public facility, and that's practically all The Alchemist makes.
"We've increased production 600 percent in three-and-a-half years. We're making almost 10,000 barrels a year of one label, and it's being all distributed within 25 miles of our brewery," Kimmich says. "Momentum keeps building, so we haven't been able to expand our distribution area. Even our biggest retailers who get 80 to 100 cases run out in an hour." A second 10,000-barrel production facility with public access is coming, Kimmich says, but that doesn't mean much for the rest of the country: With it, they're still hoping to cater to the local community's fervor.
If I wanted to bring Heady Topper back home to New York, so the Radio Bean bartender said, I couldn't just walk into a beer distributor at any hour. Not even Vermonters can. Only certain stores and bars in the 25-mile distribution receive consistent, measured shipments, and only on certain days. If you get in line early enough, the owners of these outlets often allow you to buy an entire case, which runs roughly $75. And as the supply dwindles, your chance to take away large quantities does, too — often, they'll diplomatically try to make the supply last for everyone in the line, which means you may only end up with a 4-pack.
That explains the line that continues to grow at Beverage Warehouse, wrapping around the building, and spilling into a neighboring parking lot. A young beer clerk steps out calculate whether there'll be enough stock to go around. The lot is filled with license plates from Connecticut and Massachusetts, and also peppered in are New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Illinois, Georgia, too. The man next to me in line started his day in Plymouth, New Hampshire, about two and a half hours away. He woke up at 4:30 this morning, and this is his second stop: At about 8:30 a.m., he picked up Heady Topper in a Montpelier store, then headed straight to Beverage Warehouse.
"There's a circuit that people know," he says, proclaiming himself as a regular on the Heady hunt. He promised his daughters a trip to Vera Bradley just for the privilege to drive from distributor to distributor to buy what he calls a "unicorn beer."
At his aid is the website Heady Spotter, which says it's trying to "democratize the hunt for the most elusive beer in the country," giving Vermonters — and anyone else devoted enough to chase Heady for that matter — a detailed delivery schedule broken down by day. It includes retail outlets and restaurants, depending on how thirsty (or desperate) you are. Their Twitter feed, @HeadySpotter, contains the most up-to-the-minute info, which is how you'll know that the Pine Street Deli in Burlington just got a stack of cases.
But if you don't want to chase a shooting star, you end up at a place like at Beverage Warehouse — possibly the most esteemed beer store in Vermont — doing what I am: waiting. The first person in line, Ned Pike, is from Colchester, the next town over from Winooski. "This is where you come to get a case," he tells me. Pike has been here since 8 a.m.
I ask the front of the line about the cult fandom surrounding the beer, and it's as if I've yelled, "Free cases!" Pike, Pennsylvanian Todd McCall, and Massachusetts resident Matt Lincoln sweep me into a lightning round on why Heady is so superior: It's because of the can. It's because the beer is unfiltered and unpasteurized. It's because the hops never go skunky.
"A friend from Vermont brought one to Harrisburg, and he ruined my summer. I did not taste another beer that was anywhere in comparison to this," McCall says eagerly. He's second in line with his wife; they're reading the newspaper to pass the time. "We're going to wait, no matter what. And price doesn't matter."
But if you can't get 'em, replicate 'em: that's the saying, right? There is always the option of trying to do it yourself, which is what the now patiently waiting Pennsylvania residents Scott Jaeger and Eric Markert attempted with a Heady Topper homebrew kit from Keystone Homebrew Supply. For about $100, the shop sells a package with ingredients for a hop-heavy recipe that calls for Magnum, Simcoe, Cascade, Apollo, Chinook, Centennial, and Columbus varieties if you want to brew on your own. Beginners be wary: There's a lot of room for error with the hop schedule, which calls for a barrage to be introduced to the boil at a precise times. But even those who know what they're doing still find themselves in line for Heady. "It's a clone," Markert says, who's been waiting with Jaeger and Angelique DiMariano for just about an hour. "It's not even close."
"The stuff we made was good, but it was just lacking something," Jaeger says, leaning back against the wall of the beer distributor.
Although there are other hop-forward craft beers available to brew and buy across the country, there's something of a universal agreement that Heady's taste profile is in a class of its own. Trying to get a hold of Heady Topper anywhere outside of Vermont, however, involves not only breaking the law, but also probably paying for it dearly. Black market 4-packs lugged across state lines occasionally show up on Craigslist on the East Coast, selling in the ballpark of $45. One online beer forum reported a specialty store in Brooklyn selling for $14 per can (which many responded in that they'd, admittedly, be willing to pay). In December 2013, a 28-year-old Burlington woman was charged with selling Heady Topper on Craigslist, asking up to $825 for five cases. You'd be better off keeping what you've managed to get your hands on to yourself, and very quickly figuring out who your really good friends are.
"For a while [this black market] made us absolutely crazy. Wholesale, our beer comes out to $2.50 a can. It's really important for us to keep it approachable," Kimmich says. "After trying to fight it for a couple of years, and people getting upset with us, we came up with an authorized retailer program. But if people buy beer online or at an auction, we can't control that. It's really up to the consumer to make the right decision for him or herself."
It's a minute before 10 a.m., and there are more than 50 people queued up that I can count, although the line may stretch farther than I can see. Everyone has folded up their traveling chairs, put away their newspapers and iPads, and they're standing, ready for Heady — even the pregnant woman who's been here longer than I have. When the doors to the distributor open, my boyfriend and I debate how much we want to take home with us. As we're led through the store, the line snaking through aisles of craft bottles we realize we'd be crazy not to snap up all that we can. It may be our only chance. We spend $41 on a half-case, the day's rations to those in the front of the line. Those in the back only receive a single 4-pack.
In the parking lot, a group of three twenty-something guys in the car next to us is loading up, too; they've driven straight from Connecticut, and along with their half-cases, they've also bought huge bags of ice, swaddling the flats to keep them cold for the four-hour journey back south. They came just for Heady.
After I drop off the cans in our cabin rental refrigerator, my boyfriend and I head just six miles down the road from Beverage Warehouse to a nationally known brewery — the kind of operation that has tap handles in Applebee's. As we put our tasting samples down on the bar, I overhear a conversation I can't help listening to.
"The real beer here that everyone talks about, though," a local man says to a couple of tourists, his own samples in hand, "is called Heady Topper."
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