Everything You Need To Know About Heady Topper IPA

In the wake of the current craft beer boom, discoveries of new beers in unfamiliar styles are more accessible than ever. With so much to learn about, sip, and enjoy, you may think you have already found your favorite beer. Well, think again.

If you have yet to indulge in the transcendent experience that is a can of Heady Topper, your beer journey is still in its beginning stages. In the world of craft beer, the first taste of this Vermont-born beer makes you rethink everything you thought you knew about IPAs and really beer as a whole. Every sip provides something new from the last, with a deeply layered profile that wholeheartedly warrants its praise, lore, and exclusivity.

Heady Topper is made in Waterbury, Vermont at The Alchemist brewery and is an 8% alcohol, unfiltered, unpasteurized, double IPA. The brewery was founded by and is still run by husband and wife John and Jennifer Kimmich, and, despite a passionate, widespread demand for more access to this one-of-a-kind brew, it proudly remains a small-scale operation and a staple in its community.

It is easy to assume the supposed aura surrounding Heady Topper is simply fueled by a pretentious sector of pompous beer snobs, which is an entirely justifiable presumption. However, Heady Topper is more than deserving of a try at least once, and we do believe your first taste will not be your last. Here is everything you need to know about this incomparable, archetypal, extraordinary beer.

History of Heady Topper

What has exploded into a beer and brewery with the utmost respect in its industry started out as a humble pub and brew back in 2003. After gaining brewing experience in the 1990s from Greg Noonan, founder of the Vermont Pub and Brew, John Kimmich opened up The Alchemist brewpub with his wife Jennifer in Waterbury, per Vinepair. After a successful and growing eight years, the Kimmichs opened up a small-scale brewery in 2011.

Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Irene proved detrimental to The Alchemist, as well as most of Waterbury and the state of Vermont. The damage to the pub and brew was so great, they were forced to shut down. However, the inventory of canned Heady Toppers survived, which became the life fuel of The Alchemist.

From there, the Kimmichs focused on their new brewing and canning facility and began distributing Heady Topper locally to bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, The Alchemist began selling its coveted canned beer in pop-up shops to long lines of dedicated customers. Finally, in 2016, the Kimmichs were able to open a full-scale brewery and visitor center in Stowe.

Through its two locations, The Alchemist brews and distributes all of its Heady Topper, and Focal Banger, throughout the Green Mountain State, along with the rare shipment outside of it. Nowadays, curbside pickup is the bread and butter of The Alchemist and Heady Topper, which draws people from all corners of the country, and sometimes even the world, for a fresh four-pack.

How is it made?

Being a Double IPA, Heady Topper is made the same way any other Imperial India Pale Ale is made. What makes Heady Topper stand out so distinctly, however, is its yeast strain.

The yeast strain used to ferment Heady Topper is referred to as the "Conan" yeast strain, according to Beer Maverick. Although this strain is most commonly associated with The Alchemist, it actually originally belonged to Greg Noonan, John Kimmich's brewing mentor. Noonan acquired the Conan strain during a trip to England. After bringing it back with him to Burlington where he pioneered beer-making with it, he eventually gave Kimmich permission to use the strain in his beers at The Alchemist. Noonan actually nicknamed the yeast strain, himself, in reference to its strength. Other than this, there is really nothing else known about it, except that it makes for one heck of a beer.

What makes the Conan strain so effective in Heady Topper is that the flavors it emotes naturally complement the hops commonly used in New England-style IPAs that Heady Topper has become the reference point. The natural fruitiness of the yeast balances out the hops used, which, while widely speculated and debated, are still kept secret.

This is part of what makes Heady Topper so special. Despite being able to re-culture this yeast strain from its can and estimating the types and amount of hops used to brew it, clone recipes simply fail to replicate the wonder that is Heady Topper.

What does Heady Topper taste like?

If you have had an IPA before, chances are you have had a New England Style IPA. These are different from the original West Coast-style IPA, which is drier and more piney with those resin-like aromas, textures, and flavors. New England IPA has a more fruity presence. They are generally more approachable to beer newcomers with more citrus-forward notes and juicier characters. Commonly referred to as "Hazy IPAs," these have become the more popular style over the years.

Heady Topper is essentially an ultra-intensified pinnacle of the New England IPA. Where many modern iterations can be quite juicy and sweet, Heady Topper remains a hop-forward brew that is the perfect amount of bitter and sharp with the complimentary support of bright and rich citrus aromas, a full-bodied, frothy mouthfeel, and that classic dankness we all love in an IPA.

In addition to the hops and yeast strain that make Heady Topper unique, its lack of filtration and pasteurization also contribute to its taste. Beers that are unfiltered are the ones that are hazy and have fuller bodies, a boldness enhanced even further with a character as robust as Heady Topper's.

Pasteurization occurs at the end of production to stop the yeast from fermenting any further, per Frontiers. Although this lengthens the beer's shelf life, it does diminish its freshness and flavor. Therefore, Heady Topper is always canned in its purest form, so every smell and flavor can be enjoyed at its full capacity.

Listen to the can

There is always debate surrounding the best way to enjoy a certain beer. Nitrogen-infused beers, like Guinness, are best when poured into a glass, and other richer brews are better in specialty glassware that helps protect and better promote their qualities. Luckily, The Alchemist tells you explicitly how to enjoy Heady Topper, with "DRINK FROM THE CAN!" running along the top of every label.

The reason Heady Topper is best enjoyed in the can it is purchased in is actually thoroughly explained on that same label, in the words of John Kimmich, himself. After explaining the style of beer Heady Topper's is its dense presence of American hops, Kimmich says how The Alchemist wants every Heady Topper drinker to enjoy the brew as fresh as possible, which is why doing so directly from the can is encouraged.

The label reads, "Why do I recommend that you drink 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 have yet to search for Heady Topper, you will discover that this beer is difficult to find outside of the state of Vermont. Therefore, when you are fortunate enough to get your hands on it, it is best to listen to Kimmich, drink straight from the can, and savor the blissful hop harmony to its fullest potential.

Heady Topper popularized the New England-style IPA

As mentioned earlier, West Coast-style IPAs are what started the craft beer revolution. The original American Pale Ale is credited to Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and founding father of the craft beer industry. Up until twenty years ago, "IPA" meant only one thing. Now, there are firm distinctions made between West Coast IPAs and New England regarding appearance, hops, aroma, body, flavor, and finish.

Before Heady Topper, there was no such thing as the New England IPA. In fact, when Kimmich first started brewing and selling Heady Topper, there was quite a bit of resistance to this unprecedented beer style. According to Kimmich in an interview with Vinepair, many customers at the original brewpub complained about the beer's murkiness, which, as Kimmich describes it, is comical to think about considering it the most common IPA style today. Kimmich explains that the cloudy appearance of Heady Topper was never intentional, it was simply the result of getting the intense aromas and flavors he sought to attain.

Kimmich says that he had been brewing hazy IPAs with his mentor, Greg Noonan, for years, and wanted to educate beer drinkers that beers did not have to be crystal clear or be able to last for months unrefrigerated. With the immense success Heady Topper has achieved, this new style was inevitably followed by other brewers. Today, the New England-style IPA is more popular, and Heady Topper remains the best in its class.

Is it really the best beer in the world?

As mentioned earlier, it is only natural to consider that any product whose quality is objective by nature receiving such widespread and devout acclaim is a result of people simply saying it is great so that they can fit in or have some sort of cult following. Additionally, anyone's opinion of Heady Topper can and should only be formed based on their own personal taste, but this beer does have customer ratings to back it up.

On Beer Advocate, beers are rated directly by consumers with a score between 0 and 100, with the average score of all ratings and reviews representing the overall score of the beer. As of January 11, 2013, Heady Topper has inspired 12,434 ratings since it was added to the website in 2004. It has a total score of 100. It is ranked the fifth highest of any beer on Beer Advocate and is ranked the number one beer in the Imperial IPA category.

Again, tasting is believing, but a beer this renowned on a platform as cynical as the internet is most likely worthy of much applause. Usually, anything that is so beloved and celebrated naturally comes with haters, and other people denounce it simply to be perceived as knowing something others do not. Well, there appears to be none of those in sight when it comes to Heady Topper. Its excellence is seemingly undeniable.

Sustainability at The Alchemist

As if over 12,000 reviews were not enough to get you to seek out Heady Topper, The Alchemist is worth supporting simply based on its environmentally ethical production. The Alchemist is aware of the energy and resources required to brew beer, especially on the scale they are currently operating, and it remains conscious of every factor in the brewing process and what that means to the world around it.

Firstly, brewing begins with water. After collecting wastewater containing tank wash, hops, yeast, spent grain, and lost beer from a composting company called Grow Compost. This water is combined with wastewater from the brewery, itself, with which the waste is transferred to two 5,000-gallon tanks for an aerobic bacterial process. The result can then be sent to the Stowe treatment facility for purification and reuse. Every day, 1,200 gallons of water are treated.

In regards to energy, The Alchemist thrives to operate on as much clean energy as possible. Currently, the Waterbury Cannery is running on 100% renewable energy, with excess donated to the local home for seniors. The brewery in Stowe is 60% covered by solar energy, which offsets about one-third of the energy consumed.

The Alchemist also works with its suppliers to reuse and repurpose materials, such as properly recycling the roughly 800 bags of grain used per week. Brewing uses a lot of materials, but The Alchemist is doing its best to eventually get to a zero-waste operation.

Is Heady Topper expensive?

If you are well-versed in the world of craft beer and IPAs, in particular, you know that the price range can get pretty steep. Especially since most craft IPAs are only sold in four packs, price tags surpassing $15 are not uncommon and definitely above average. According to Drizly, a four-pack of Heady Topper will cost you $20. On Wine-Searcher, the average price of a single can of Heady Topper is $10.

Admittedly, this is a lot to spend on beer, but, Heady Topper is not just any beer. Plus, finding Heady Topper at a retailer is very difficult to do if you do not live in the state of Vermont. Distribution of Heady Topper out of state is very limited and inconsistent, so if you do happen to come across it, you probably won't think twice about dropping a couple of Hamiltons for a four-pack of this Holy Grail of beer.

If you live in Vermont or are able to visit, Heady Topper is readily available. Especially in vibrant, more populated cities like Burlington, which are close to Stowe, most restaurants will have Heady Topper available, as will most establishments that sell beer. While it may be a lot to spend on beer, the issue with Heady Topper is not its cost, as most people will attest that it is well worth the price tag. The issue is actually finding it.

Why Heady Topper isn't easier to get

You would think that a beer and brewery so highly regarded by its industry and consumers would be quick to capitalize on that following and expand its business. Unfortunately for those of us who are not Vermont residents, The Alchemist is comfortable with and committed to the close-knit relationship it has with its community, so we can not enjoy Heady Topper as much as we would like.

The Alchemist and Heady Topper have expanded multiple times within its lifespan, from its small beginnings as a pub and brew to opening the cannery, to building the current brewery in Stowe. As of now, distribution out of state is few and far between, but, who knows, maybe more expansion is due sometime soon.

Plus, the statewide distribution of Heady Topper only started in 2019, according to Stowe Reporter. Up until then, its 30-mile radius of distribution only included Lamoille County, Mad River Valley, and Burlington. So, any further expansion outside of Vermont most likely won't arrive anytime very soon.

It is important to remember that The Alchemist brewery is still only able to produce 9,000 barrels of Heady Topper per year. To put that in perspective, Fiddlehead Brewing Company, another Vermont craft beer staple, can produce over 50,000 barrels of its IPA annually, per The Burlington Free Press. Therefore, it is understandable that The Alchemist wants to reserve as much coveted beer for fellow state residents and members of its community as possible.

The Heady Topper black market

With its Heady Topper so hard to come by, The Alchemist has encountered multiple issues with the illegal distribution of its famous beer. In the early years of The Alchemist, when it was still a brewpub and before the cannery opened, word of Heady Topper began to spread, and demand surpassed supply, (via Longreads). There was only one place you can get Heady Topper, and that was directly from the bar. Some rather bold customers, realizing its commercial value, would sneak pints of Heady Topper into the pub's bathroom, pour them out into bottles, try and stuff those bottles into their pockets, and walk out with the intention of re-selling them.

In 2013, a woman was actually arrested for illegally selling Heady Topper online, according to Beer Street Journal. The normal price of a case of Heady Topper is $72. The woman arrested was selling cases on Craig's List for over $700. Eventually, federal investigators took notice and put an end to the scheme. So, if you are ever unsure about the lore surrounding Heady Topper and whether or not a trip to the Green Mountain State is worth making just for a four-pack of beer, consider this your call to action.