I am unfit to tell the story of Heady Topper. Every beer geek has heard its name. Many have stuffed the 16 oz. silver cans into their luggage, said a quiet prayer, and sent them packing. Still others drive up to Burlington, VT with a timed list of stops for the delivery truck, hunting them down like they’re the last remaining perishables on a planet besieged by tragedy. But really, it’s the locals that deserve to tell the story of this legendary beer—and if you give them a chance, they still do. There’s a quick eye roll from some, a darting glance from others. But eventually they’ll all slouch off their bar stools and say yes, yes it is amazing, and yes, yes they have some here and there, and yes, let’s go get some.
“With that said,” Alchemist co-founder and Heady Topper inventor John Kimmich begins, “I still remain shocked at how many people walk through these doors and have never heard of it before. Walk in and are like, ‘What do you guys do here?’ I find that astounding at this point, but not particularly shocking, because it’s a big world. If you think everybody's found out about it, far from it. The reality is, even as big as craft beer is, it’s still a pretty small slice of the overall fabric of the world.”
You can get Heady at the Burlington airport—casually, and just as easily as you can get Sam Adams Boston Lager in most other airports. Or a Magic Hat Number 9, for that matter, which is sold with a chipper introduction that's so jarring it's almost convincing—wait, what the hell are you talking about, the Heady please. The can pops, it thuds on the bar, she walks away, you drink it from the can.
There’s more Heady Topper being made than ever before. And that’s important to understand, because it’s actually being pulled back off the streets a bit. The Alchemist just opened its long-awaited production brewery where they now sell mixed cases of Heady, Focal Banger, and, at the moment, another Double IPA called Crusher. All are monstrously hoppy beers, but it wasn’t always this way.
There were always long lines and on-site sales, but between the fervor of its first and its most current iteration, the Alchemist beers flowed freely, if insufficiently, into town. But now, with a shiny new production brewery, the assumed promise of a Heady in every pot has taken a different turn. The bars, restaurants, and retailers who sold Focal on the regular—and Heady when they could get it—are now coming up short. Focal is exclusive to the brewery, and Heady has been cut by a significant percentage. The age of the full-margin brewery-retailer is in full swing.
It’s easy to see The Alchemist’s new production brewery as The House That Heady Built. I sure do. After the original location flooded, Kimmich and his partner Jennifer—together, a young married couple—had a bizarre decision to make. They could walk away, or transition from brewpub to a production brewery in one leap. They had just purchased the canning line to start packaging their beers and, in the literal wake of that flood, the tiny brewery stood like a singular choice—start canning Heady, or go home.
“We were a pub for nine years before anybody anywhere in the world was able to get Heady Topper in a package,” Kimmich says. “For nine years, our reputation spread and grew through word of mouth, internet, strictly by people coming in and coming to our restaurant.”
Whether that original brewpub and the approach to making beer lives on through Heady is hard to say. Some origins are instrumental, and some just get lopped off in the process. But it was supposed to organically grow from there.
“We kinda got pigeonholed into Heady Topper because, after the flood, we got wiped out—that’s all we had,” he says. “We were fully planning on running a restaurant, the two of us, and me going over there and brewing Heady—for the first time ever, to put it in a package and sell it. We thought that was going to be small, something we’d do in conjunction with the pub.”
But even the production line was a reluctant opportunity for Kimmich. His business partner and wife, Jennifer, was the one who saw the upside, and at the time, there were no real examples to look to for a brewery going all-in on one beer. When asked who else has built a brewery off one beer, Kimmich tilts his head, smiles, and says, “Um, Rodenbach?”
“I couldn’t even wrap my head around it,” he explains. “When I was in that pub in the basement constantly making beer just trying to keep beer flowing at the pub, and Jen’s talking about building a canning brewery. I thought she was insane. I fought her on that for at least a year or more, until she finally convinced me: ‘Look, we need to do this. This is our next step.’”
That transition from brewpub brewer to single-brand production is a mighty step toward focus and reduction. Brewpubs are notoriously hard to keep up with, requiring a constant pipeline of new recipes and fast turnarounds. But brewing and canning Heady? To any brewer, that’d seem like an unreasonable constraint. For Kimmich, looking back, there’s some rationale to it all.
“Nine years of proving my skills at making any other beer under the sun, I don’t feel the need to constantly prove myself,” he says. “The result is in the cans, and the beer people get from us. I don’t feel I have anything to prove by showcasing a zillion different beers. We did it for nine years.”
Down to one beer, the act of brewing became a different thing altogether. It became an exercise in repetition, perfection, focus. It calls to mind the sequences in Karate Kid—wax on, wax off. For a less mature brewer, the constraints would feel like torture. But Kimmich found his groove. And, ultimately, that muscle memory paid off.
“The art of brewing, the act of brewing, no matter what you’re doing, it’s a very repetitive, structured task at its most basic,” he says. “It is this. You do this. And you do it every time, and you do it right every time. So regardless of the ingredients that are in that mash or in the kettle, it doesn’t really matter. Whether it be a Golden Ale or an IPA or an Imperial Stout, if you’re doing it and you’re crushing it every time and it’s great, and you’re maintaining that—what else do you need to satisfy your ego? There’s plenty of ego in the craft beer world. I don’t think we need to add any more to it.”
It’s just an IPA. Really. It has unique characteristics. It’s somewhere between cloudy and sparkling depending on the time it spends in the can. It will, in fact, flocculate some on its own after packaging. It has an immense aroma that leaps out of the can or the glass, depending on your chosen vessel. The Alchemist, of course, votes can.
But Heady Topper’s real claim to fame is that it’s the most well-known missing link between the English IPAs that populate the Eastern U.S. and the more recent evolutionary offspring of the hazy, juicy IPA vein of New England. Of course, by comparison, Heady’s intensely bitter. In fact, many of today’s hazy IPA brewers are trying to harvest the Heady yeast to propagate their own, hoping for similar results. What started as a hand-me-down culture from his mentor at Vermont Pub & Brewery, and, before that, an English brewer in the ‘90s, has become the progenitor of an entirely different strain of IPAs. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
“They’re brewing with the runtiest of the runts that you might be able to culture out of the bottom of the can,” Kimmich says. “When you get to the bottom of the can, there’s a very fine layer on the bottom. Sure, there’s yeast in there—it’s unfiltered. But that yeast didn’t drop out over 3.5 weeks of conditioning. That’s what you do not want to brew with. That is far, far removed from the best, healthiest yeast. So when you culture that up to brew with it, of course, you’re going to have even hazier beers.”
If haziness were the goal (and some who are cashing in on the trend might argue that, in fact, it is), Kimmich has some experience with that too. But it wasn’t pleasant.
“I’ve been using that yeast over 20 years, and I’ve fucked it up at times in the pub,” he says. “It creates different flavors. I had a Cornelius can that I stored my yeast in. I hadn’t vented it properly. We’ve got cleaners out, cleaning the toilets, washing dishes. We’re juggling. We had a small child. Here it is, I gotta brew, I can’t get a new culture in time. I gotta pitch this yeast. It smells fine, but it was pressurized, which I later found had mutated it. Brewed three batches of beer with it, all of a sudden Lightweight, our house light beer—a golden, gorgeous, crystal clear beer—looked like a goddamn milkshake and never, ever, ever cleared up in the entire time it was in the tank. Thank god when it was finally gone. How many times do I get Double IPAs and it looks and smells just like that? Hmm, wonder what yeast they’re using in that beer?”
For his part, Kimmich was after something very different with this one. “Beer that tasted like great weed,” he says matter of factly. “That was pretty much the goal with Heady Topper.”
It’s also a living, breathing thing for him. In some ways, it’s the repetitive, machine-like churn toward perfection that keeps Kimmich engaged. Other times, it’s a battle against all odds for consistency. “I have a very specific idea of what I want Heady to be, and it is what it is,” he says. “I’ve been making it since 2004, so it went through many, many changes and incarnations at the pub. By the time we got to the production brewery, it was pretty well refined, but even then you’re still developing techniques and different ways. How can we drive our dissolved oxygen even lower? How can we get even more flavor and aroma out of these hops? There’s little tricks and tweaks, but at this point, it’s like a well-oiled machine over there.
But it’s also not all under his control. “Heady’s different year to year,” Kimmich admits. “Every beer is different year to year. You got a totally different crop of barley and hops. I’ve tried so many different barley combinations. The one we have now is my favorite. It’s the mouthfeel and that little bit of malt flavor underneath. It doesn’t come off as sugary and sweet, which I find quite often with a lot of American and Canadian barley. The clarity of the beer, stuff like that. That’s all product- and process-driven.”
These days, it takes a team to make Heady. And hiring for a production brewery that only recently started making more than one beer is a job description unlike any other in the U.S. It’s a job more appropriate for a brewing engineer or a chemist from a place like Anheuser-Busch than an up-and-coming young brewer trying to spread their wings. And that reality isn’t lost on Kimmich.
“We look for a very different type of brewer,” he says. “I’ve had a young, ambitious brewer that told me what I wanted to hear but then did the opposite. I learned my lesson. Those are not the kind of brewers we’re looking for. I’m not looking for somebody that thinks they know better than what we know. Because they don’t. Maybe they’re going to go on and do great things, but they’re going to do it their way—not our way. We’re not looking for some dude that wants to take all the knowledge and move on. They’re a dime a dozen. I get emails all the time from guys like that. It’s just not who we look for. If they want that, go get it. It’s there for you. Just like it was there for us. The information, the opportunity, go get it yourself. But then I see someone that’s just working some shitty-ass job that deserves to have a great job and wants to stay in Vermont, which is a difficult thing. We have several brewers that have never brewed beer in their lives, and they’re fantastic. Their main focus is doing exactly what I need them to do. So you couldn’t ask for a better situation, really.”
For all the growth and sense of normalcy around Vermont these days, the hype hasn’t died down. Other things have cropped up, spread the attention around a bit. All around New England, the hazy IPA style alone is building breweries, some of which have become stops on the way to The Alchemist and vice versa. And with the move back to exclusive brewery releases, even Kimmich may have learned a thing or two about the gravity his beers create, and how to maximize the business value of their reputation, despite all the peripheral nonsense.
“Anything that’s regarded as ‘worth it’ and delicious or exceptional, of course, it’s gonna create that [zealous culture] around it,” he says. “We’ve been accused of doing that on purpose. ‘They limit their production to create hype.’ Fuck you! We went from 400 barrels a year and, a year and a half later, we’re making 9,000 barrels a year. You’re actually going to accuse us of limiting our production to create hype? The more popular you become or the more coveted you become, the more lovers and the more haters.”
But for all that fervor, and a relatively long-standing fervor at that, it’s not clear what it all adds up to in the lifetime of a brewer and beyond. Even for a guy that may have brewed one of the most iconic American craft beers in history, Kimmich finds some darkly funny perspective in it all.
“Whatever, I’ll be fucking dead,” he says of the legacy of Heady Topper. “What will I care? I’m going to be dead and gone. It doesn't mean a hill of beans the day I take my last breath. I can only hope at that point we have people involved that are ready to take it into the next generation. We have one son, maybe it’s him. Maybe it’s one of our nieces or nephews. Maybe it’s someone not related to us at all. Maybe the aliens come down in 10 years and fucking eat us all. Then it doesn’t matter.”
And just like that, he heads toward the door, his water bottle swinging at his hip. He lets out a laugh and gestures back for one a final word: “I’m going to go eat a big fucking salad, get real high, and watch the Olympics.”
Special shoutout to Matt Canning of Hotel Vermont for some friendly logistical help on this one, and a resulting good time.
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