The Alchemist Heady Topper
Note: For this review, Dave and I are combining forces once again, this time for a simultaneous review, both from the mainland, and on a tropical isle, connected via the audio of long distance cellular telephony. The cans are from the same batch, about 4 weeks from the cannery at the time of our tasting. Now for the writing about beer.
To talk about Heady Topper, we first need to talk about Tropical Storm Irene. When this squall blew through Vermont in 2011, many businesses were heavily damaged, including John and Jen Kimmich’s Alchemist Pub & Brewery in Waterbury. Financially strapped already from the recent building of a cannery, the Pub was ultimately abandoned, and the cannery repurposed as Alchemist Brewery. What was a loss to the Waturbury residents in terms of nightlife, was a windfall for beer lovers everywhere.
With FEMA not covering basement property in the downtown, the old brewery could not be recreated in such a high risk location. Instead, The Alchemist Brewery was reborn at the cannery location atop a nearby hill. They started brewing their flagship double IPA Heady Topper in 10 oz cans. The beer has proved so popular that despite increasing production, have not been able to brew enough to meet demand. It seems people can’t get enough Heady, or other Vermont beers like those from Lawson’s Finest and Hill Farmstead. Having visited Vermont a few years back, when loading the cabin up with local beer essentially meant Magic Hat # 9, we can attest to how the quality and variety of Vermont beers have increased. And the buzz about these new craft brewers has spread beyond the granite state. So much so that the local beers are now some of the most valued trade commodities within the craft beer community, with Heady Topper topping Beer Advocate’s oft-cited ‘Top 250 Beers’. So is the best beer in the world something canned from Vermont? Let’s pour it out and find out.
Drink from the can! That is what the Heady Topper can tells you to do, and brewer John Kimmich recently did an enlightening video explaining why they feel this way. He essentially argues that inside the car the beer stays protected from light, as well as air, with a layer of CO2 sitting above the beer, protecting it from oxidation. Makes sense, but you lose some of the nose on a beer like an IPA and aluminium is not as good an insulator as glass is, leading to more rapid temperature changes. For these reasons, we chose to try the DIPA both from the can, and from a glass. That, and I had a really cool Heady Topper glass I wanted to use…
The Alchemist brews Heady with 6 hop varieties, coming in at 120 IBUs, and 9% ABV. In their words: “This Double IPA is not intended to be the strongest or most bitter DIPA. It is brewed to give you wave after wave of hop flavor without any astringent bitterness.” So the promise is all of the hop flavors and aroma many love, with less of the bitterness that can turn some palettes away from IPAs.
Dave: Looks like a wheat beer, unfiltered and cloudy. Big hop profile in the nose, minor biscuit malts as well. Taste is all hops, tropical fruit with pine, not Bubblicious gum. There is a graininess with some hop solids present. The finish has dryness from the 8% ABV that makes you want more. The yeast here may be helping make this so balanced. Could drink a lot of these, which might be dangerous. Would rather session a Zombie Dust, but this is a great highly hopped DIPA.
Steve: The pale gold color is clearly murky and unfiltered, reminding me of an IPA that sat too long with some floaties. Aromas are minimal in the can, but from the glass there are citrus hoppy scents, and some malt. Flavors are initially a surprise. The hops are there but there is much less bitterness you would expect to pair with the aromatic pine/tropical fruit notes. There is a significant malt backbone as well, not quite enough to call this sweet, but certainly it is less bitter than many DIPAs. Bell’s Hopslam comes to mind here: big hop presence with minimal bitter bite and a well hidden high alcohol content. But where that beer uses honey sweetness to balance the big hops, which still eventually build up, Heady seems to simply be devoid of most astringency. The body is significant and as Dave said, grainy, with that dry finish that tempts you to take another hop-centric sip.
Having sampled Heady Topper in both the can and a glass, we both feel this beer is one great double IPA. The issue of the can providing the best experience is less clear. If you are going to be sitting around in the sun drinking Heady, the can is for sure the way to go, it will be protected from the elements of light, and air, as well as have a nice insulation. However, if you are indoors, drinking such a delicious ale, these beer is not going to sit long in your glass, and you will not only get a great taste, but all that wonderful aromatic hop ecstasy in the nose.
In either vessel, does this compromise the BEST BEER IN THE WORLD however? To us it doesn’t quite reach that level. The amazing work done to remove the bitterness in big IPAs has a downside. There are flavors in those huge more astringent DIPAs, where the bitterness matches other flavors, such as Pliny the Elder, Abrasive, or even a lower lower ABV beer like Zombie Dust. For me, with all the complexities available to brewers with yeasts, barrels, and exotic adjuncts, no IPA is likely to be my top beer. That said, this amazing beer is certainly near the top in terms of sessionable DIPAs, incredibly enjoyable hop experience even for those beer lovers that shrink from bitter beer. Pick up a few the next time you are in Vermont.