Operating out of a 15 barrel system in Waterbury, Vermont, The Alchemist has been brewing for 10 years. They started in 2003, in a 7 barrel brewpub that was sadly demolished by hurricane Irene only two days before the first cans of the brewery’s only commercially available shelf beer, Heady Topper, rolled off the new system and canning line. That’s right, only beer.
Deciding not to fall into the usual habit of most breweries with their multi-beer lines, The Alchemist has decided to focus on only one of their beers, their Double IPA, Heady Topper. So does it live up to the quality that one would expect from a brewery that is meticulously focusing on only one beer? Let’s taste.
THEM: Heady Topper is brewed with, well to be honest they seem to be tight lipped about this. There’s little “official” info to be gleaned out there, and I’m being over generous when I say ” little”. I’ve seen some suggestions that the hop varieties are in the Apollo/Summit category, while other beer cloners recommend a Simcoe, Columbus, and Amarillo combination. In fact, a couple of people who I found who’d been to the brewery described a “wall of Simcoe”. However, much of the fruity aspects of the beer, brewer John Kimmich attributes to their proprietary yeast strain that’s called “Conan”, I suppose after the fierce warrior of books and film.
Not….who I was talking about. The brewery pushes freshness as the beer is both unfiltered and unpasteurized. The Alchemist recommends you keep the beer cold at all times, and don’t overly disturb the beer so that the hop solids inside the can settle to the bottom. 6.2% ABV. IBU’s plenty (unofficially ~120).
ME : The can and I immediately get off on the wrong foot when it commands me to “DRINK FROM THE CAN!”. Who is this can to be telling me what to do with my beer in my house? Maybe it’s the mood I’m in, but I don’t feel like being bossed around by something that could have easily ended up containing spam or pickled beets. I mean really? Not even a “Please” or “Thank You”? Or maybe it’s the fact that the picture of the man on the can is drink beer from a glass. This is the kind of marketing mixed messaging that drives me crazy.
Then the can tried to pull some Jedi Mind Tricks on to me by telling me that I should drink Heady Topper from the can, “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.”
Then the can went on to state that it wished it could climb into itself, and I realized I was dealing with one of those sick, depraved, mentally twisted cans that your parents always warned you about. Well I didn’t listen to my parents when I was young, so I’m not listening to you either, can!
Heady Topper pours with a white, creamy head fueled by a rush of carbonation from the bottom of the glass. If you pour the entire contents of the can into a glass (something the can tells you not to do, kill joy) the beer isn’t so much cloudy, as turbid. If you’ve ever homebrewed think dissolved hop pellets in the bottom of a fermenter. If you’re careful you can pour the beer out so that the orange liquid is pretty clear. I think whether-or-not you want all that dropped out hop sediment in your glass is a matter of taste. I didn’t mind it.
It’s not only the appearance that takes me back to my home brewing days, the initial smell reminds me of Mount Hood or Liberty hops which I used to use a lot. But that initial smell gets parted eventually by an aroma that is bursting so full of fresh hop that I can’t believe the can didn’t want me to pour the beer into a glass. Stupid can. This smells really good, with notes of grapefruit, tropical fruits, peach and a whole Eatable Arrangements basket of other fruits. There’s also small amounts of pine and grass in the mix. Wow.
The flavor is more of the same, enough fresh hops to give an ever so slight hop burn, but other than that the beer is surprisingly smooth and doesn’t come across as bitter in the finish. There’s enough bready malt in the mix to balance everything out, but don’t be mistaken, the hops are the show here. In fact they stay with you for quite awhile. Don’t be surprised if you have a hop flavored belch 15-20 minutes later.
Heady Topper is a ratings crusher on Rate Beer, and Beer Advocate. And if you listen to some people they’ll use impressive words like “amazing”, “5 out of 5” and “perfect”. And indeed I have to admit, Heady Topper is pretty damn good. If you’re a hop head (and even if you’re not) you might not want to walk past this one if you ever come across it on a shelf.
So did the can and I eventually come to an understanding? Well of sorts. At the bottom of its list of dictatorial demands was one command that I actually thought was pretty reasonable, “DON’T BE A D-BAG. RECYCLE THIS CAN!”
Done, can. Hopefully in the next go around you’ll come back as a can of Korean silkworm pupa. Maybe that will teach you some humility and manners. Time for another beer…
[Author’s note: According to Brewer John Kimmich, they recommend you drinking Heady Topper from the can so that the beer stays fresher thanks to a layer of CO2 that will stay on top of the beer. He maintains that beer in an opened can that’s been sitting around for an hour will taste just the same, and as fresh, as when it was first opened. Also, the artwork on the can is from 2003, when Heady Topper was brewed only at the brewpub, before it was canned and he didn’t want to change the image. Kimmick recommends that if you have to pour it into a glass, don’t pour the sediment into the glass but instead, drink it from the can after you’ve poured the cleared beer into your glass. But I certainly wasn’t gone to concede these facts to that ignorant can!]