WATERBURY, Vt. — To understand the phenomenon that is Heady Topper — the world’s best beer, some say — show up at Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier on a frigid Thursday morning and wait in line.
That’s how the guys who drove all night from South Carolina and slept in a parking lot scored a few cases. And that’s how the guy who left Natick, Mass., at the crack of dawn so he could be in line before 9 snagged his.
Craft beer is more popular than ever, with new breweries bubbling up everywhere. Heady Topper and the Green Mountain town where the beer was born are at the liquid-gold center of the movement.
The Alchemist brewery churns out 45,600 16-ounce cans of the double India Pale ale each week, the only beer it produces regularly. It’s distributed only within a 20-mile radius of tiny Waterbury, and if the 5,000 or so residents of the town had all the Heady Topper to themselves, they’d still be lucky to land a case every other week. Every can sells — most within a few hours of hitting store shelves.
The Alchemist is hardly the only trendy brew in this corner of Vermont. In Greensboro, people stand in line for hours for a few gallons of Hill Farmstead’s famed creations. Special releases from Lawson’s Finest Liquids, in nearby Warren, can be even harder to find.
Elsewhere in New England, Fort Point’s Trillium, Tree House in Monson, and New England Brewing Company in Connecticut all have their devotees, who queue up for bottles of beer you can’t get anywhere else.
But Heady Topper has spurred a demand that causes beer-lovers to drive hundreds of miles and pay hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to crack a signature black-and-silver can. On Craigslist in Boston, a case was selling for $250 — each four-pack of cans costing nearly as much as a barrel of crude oil. One guy was caught trying to smuggle the beer out of the brewpub where it was born by pouring it into bottles and affixing ersatz labels.
The beer lovers fortunate enough to get their hands on a can of Heady Topper legally have been searching almost as hard for the words to describe the beer as they have for the beer itself.
On BeerAdvocate.com, where tens of thousands of users rate and review every imaginable beer, Heady Topper sits atop the rankings, outpacing all the barrel-aged stouts and Belgian fruit lambics in the world.
Nearly 10,000 users have weighed in on Heady Topper, waxing rhapsodic about its complex, balanced flavors and its elegant use of hops — the ingredient that gives beer its bitterness and its floral characteristics. “Heaven in a glass!” “Good luck finding it.” “I’m glad I spent my Christmas money to buy an entire case.”
Most weeks, the line at Hunger Mountain Coop stretches out into the parking lot; on a recent Thursday it was 17 below zero, so Kevin O’Donnell, the operations manager, passed out numbers and let people wander around the store.
“Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine percent of the people are great about it,” O’Donnell said.
The .001 percent? They try to subvert the strict one-case-per-person limit. They beg and plead for more, or they race back to their car to change their clothes before getting back in line a second time.
Online, The Alchemist lists the day each store, bar, and restaurant offers Heady Topper. Hunger Mountain is one of a handful of stores that sell the beer by the 24-can case, for about $80.
Alex Krzywda had left his Natick home around 5 a.m. to make the three-hour drive in time to get in line well before the 9 a.m. delivery.
“It’s sort of a legend in the craft beer world,” said Krzywda, 26.
By about 12:30 — 3½ hours after it came in the door — the week’s supply of Heady Topper was gone.
After working several jobs to cobble together the money to start their own business, John and Jen Kimmich finally opened their brewpub in 2003. They made good beer, and word got out. Once they caught the guy stealing and reselling Heady Topper, it didn’t take a business major to realize there might be money in selling the beer elsewhere.
The thief was buying pints at the bar and pouring the beer into bottles in the men’s room, John Kimmich said, carefully capping each with a special tool. He affixed labels he had made using art from the Alchemist’s website.
The first time they packaged the beer, in 2010, Kimmich filled 600 bottles by hand. The sale was supposed to start at 11 a.m., but when they arrived at the brewpub around 8, the line was already snaking down the block.
Things are different today. The brewpub is gone, washed away by Hurricane Irene in 2011 — just days before the first batch of Heady Topper emerged from The Alchemist’s new production brewery.
And the beer comes in cans now, which keep the light that can ruin beer from touching the product.
The silver and black cans bear an illustration resembling John Kimmich, with hops exploding out of his hair, and stern orders to drink the 8-percent alcohol beer inside directly, rather than pouring.
Despite its scarcity nationally —
Soon, finding Heady Topper will be simpler still. Plans to build a second brewery, the same size as the first, have cleared several regulatory steps in nearby Stowe. This one will be open to customers, and will sell two new beers so far available only at occasional Alchemist sales staged out of the backs of trucks.
Twice as much Alchemist beer will be available, though Heady Topper production will be the same. It will double the number of employees, too, to 48.
The Kimmiches say that’s as big as they want to get. Selling out to one of the money men who come calling every so often might ruin the beer anyway.
“It’s the atmosphere here — it makes its way into the beer; it really does,” John Kimmich said.
At Hunger Mountain the beer makes its way, case-by-case, to the dozens lined up in the store one recent day.
Mark Greenan, 62, has never tasted Heady Topper. But he’s heard of it, of course — he’s from White River Junction, and everyone around here has.
Greenan has nothing else on today’s agenda. It’s 9 a.m., and the only thing between him and his first Heady Topper is the 55 minutes it takes to get home.
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