On its trail of destruction through Vermont seven weeks ago, Tropical Storm 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 e-mail.
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 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 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.
Clown Shoes has released a couple of new big beers. And when I say “big beers,’’ I mean gigantic beers. One of these 22-ounce bottles is enough for two or three people.
■Blaecorn Unidragon is a Russian imperial stout with more alcohol than most: 12.5 percent. Black as night with a thin sheen of a coffee-colored head, this is one of the most intense stouts out there. You can smell the alcohol on the aroma, along with lots of roasted malt and - oddly enough - hops. Yes, this is hoppier than your typical Russian imperial stout; in that regard it’s reminiscent of Victory’s Storm King, only stronger.
Blaecorn Unidragon (named for a mythical creature that the folks at Clown Shoes dreamed up) is a full, thick, robust beer with a hearty dose of warming alcohol.
■Muffin Top was intended to be a double version of Tramp Stamp, Clown Shoes’ excellent Belgian IPA, but in the creation stage it turned into a hybrid of a Belgian tripel and an India pale ale. This, too, has a big alcohol bite: 10 percent. Here, though, the alcohol’s presence is quite evident. Hazy orange with a soft inch of foam, Muffin Top smells like all kinds of tropical fruit, especially oranges (orange peel was used in the brew). It feels and tastes like a tripel that has been doubled and extreme-hopped. (Can I call it a sextupel? Probably not.)
This beer is so syrupy and heavy that even a small pour of it can take a long time to put back - which means you can spend more time enjoying it.