Since it came to my attention two weeks ago that Heady Topper has been named the best beer in America and the best IPA in the world by some beer rating outlets, it became my unbridled mission to get my hands on a can during my Vermont trip. As a Vermont ex-pat living in Maine, it’s been years since I tipped back a Heady Topper. This Alchemist hiatus has been two part: 1) the growing Maine beer scene has me fully satiated, and 2) buying the stuff outside of the 802 area code is damn near impossible.
But then came the hoopla from the accolades declaring the national and international dominance of this beer. It was time to revisit an old hoppy friend.
Quick flashback (cue smoke machines and Wayne’s World sound effects). It’s 2003. I’m 23. I’m a Bud-swilling post-grad who’s love affair with hops is in its infancy. At my first Vermont Brewers Festival on the Lake Champlain waterfront, my friend Tyson and I look over the beer list and start mapping out our drinking schedule based solely on alcohol content. I’m poor and need to get the most bang for my buck. The beer that stands out? You guessed it, the 8% Heady Topper, which at this point is just a small new guy on the scene.
I swill it, and the hops grab hold of my palate and still have not let go.
As my hop obsession has become a bibulous raison d’etre, I’ve often thought of my dear Vermont friend, the Heady Topper.
So this week, as I planned my trip to Vermont to visit family and friends, I spent a lot of time on the phone with my brother pleading, “You’re going to be able to get some Heady Topper, right?” He visited stores and called me saying, “Sorry, they didn’t have it.” This was our conversation all week.
But my brother, knowing my hop-headedness and my proclivity to pout when I don’t get my fix (not to mention he’s simply a kick ass brother), drove across the state to the teat itself in Waterbury to procure the sixteen-ounce cans. It turns out that even the Alchemist brewery itself would run out of Heady Topper before the end of the day. (Thanks, brother!)
Upon my arrival to his house nuzzled in the Green Mountains miles from Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield, I barely said hello before I opened the fridge and removed a silver can. I eyed the wily, hand-drawn logo of a man whose head is bursting with beer froth and hop cones. Along the ridge of the can, there’s an all-caps warning, “DRINK FROM THE CAN!” Not needing to be told a twice, I cracked the can, smelled the head, and downed a gulp.
Before I let my cerebral tendencies overtake this moment, I took another gulp. Then another.
Here’s a verbal tour of the Heady Topper experience. What hits your tongue is a hop wall. Like the brewer decided to bring in all of the artillery in the first lines. As the flavor spreads across the tongue the finish is clean. The hop feel at the back of the tongue lasts long, but isn’t obnoxious like some over-the-hop West Coast IPA’s. Every moment of this drinking experiencing is world class. Comparisons with other IPA’s is challenging, because this beer truly deserves the nods it’s getting for originality.
As someone who doesn’t like being told what to do, I poured my second Heady Topper into a glass. It has a yellowish color and is filled with sediment. I wonder if they want you to keep it in the can not to maintain the “essential hop aromas that [they] have worked so hard to retain,” as the can suggests, but, rather, to keep the feint of heart from seeing the unruly brew they’re imbibing.
Part of me wishes I hadn’t read the rave reviews before I spent a Friday night tossing Heady Toppers down my grocery hole. (As you can imagine, Saturday morning wasn’t pretty.) I kept taking drinks and thinking, The best in America? The world?! Here’s the deal, most lists like this are part truth and part BS.
When Ed Bradley asked Bob Dylan in a 60 Minutes interview if he felt any pride that Rolling Stone Magazine had named “Like a Rolling Stone” the number 1 pop song of all time, Dylan smiled his wry smile and said, “Maybe this week.” Ed Bradley looked puzzled. “Another list will come out next week, and I probably won’t be on it,” Dylan said.
And maybe that’s a good way to look at all such lists. Part of the allure of the beer may just be its inaccessibility. Who knows? Best-of lists are fickle. But for now, the Alchemist’s Heady Topper reigns supreme in the fecund world of IPA’s.
Get a can, if you can.