Heady Topper is a hard beer to do justice in review.
I don’t mean this in the way of suggesting it’s so other-worldly that you must experience before you die or that it’s overrated, bro, there’s so many other haze-bombs to drink, or that it lies somewhere in between the two, or even that it's dificult to describe its historical significance to the current state of craft beer in America.
The best I can offer is a story.
The week after Christmas in 2011, I’d just gotten engaged and we made a quick post-holiday jaunt up the Burlington to celebrate. It was extraordinarily cold and a snowstorm shutdown the highway as we took the Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tour. It took us three hours of snowy white-knuckled backroad driving to get from Waterbury to our hotel in Burlington, which is usually a drive that takes under 30 minutes.
When we finally got back into Burlington, shaken and tired, our dinner reservations missed, we hit the bar. Directly in front of me in the cooler behind the bar was one solitary can of Heady Topper, Alchemist’s tantalizingly difficult to find double IPA, and a beer I hadn’t up until that point hadn’t ever drunk.
We do weird things in order to satisfy our interests. For Heady Topper, people have lined up in cold Vermont winters, chased delivery trucks around town, and sent beer furtively through the mail. It’s a beer that’s still distributed only within 20 miles from where it’s brewed though it seems to be a little more widely available now than it was six years ago.
Heady Topper was the first of its kind with regard to its status for a few reasons: (1) the hop-forward beers were really finding their stride, (2) craft beer began to hit mainstream, (3) scarcity is the ultimate value-raiser, and, most importantly (4) the beer is a masterpiece.
It’s bright and it’s hefty and it's full of citrus fruit flavors.”
“Drink from the can,” the beer directs us at the top of the 16 ounces. From that Vermont bar during a time when I should’ve been celebrating an engagement, I’m sure I texted beer geek friends a picture of the can with some similarly geeky commentary. I’m lucky she didn’t give the ring back.
On the way out of town, we stopped by the Waterbury cannery and picked up a case. Who needs a case of 8% ABV double IPA? No one. Or everyone. I haven’t decided.
Even though getting a can or four of Heady Topper has become increasingly less challenging over the course of the past six years, it’s still – to me, at least – a rare enough treat that I want to spend my time drinking the beer slowly and cold and with friends. It’s become en vogue to call the beer overrated or “not good anymore” and that kind of commentary comes with time. Stay at the top long enough and you’re bound to attract some haters.
The first step to enjoying a Heady Topper is not taking a picture and posting it on social media, it’s popping the top where you’ll immediately be hit with waves of grapefruit and citrus hops. If you choose, as directed, to drink straight from the can you’ll continue to get that sensation throughout the drinking experience. It’s a big beer at 8%, but you never feel like it’s kicking your ass while you’re drinking it.
In the mouthfeel, which truly separates Heady Topper from those of its ilk, the beer is soft and pillowy with a residual hop resin grit. When the beer ends, it ends with a slight piney bitterness and dryness that suggests, “Hey buddy, take another sip.” It’s bright and it’s hefty and it's full of citrus fruit flavors.
Is this the best double IPA you’ll ever have? That’s not for me to decide. Experiences are subjective. They encompass where we are, who we are with, and how we are feeling. Add a sprinkle of emotion and nostalgia of a first time, and there’s your answer.
So, maybe for you, this isn’t the best double IPA, but when I think about where I was, who I was with, what my emotions were at the moment – fatigued and hungry and relentlessly happy with the personal decision I’d just made on Christmas Eve – this is the best double IPA in the world.