At the very top of BeerAdvocate.com’s list of Top 250 Beers, as rated by their users (who are quite particular), stands an American Double India Pale Ale brewed by The Alchemist in Waterbury, VT called Heady Topper. While I’ve checked the list many times to check for new brews and to see if anything Canadian was charting, it is only a couple months ago that a friend, Gary – another IPA enthusiast – asks me if I am going to swing down to Vermont when I was in Montreal this summer to try the Heady Topper. This catches my attention.
The Alchemist only brews the Heady Topper. They only distribute to very local businesses – something like a 30 mile radius, so you can only drink it or buy it in Vermont.
I fly into Montreal with my family on Monday. It so happens that on Friday Amber’s sister’s in-laws return to Montreal after a week in Vermont and that April is willing to go pick them up and that I can tag along for the ride. Waterbury is only 20 miles from Burlington so I decide to take her up on the offer and see if I can sip this sweet nectar.
I do some research on Thursday and discover that this beer has a mystique far deeper than I anticipated. Each day of the week, the brewery drives in a different direction and drops off a small amount of 4-packs at a select number of locations on that route. Typically, as the truck arrives at the authorized Heady Topper dealer, there are already eager buyers waiting to buy up their maximum: 4 cans/person. The beer is usually gone minutes after the store opens. I don’t think driving to Vermont would be worth just a single pint at a pub. We were going to drive in to the Waterbury-Stowe area, the Friday route, and get in line for a couple 4-packs of Heady Topper.
April and I pull onto the Décarie Expressway at 7 am in Montreal. It has been 8.5 years since I set foot in the United States (airport en route back to Guatemala) and almost 10 years since I drove into the states (visiting friends in Idaho). We cross the border into Vermont via the 133/89 highway just after 8 am. I let April do the talking to the border patrol. The roads were noticeably smoother driving in the US. It is also far more treed as farmland yields to lush green mountains which refresh this prairie dwelling soul.
The destination is Sunflower Natural Foods just northeast of Waterbury. They open at 10, but we pull up at 9:15. There are a couple cars in the lot. I grab my US cash as we notice the sign in the window says open. We are either the first people there for Heady Topper or we missed the truck. We stroll to the beer fridge when an atypical Vermont health food store worker comes up gleefully asking if we are looking for Heady Topper. I nod expectantly. He then gleefully says they are all out. I press that they were supposed to get a delivery this morning and that it says online that they open at 10. He agrees and says they open earlier for Heady Topper delivery days. I want to tell him that we drove in from Montreal, but that might make him more gleeful. He asks if we are going to chase the truck and I ask him how far Stowe is. 5 miles.
We drive by the Ben and Jerry’s factory and the Green Mountain Coffee factory and we see a sign for the Trapp Family Lodge (as in the Sound of Music Trapps). Stowe is stretched out on a road and it takes some scouting to find the town centre. It is still before 10 am. I brought my laptop with the browser open to the list of business on the Friday route and I note the names as we scan business signs going 30 miles/hr. There is Stowe Wine and Cheese on our left and there is a cube van in the parking lot and young guys getting out of their car.
The guys tell us this is The Alchemist’s delivery truck and that the store hasn’t opened yet. They also tell us that the state liquor store across the street still has some and they are open. April waits as I fetch a 4-pack at the liquor store. There are still a half dozen packs on the floor when I walk to the till. The clerk answers the phone twice as he serves the three Heady Topper purchasers ahead of me. He tells the callers that yes, he does have some Heady Topper but it’s going fast.
I return to April who is first in a line of 5 people outside the Stowe Wine and Cheese. The line grows to over a dozen before the door opens. Most of the people are locals. Half of them have never tried it or don’t drink beer – they are buying for out of town friends or family. They are as mesmerized by the hype as we are. But we’ve driven in from Montreal, so…
April and I each get our 4-pack and I end up with a cool 12 cans of Heady Topper to take back to Montreal. A sigh of relief that I haven’t come up empty handed.
Back in Montreal at my friend Kevin’s house, I crack open a couple cans to try it out. Sweet citrus aroma floods out of the can into the glass (I know it’s supposed to be drank out of the can, but who cares – it’s mine). Great head retention over a cloudy orange-amber ale. The flavour is very smooth and hardly carries any bitterness resembling most IPAs. Very easy drinking and full bodied for 8% ABV and blends very well with the sweet aroma without being at all sickly. No unpleasantness whatsoever. 5/5