The conversation would have gone something like this:
My wife: “Wait. So you got up in the middle of the night and drove to Vermont so you could follow a delivery truck from store to store and buy beer?
My wife: ... (walks away, head hung in shame, questioning her life choices.)
The current practice of standing outside of a brewery for 11 hours to buy a case of beer is a direct descendant the original whale hunts that took place on a daily basis in Central and Northern Vermont, where delivery trucks would find themselves tailed in search of an elusive silver can. Until a recent expansion, the truck chase was the only way to wrap your hands around multiple cans of The Alchemist’s Heady Topper, one of the most sought after beers in the nation, and a pioneer in the of the Northeast/New England IPA style. Truck chasing is a practice that has since spread to distributed, limited quantity beers from Other Half Brewing, Grimm Artisanal Ales, and Singlecut Beersmiths, among others.
Though it did not sanction or directly create truck chasing, Vermont brewer The Alchemist sparked practice. Heady Topper possessed a cult following when the remnants of Hurricane Irene swamped much of the Northeastern U.S. in 2011. The Alchemist’s Pub & Brewery was washed out, as the Winooski River poured 10 feet of muddy water, courtesy of Hurricane Irene, into the streets of Waterbury. The basement brewhouse was flooded, taking with it owner John Kimmich’s handwritten recipes. It was back and canning beer within a few days.
The Alchemist resumed can sales at their brewery in Waterbury soon thereafter, but halted it in November 2013 due to large crowds and traffic issues near the plant. Until The Alchemist opened its expanded plant in nearby Stowe, replete with retail sales on premises, the only way to purchase cans of Heady Topper was to study the distribution plan on The Alchemist’s website and hope you were one of the first in line. The chase even spawned Heady Spotter, a website unaffiliated with the brewery that listed days, locations, prices and limits for the beer.
Mikey Metaxas is no stranger to this journey. “Oh my God, I’ve chased so many things,” said Metaxas, who works for a winery in Bar Harbor, Maine. He was fresh off a six-hour drive, one way, to pick up one of The Alchemist’s newest IPAs, Skadoosh.
“The first beer I ever chased was probably Heady Topper,” Metaxas said.
Supply and demand is one of the principles of economics, but the development of a cult following takes the laws of demand to an entirely different level. Anecdotally, quite a bit of Heady ends up on the trade market. Search “Heady” at Reddit’s r/beertrade, Beer Advocate has its own header for trading the beer, and Rate Beer has issued its third set of policies on trading it.
Not all of it is swapped. Black markets probably were not in your college introduction to economics class, but the Heady Topper market does venture into those territories. The Alchemist certifies its accounts and provides stickers to Vermont retailers signifying that it is an authorized retailer.
Though not as aggressive, the market for beers from Grimm have sparked similar quests.
Grimm Artisanal Ales is a nomadic brewer based in Brooklyn known for its single-batch and limited releases of juicy IPAs and innovative, culinary sours. Their unpredictability, fed by a lack of brewhouse or defined calendar of releases, birthed a dedicated legion of chasers. Remarkable Liquids, based in Albany, N.Y., handles Upstate New York distribution and makes deliveries to Central and Western New York during the early part of the week.
“I had Grimm Tuesdays down to a science for about six months,” said Joel Zangari of Syracuse, N.Y. “I picked up three to five cans when week after week others got none.”
Such is the truck chaser’s life. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you always persist.”
Late trucks and long lines at the package store are not the only obstacles. Sometimes the troubles come from within the confines of the store once the truck arrives.
“If there's a limited beer you want, you really need to be there the day of arrival to get it, it seems,” said Kevin Duff of Ithaca, N.Y. “You are competing with the staff getting first dibs, then the friends of the staff, and then anyone else seeking out the same beer.”
Some stores have been known to hold back cans and bottles for their more loyal customers.
“I've been to multiple stores lately where they say yes we got in, but we are waiting for our regulars to see if they want it first,” Duff said.
As a middle-aged, white, heterosexual man, I’m not regularly discriminated against, but on a recent chase for bombers of Grimm, I was shut out at one of my local stores for not being one of the regular crowd. The truck had just pulled away but when I asked for a bottle, I was told that none were received. Posts on a local Facebook beer group revealed that the store had indeed received a shipment. The cases of bombers were likely behind the counter or in the tiny office near the cooler.
Such is the truck chaser’s life. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you always persist. After all, it’s not always about the score.
“I just love the hunt for good beer,” Metaxas said.