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Review: The Alchemist's Heady Topper

Posted by Steve Greenlee  October 11, 2011 09:59 AM

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heady topper 001.jpgOn its trail of destruction through Vermont, Hurricane Irene claimed The Alchemist among its victims.

The Alchemist, a brewpub in Waterbury, is famous for its India pale ales, most notably a double IPA called Heady Topper, which many people consider to be the finest IPA on the East Coast if not in the world. Yes, some folks claim it's better than Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing Co. in California. And yet Heady Topper, like all of The Alchemist's other beers, was sold only on draft at the pub on South Main Street. If you wanted to taste Heady Topper, you had to drive to Waterbury and order a pint there.

But then Irene came, flooded downtown Waterbury, and ravaged The Alchemist. The owners, John and Jen Kimmich, are rebuilding. But coincidentally they had just begun canning Heady Topper as the storm struck. The new cannery, down the road a ways, was unharmed, and 16-ounce cans are now rolling off the line weekly.

For now, anyone who wants Heady Topper still has to go to Vermont. Distribution began last month in Burlington, Montpelier, and Stowe, but more than half of the cans -- which go for $12 per four-pack -- are sold right out of the cannery. "As soon as we are able to amp up production a little, we would love to get Heady Topper to the metro Boston area," Jen Kimmich told me in an email.

On behalf of the metro Boston area, we would love that too.

Drinking a can of Heady Topper is like drinking a can of heaven.

In capital letters around the ring of the can's top, it says: "DRINK FROM THE CAN! DRINK FROM THE CAN! DRINK FROM THE CAN!" Beneath it John Kimmich explains: "Why do I recommend 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."

Kimmich surely knows what he's talking about, but on this matter I'm going to go against his wishes every time. To me, breathing in the aroma constitutes half of the sensory experience of drinking a beer. And aromatic hops are there for precisely that reason.

I poured my first can of Heady Topper into a Duvel tulip glass. The beer's appearance is beautiful (another reason to pour): hazy dark orange, nearing brown, with a 3-inch root-beer-float head and lots of sediment in the liquid (it's an unfiltered, unpasteurized beer). A big bouquet of floral hops blossoms from the glass, at once floral, grassy, and tropical. The first sip is full and juicy, full of citrus and bitterness -- just a monstrous hop rush. The alcohol -- 8 percent by volume -- is well hidden.

As for those who say it's better than Pliny, I'm in no position to disagree after having had both Pliny and Heady Topper within two weeks of each other. In fact, if forced to choose between the two, I'd go with Heady Topper.

Now I need to find an excuse to drive to Waterbury now and then.

Email me at Follow me on Twitter @SteveGreenlee.

Gary Dzen

About 99 Bottles

Gary Dzen writes about craft beer here and in the Globe when he's not covering the Celtics for He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GaryDzen.

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