THE ALCHEMIST HEADY TOPPER

So I’ve had The Alchemist’s Heady Topper a number of times now, but with a four-pack enclosed in a recent shipment from Doc, I figured it was high time I actually paid enough attention to the beer to write a tasting note.*

*I actually sent Doc a reciprocal beer package as well, but thanks to Massachusetts having THE strictest alcohol shipping laws in the nation, it’s currently sitting in a UPS warehouse and can’t be delivered or returned. In Alabama, I’ve had dripping packages of completely shattered beer bottles delivered to my doorstep without the delivery-person giving so much as half a shit.

In my experience, when you’re the ONLY state restricting something in a particular way, there’s a fairly good chance that  you’re doing it wrong. In my current home state of Alabama, we didn’t allow beer to be sold in containers larger than 16 ounces for some ridiculous reason. Then, finally, the powers-that-be realized that, “Hey…we’re the only state that does this. That’s kind of stupid.” So they changed the law.

My point is, when you go to UPS’s web-page concerning shipments of alcohol and you’re the ONLY state listed by name, your laws could probably use some updating.

The Heady Topper currently sits as the 3rd best beer in the world according to BeerAdvocate (#35 on the more internationally-focused RateBeer). A fairly tame, canned DIPA made by a tiny Vermont ale factory is ranked ahead of every beer on Earth save Pliny the Younger and Westy 12? How is that possible?

I’m sure there are some “homer” and “rarity” issues at play in those ratings (as is often the case when it comes to on-line reviews). But ignoring the all-but-guaranteed likelihood of “grade inflation”, the truth is, the Heady Topper is just a damn tasty beer. Is it the 3rd best beer ever made? Who gives a shit? It’s awesome!

The Heady pours a very cloudy gold with a tight, long-lasting white cap. It’s very well-carbonated and maintains its head and some intricate, delicate lacing throughout the session. While most on-line reviewers note a veritable citrus bowl of aromas and flavors, I find the Heady Topper to be firmly and completely on the “pine resin” side of the hop spectrum. This beer smells like a big bag of pungent weed and shredded pine needles. And I have absolutely no problem with that.*

*One very odd thing to note is that The Alchemist STRONGLY encourages you to drink the Heady Topper straight from the can. Here’s the text from the back of the label:

“Why do I recommend that you drink it from the can? Quite simply, to ensure a delightful, hop experience. The act of pouring it in a glass smells nice, but it releases the essential hop aromas that we have worked so hard to retain. If you MUST pour it into a glass, you may find that some of the hop resins have settled to the bottom – leave them in the can when pouring.”

I’m of the belief that bottled and canned beer should ALWAYS be poured into a glass before consuming. I like to look at my beer. I like to produce a proper head. And I like to be able to breathe in the aroma via the larger mouth of a glass rather than the limited opening on a can or bottle. So I was understandably confused by the suggestion on the back of the Heady Topper that I was doing a disservice to the beer by pouring it into a beer glass. How does Alehead Nation feel about this? Blasphemy? Or reasonable request from an artisan who wants you to experience their creation in a certain way?

The Heady Topper’s flavor is outrageously well-balanced. This is NOT an astringent hop-bomb, but neither is it one of those massive DIPAs where the hops and malt seem to be engaged in an epic battle for supremacy. At 8%, this is closer to a straight-up American IPA than a lot of the big Imperials on the market. It’s delicate and delicious. There’s an ample malt backbone that tastes faintly of honey-soaked biscuits which plays beautifully with the bold, pine resin flavors of the hops. The Alchemist’s goal is not to blow you away with huge flavors. It’s to give you a beer that is indescribably drinkable, refreshing, and complex. In that sense, the Heady Topper is an unparalleled success…one of the best I’ve ever tasted.

The excellent carbonation keeps the beer dancing across your tongue. It drinks light and easy, but is by no means thin or watery. The finish is exquisite with that bracing hop flavor sitting on your tongue for long moments after the swallow. Four Hops for a beer I would drink every day if I could. Congrats to the Alchemist on creating what is truly one of the great American craft beers. And thanks to my good friend Doc for sending some down to me in ‘Bama. I’ll try to return the favor just as soon as UPS removes me from their “Most Wanted” list.

4 hops

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9 comments

  1. Jimmy Hoppa · ·

    “I’m of the belief that bottled and canned beer should ALWAYS be poured into a glass before consuming.” Whoa whoa whoa there, Mr. Rockefeller, don’t spill all over your solid gold limousine while driving to France.

    1. What’s that, boy? I didn’t hear you over the din of my helicopter. I tell you…I ordered the “whisper-quiet” chopper, but they sent me this racket-making behemoth. Ah well, it’s still the only way I’ll travel to the Country Club.

      Anyways, if you’d like to voice a complaint, please contact my man-servant, Slouch Sixpack. In the meantime, enjoy drinking your beer straight from the can you double-wide-living, mouth-breathing, gap-toothed hillbilly.

  2. The Alchemist sure makes some tasty brews. The food at their pub was quite good as well when I went a couple of years ago. I wonder how they’ve recovered from being flooded out by that hurricane..?

  3. Beer and Bourbon Bros, explored this issue “scientifically” in a posting. I think i’ll go with Barley on this as I too like to see what I’m drinking and get a good nose and frankly, if it takes me an hour to consume a beer, I’m doing something VERY wrong…

    http://beerandwhiskeybros.com/2012/07/12/video-is-craft-beer-really-better-when-you-drink-from-the-can/

    And yeah, shipping beer can be a bitch I hear !! :)

  4. Sometimes I forget about our horseshit laws in Massachusetts. We can’t have happy hour, I can’t buy a pitcher of beer for myself unless it comes with a stack of glasses, can’t drink after 2AM (Not that I’m awake past 9:30 anymore). And god forbid I go out for a beer with a younger-looking person that has a legit out-of-state ID. Sometimes those get turned away, just because they can. The shipping law is the one that really pisses me off though. It’s the same old crap that we need to protect the mom and pop stores because they rely on the three tier system and proper distribution channels. Bullshit. Then they say it’s because we can’t properly collect tax. Uh, last time I checked, there are just a couple of other businesses that are able to send goods to MA. I think there’s a way to figure out the tax issue. Plus, the state is now hosing us on sales tax for booze, so it’s not like they don’t have a handle on how to screw people over. I’m sure they can screw out of state producers too.

    In conclusion, Heady Topper is absolutely incredible. I’m glad the shipment made it across the iron curtain. Also glad that the one punctured beer in your shipment was a Baxter IPA. Love me some Baxter, but at least it wasn’t a Heady.

    1. I drank the warm, crumpled Baxter anyway. It was still pretty good…

      I understand that Massachusetts likes being an iconoclast. I’m pretty proud that my birthplace bucked the trends of the day by throwing off the yoke of British rule, championing the abolitionist movement, and pioneering same-sex marriage. But in those cases, Massachusetts was fighting AGAINST restrictions. When it comes to alcohol shipping laws, Massachusetts is standing alone in the battle for MORE restrictions on its citizens. That doesn’t seem very progressive.

      And yes, I just compared my ability to mail beer to Doc to the Revolutionary War, slavery, and gay marriage.

      Aleheads: Come for the tasting notes, stay for the hyperbolic analogies!

      1. We’re talking about the same that tried to ban Bake Sales. Unless you’re, shall we say, attractive enough to run a car wash, bake sales are basically the only way that one can fund an after-school activity that isn’t a sport with a ball. Thankfully that one went away pretty fast.

        The problem in MA is that no one knows what to do with liquor laws. One day we have 5% sales tax, but no on booze, then it’s 6.25% on everything, including booze, then we vote to take tax off booze. Thankfully we got rid of Blue Laws, but it used to be that we couldn’t buy booze on Sundays with two ridiculous exceptions. Buying booze on Sunday was a dirty, sinful deed but they allowed us to do it from Thanksgiving through New Years. Why allow it on those Sundays but not the rest? No idea. The other exception was great too because you could buy booze within 10 miles of the NH or VT borders since they allowed sales on every day. Now, half of MA is only 50 miles wide and we’re not exactly a big state, so we’re talking about an area of about 1900 square miles where it was okay to purchase alcohol every Sunday of the year. Guess they figured that if 20% of the state could buy beer on Sunday, just let the whole state do it. And no we can.

        So, if we can overturn Blue Laws, fight back sales tax on booze, and keep our bake sales, maybe we can lift that little ban on interstate alcohol shipments. We tried it once and failed, why not try again?

  5. The request that you drink the beer out of the can really bothers me for a number of reasons.

    1. We are getting to a point where we’re treating beer as if it’s the most ridiculously ultra-perishable foodstuff on the planet. Your beer has apparently already degraded into undrinkable slop in the amount of time it takes you to drink it, at this point. I remember a post on reddit a while back where someone in a liquor store was talking about a customer yelling at him because he didn’t give the customer a dark enough shopping bag and the guy was pissed that the sunlight on the walk back to his car was going to ruin his beer.

    2. The brewer at The Alchemist has said he likes the concept of drinking from the can as somehow “casual,” that it’s in opposition to the “wineification” of beer, which of course means “taking it too seriously and scientifically.” But his REASON for drinking the beer from the can is that “the act of pouring it into a glass and dirnking it over 15 minutes degrades the incredibly delicate aromatic compounds and results in a subpar experience.” That assertation is the most wineified thing I HAVE EVER HEARD ABOUT BEER! He acts as if the IPA he’s created is a radioactive molecule and it’s half life is roughly 600 seconds.

    3. If “from the can” truly is the best way to consume it, then shouldn’t The Alchemist distribute it in only that way? I assume that you can probably get Heady Topper on tap from their own tasting room or from bars in Mass, but if cans are best there should be no draft options at all. When you walk into the Alchemist tap room and say “I’ll have a Heady Topper,” they should hand you a can, no glass, and say “drink up.” And yet somehow I get the feeling that probably isn’t how it’s handled.

  6. While Heady Topper was a hugely popular and highly rated beer from the Alchemist for a while, it’s ascension to becoming VT’s most sought after beer essentially happened overnight. That night was about eleven months ago when Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the Alchemist pub and much of downtown Waterbury. Fortunately John Kimmich had been working on opening a cannery just up the road from the pub, where they were getting ready to brew and distribute Heady Topper. In the weeks after the flood Heady Topper cans never lasted more than a few days at the Cannery and as they pumped up production for distribution the same became true of retail outlets.

    Even with production cranked up and distribution limited to Vermont and occasionally Mass, demand still far outweighs production. Every time I’ve stopped at the Cannery I’ve seen someone walking out with a case, frequently getting into a car with Mass plates. The Alchemist is planning on doubling its production which will allow for more regular distribution further afield.

    Heady being the only beer I’ve had of Beer Advocate’s top 5, I have no idea whether it’s worthy of its #3 ranking. We’ll see what effect making their beer more widely available will have on how people rank it. Hazarding a guess on the formula for its popularity I’d go with: (Great beer + Canned Tall Boy) x (Boost from Post-Flood Support for Brewery + Rarity) = VT’s most sought after beer. In Vermont, both Hill Farmstead and Lawson’s Finest Liquids are brewing equally delicious (and more inventive) beers that would challenge Heady’s position if they were more widely available. At the end of the day I could give a crap about rankings and agree with Brother Barley, it’s a damn good beer that I’d also drink every day if I could.

    On the can/glass debate, most folks I know drink it straight from the can. Perhaps that’s because we’re all a bunch of crunchy granola types up here in Vermont and that’s one less glass to wash. As for practicing what they preach, the only two places to get Heady on draft are in the tasting room at the Cannery and Prohibition Pig, which is a restaurant that took the Alchemist space when they decided not to rebuild after the flood. It would be great if they just handed you a can at the tap room, though currently VT law only licenses them to sell tasters.

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