Heady Topper: If you've heard of it, you're likely either a connoisseur of beer or a resident of Vermont. This hopped-up Double IPA brewed by The Alchemist in Waterbury and Stowe, Vermont, has more buzz than a honey bee, and since it's been christened the best beer in the world, the golden-orange liquid with a frothy head has been seductive nectar for serious beer drinkers. It's worth the drive to Vermont just to taste this brew, which has received perfect "100" scores from both RateBeer and Beer Advocate.
My first Heady Topper encounter occurred at Hen of the Wood restaurant in Waterbury, which is just about a half mile from The Alchemist's original brewery location: still the only place on earth where Heady Topper is made. I was agonizing over menu selections when I spotted the beer on the beverage list. I'd heard Vermont was home to the world's best-rated beer, so I instantly recognized this was an opportunity I needed to seize. And once I'd ordered a glass of Heady Topper on draft, it was easy to select a food pairing: fried oysters.
Facebook friends and Twitter followers had two reactions when I shared a photo of the rare brew: Did I need an assistant? and What did I think? I responded: "I am spoiled for other beers now, so I think I have to move to Vermont."
Normally, I find IPAs bitter. Heady Topper was so smooth and drinkable, though: dangerous for an 8% beer! That's more than double the alcohol content of my usual poison: Amstel Light. With wonderful citrus flavor and complexity that demands leisurely sipping, a single Heady Topper lasted all the way through dessert.
For years, The Alchemist brewed just this one beer. Why mess with perfection? Since acquiring additional space in Stowe, though, the brewery has added to its line-up, and visitors will find all of The Alchemist's beers in such demand, there are limits on how many cans you can purchase at the new brewery and visitors center. (The Waterbury brewery is not open to the public.)
Even though The Alchemist has dramatically ramped up production of Heady Topper, too, there is still only enough of this world-class brew to supply thirsty Vermonters: You won't find it outside state lines. If you hope to sample a glass or take home cans, their Where to Buy guide will help you locate Heady Topper in Vermont's Mad River Valley and the greater Burlington and Stowe areas.
Be forewarned: It can be tough to find Heady Topper, even in Vermont's biggest city. There was no way I could go home without this sought-after souvenir, though. During my stay at Hotel Vermont in Burlington, I figured a short walk would be all that was required. When I asked for Heady Topper at Burlington Bay Market & Cafe, however, the employee laughed a little and explained they typically sell out within a day after deliver. He generously suggested I might have better luck at Burlington's Pearl Street Beverage, so my indulgent travel companions joined me on a 15-minute walk to 240 Pearl Street. I was overjoyed (yes, the beer is that good) to see a burly man in line holding the distinctive, 16-ounce, silver cans... and hopeful it wasn't the last four-pack in the store because he was too burly for me to wrestle to the ground!
We found a few cases of Heady Topper still available in the walk-in cooler: A four-pack set me back $14.10 after taxes and deposit. As of 2019, Heady Topper costs $15.17 for a four-pack of cans at Pearl Street.
But would Heady Topper taste as good from a can as it did on draft? One sip was all I needed to prove The Alchemist has also perfected its state-of-the-art canning process, which protects the golden fluid from oxygen and UV light. "Drink from the can," it says in bold instructions, but when I invited beer-loving buddies to enjoy their first taste, they found they liked it a bit better when poured with a creamy head.
My brother-in-law immediately said: "You can smell the hops," and my husband's oldest friend said: "It's complex. Every time I try it, there's something different. I'm happy. It's hoppy! I love this." They were picking up that Heady Topper is loaded with a secret blend of six hops—each flower lending a distinct flavor. Heady Topper's fruity aroma and floral spice make it tough to tell this is an 8% beer. And unlike other potent IPAs, such as the Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA, Heady Topper doesn't have a bitterness that stays with you.
"The first sip, you can feel the alcohol at the back of your throat. After that, it smooths out, and it's really good," my brother-in-law described.
So, if you love beer, make plans to visit Vermont. But you'd better stay for a couple of days and brace yourself for a bit of a treasure hunt. The Alchemist brewery and visitors center in Stowe is open daily, and you can check availability updates on their website.
Vermont may stay the only spot on earth where perfect beer can be obtained for a long while.