At 9 am, on the first truly bone-chilling day of the season, a line stretched around The Alchemist and out into a small parking lot behind the building filled with empty pallets. The reason these people were lined up is two-fold. First is the obvious: Heady Topper. And, while you may think waiting in line for hours for a case of one beer is insane, the double IPA is truly one of the finest that will ever cross your lips. The aroma is intoxicating as is the 8%, highly drinkable brew itself. The second reason: John and Jen Kimmich, and the folks at The Alchemist, had just announced that the cannery would be closing to the public in just a few days. A decision, they say, that was difficult but necessary for the growing crowds and chaos at the little shop and cannery.
As we speak to John upstairs at The Alchemist, with the rumbling chatter and shouts of “Case and a taste” below, he looks eager to crack a Heady Topper and relax a little bit. It’s actually all this attention that’s somewhat at odds with the Vermont vibe in general:
“There are a lot of grounded people here. We were out at The Great American Beer Festival and met a lot of guys who just thought they were the coolest guys on Earth, and that’s not the attitude around here. That’s just not Vermont in general. We like our beer to create our reputation.”
Heady Topper is by no means an overnight success. The IPA was on tap at their brewpub in Waterbury and was a hit with locals long before it made its way into cans. In fact, right as The Alchemist cannery was opening to start canning the company’s flagship IPA, Tropical Storm Irene decimated The Alchemist Pub and Brewery, leaving the cannery as home base. Support for the brewery and the beer flooded in, eventually leading to the need for a new retail space (which is in the works, so don’t get your balls in a bunch).
John, like many other brewers in Vermont, is entrenched in the state’s beer scene. He was the Head Brewer at Vermont Pub and Brewery, one of the places that really jump-started the Vermont scene and started pushing craft beer forward in the state, before starting up The Alchemist in 2003.
With the popularity of Heady Topper, you may wonder why John and company don’t just make more and distribute all over, become insanely rich and retire to a tropical island. The answer to this plays into the whole Vermont attitude you start to pick up on as you travel the different breweries:
“We don’t have any plans to go multi-state and deal with those headaches. Right now, we have complete control over it. Every account gets visited by one of our employees. Every account gets instructed on how to handle the beer, and if they don’t do it right, they don’t have our beer. But, at the same time, it makes them a part of it, a part of the whole process and experience. They care because they see that we care.”
It’s a theme that gets echoed by many brewers in The Green Mountain State. It’s not that they’re trying to make their beers hard to acquire, it’s just that they’re putting their efforts into the beer itself and delivering it to you in a way they feel is best. Still, it’s this difficulty to acquire some of the beers that has lead some to question whether the beer is really that great or it’s just a craving created by a far greater demand than available supply. Whether standing in the freezing cold for a case of Heady is really worth it:
“If there was some hype surrounding some beer that was mediocre, it would quickly be shot down as being a fraud. You gotta have the chops to back it up. If it was only because you couldn’t get it, all these people around the world who try it would taste it and be like, ‘This is bullshit.'”
What The Alchemist does, just like many other breweries in the state, is fill a niche. Palates are different, and in Vermont, there’s a beer for what you crave. For the time being, if your palate craves that citrusy, grapefruit and pine blend that Heady Topper can deliver, you may want to wait on planning your Vermont trip until the new retail space opens. If you aren’t trying to bring home a trunk’s worth, however, you can find Heady in cans at establishments around the state.
Our trip and stay in Vermont was courtesy of The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express. To find out how you can start earning points for hotel stays, airfare and awesome trips like this, click here.