Craft beers like The Alchemist’s Heady Topper don’t come along too often.
Almost as soon as the Vermont-born beer hit shelves, the subtly cloudy, astoundingly complex, and deliciously juicy 8 percent ABV double IPA outgrew its now-iconic, black-on-silver 16-ounce can. It transformed into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, complete with haters, cult devotees, and a whole lot of black market trading. It’s credited with pioneering the hazy or New England IPA, a style the almighty Brewer’s Association officially recognized just last month. But how did we get here?
To get the scoop, we turned to a couple of beer-savvy folks who’ve downed their fair share of double IPAs. Zach Mack is a Certified Cicerone and owner of the popular New York City beer bar, Alphabet City Beer Co. Justin Kennedy is the author of the newly released “The Scratch & Sniff Guide to Beer” (seriously, it’s awesome) and podcaster extraordinaire at both Beer Sessions and Steal this Beer.
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And, last but not even a little bit least, there’s John Kimmich, co-owner and brewer at the Alchemist in Waterbury, Vt. and the man behind the haze craze.
This is the oral history of Heady Topper.
John: I discovered craft beer back in college in the early ‘90s. I was doing a research project on the brewing industry and realized it was something I actually could turn into a career. At that point, I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do, so I went for it.
I graduated, saved enough money to buy a used car and moved to Vermont to search out Greg Noonan, a late friend of mine that started the Vermont Pub and Brewery. He got me started, and when I took over the head brewer position there in ’95, that’s when Jen and I met. We got married and started moving all over the place — Wyoming, Idaho, Boston. I had different jobs here and there. If I wasn’t brewing, I was a bellman at nice hotels because I liked the cash tips.
But we were never as happy as we were in Vermont… But then it was six years of working and planning and saving and doing everything we could to open our own pub. We opened the pub November 29, 2003, a Friday night, and Saturday morning we found out we were having a baby. So our first 24 hours were pretty crazy. And, really, I feel like we haven’t lifted our heads and looked around since. It’s one crazy turn after another.
We had been running that pub for nine years when Tropical Storm Irene completely wiped us out. The flood hit on a Sunday night and that Tuesday was our first canning run for Heady Topper. The timing was impeccable.
With the pub down, we had no source of income — I mean, that could’ve been the end of the Alchemist right there — but the cans, thank God, enabled us to keep moving forward. Heady was all we had.
VinePair: Do you remember the first time you heard about Heady Topper?
Justin: I was on a trip to Vermont and had a can at a restaurant called The Farmhouse. I thought it was pretty great, soft but balanced and super aromatic. I liked it a lot. Probably the best IPA I had drank at the time.
It wasn’t something I really sought out on trade forums or anything like that — I’ve never been much of a trader. So I was really excited but then I noticed it was available basically everywhere in that town, including some music venue I ended up at that night where I think I drank about three more during some horrible funk-jam band’s set.
Zach: The first time I heard about Heady Topper was when I was doing research to open my bar… Even then, the reputation surrounding Heady was so over the top it was almost surreal. Nothing could ever prepare me for how many people would forever keep asking me if I sold it after I opened the Manhattan shop.
John: When we rebuilt, the insurance companies wouldn’t insure a brewery in the basement again, so… we sold the building and focused on the packaging brewery, but we got so busy that our property couldn’t handle the number of customers. That’s when we decided to shut down our retail shop, which was a real bummer. We went from selling 70 to 80 percent of what we were making out of our space to distributing 100 percent of what we were making.
VinePair: What were some early challenges Heady faced?
John: Here in Vermont you’re allowed to self-distribute, so we had total control over every part of the process… It was a huge uphill climb. We were battling, trying to educate our retail accounts about the importance of keeping our beer constantly refrigerated.
Before we started insisting upon that it was kind of unheard of. Even 10 years ago, so many stores had a handful of beer in the cooler and everything else was out warm.
We were also trying to educate everybody about hazy IPAs. I mean, for years at the pub we battled that. People would give us shit because our beer was hazy, which is kind of laughable now, considering all the muddy, murky, milky beers breweries are producing and selling today. I mean, our beer has only ever had a shimmery haze, nothing like that, but people would say all kinds of terrible things.
The haze was never the intention — it’s a byproduct of the way I achieve the flavors I want and the fact that they’re unfiltered and unpasteurized, which didn’t really exist when we started doing it other than German hefeweizens, something like that. I was making hazy IPAs in Burlington in the mid-’90s with Greg. It was about breaking free from the chains of commercial beer that trained generations to think everything had to be sparkling bright and able to sit warm on a shelf for 12 weeks.
VinePair: Who’s behind the label art?
John: Our friend Dan Blakeslee’s done lots of labels for us over the years. I met Dan up in Burlington one day. I was sitting in at Muddy Waters coffee shop and I see this guy sitting by himself drawing in his notepad… So I sat down with him and introduced myself and said, “My wife and I are opening a brewpub. Would you work with us to design a logo?”
We had that Heady art for years before we packaged the beer… It’s very distinctive. I remember when we got our first run printed at the Ball factory, the guy that prints the cans told us, “I gotta tell you, I love this can. The simplicity and the artwork —it’s so unique compared to everything else I print.” We took that as a pretty big compliment.
VinePair: Tell us about the decision to put Heady in 16-ounce bombers and suggest drinking it straight from the can.
John: It’s a flavor thing for us. You can pour it in a glass and it’ll smell dynamite for a couple of minutes, but I like to enjoy my beer and take my time. You pour a good beer into a glass, drink half of it, come back an hour later and taste it, and it’s gonna taste like any other shitty beer. But if you come back to that can, it’s still dynamite.
If you pour it in a glass, you’re just inundating it with oxygen. The CO2 breaks out and it releases the aromatics and it rapidly declines. If you’re drinking from the can, there’s a layer of CO2 protecting it as it rides down the can.
In the early days we were accused of all kinds of things, like, “Oh, you want people to drink it out of the can because you don’t want them to see that it’s hazy.” And it’s like, “Hey, man, whatever. If you want to pour it in a glass, pour it in a glass. We’re just trying to tell you if you’ve never thought about it, try it.”
We had some people tell us that we shouldn’t put the Heady in 16-ounce cans because it’s too strong and this and that, but Jen and I just kind of looked at each other and were like, “They’re crazy. There’s nothing like this in the world and we’re gonna do it.”
We knew our beer was great and we wanted to get it to the customers at its peak of greatness.
Zach: It took me a full year to actually try my first can. A friend had been driving back to the city from Montreal and took a detour to pick up a case. I remember seeing the canning date and thinking how fresh it was. There was the novelty of this 16- ounce can everyone was clamoring over and the fact that they were telling you to drink straight from it. And I remember telling my friend that it tasted like weed and lime juice, but in a good way.
John: Once people could get it and take it with them to share with their friends instead of having to drag people to the pub to try it, it just went bonkers. We went from brewing 20 to 28 barrels of it a year to 9,000.
VinePair: Did you ever think Heady would give rise to an entirely new beer style?
John: No, we never thought about it like that. I think you’ll hear this from most brewers, but we make beer we like to drink. And it just so happens that it’s the kind of beer that a lot of people like to drink.
It’s taken on a life of its own at this point. I think a lot of what’s being called New England IPAs are really different from ours —they’re soft and chalky and just shooting for something entirely different. But that’s kind of the nature of the beast when it comes to craft brewers. They quite often think more is better, and there’s a huge market for that. Me, I tend to prefer my IPAs to have a very crisp, distinct bitterness and I feel like nowadays they’re trying to de-emphasize that bitterness, which in my opinion kind of throws off the balance.
A lot of people drink our beer and their nose wrinkles up and they’re like, “Too bitter.” That’s fine. There’s plenty other beers out there for you.
Zach: I consider the more modern takes on the hazy IPA to be converter beers, since they’re ramping down bitterness in favor of bright, tropical flavors that most people find easy to enjoy. The haze backlash is coming, but it hasn’t slowed sales of NEIPAs so much as it’s brought some people back to revisiting the old-school, non-hazy West Coast IPAs. It’s kind of adorable.
Justin: I think it’s had a big influence, but I think a lot of breweries have had equal influence. There were other beers happening around that time that also gave rise to NEIPA, like the soft, hoppy beers that Shaun Hill was making, the Treehouse stuff, and even Jean Broillet’s hoppy ales down at Tired Hands, which were a little out of the region but enormously influential.
Zach: I think my experiences as a beer retailer did lead me to expect a sea of copycats. Too many people walked in asking for it by name — in some cases, not even knowing the correct name, like asking for Heady Toppy or even, I swear, Heady the Elder — for there not to eventually be copycats.
VinePair: What kind of impact has Heady had on the industry?
Zach: Heady revolutionized the way we talk about, purchase, and drink beer in this country. Think about the two dozen beer fans spending five hours of their Saturday afternoon waiting to hand over close to $100 of their hard-earned money for a case of beer they’ll end up giving or trading half away. The second [beer writer] Josh Bernstein’s article went up in The Times about the 10-hour wait to buy cans at Other Half, I knew we had entered a new level of beer fandom.
Justin: It’s important to note that even though The Alchemist does brew other things, I’m sure Heady is still their No. 1 seller. Most of the other breweries who folks think of as making cult beers and doing can releases have to change things up now. I mean, I don’t even think Other Half is canning their flagship IPA anymore. A lot of the hype today is around rare one-off beers, collaborations, stuff like that.
Zach: I would argue that what Heady started was more a business model than an outright style. It became pretty clear: Sales of fresh canned IPAs direct from the brewery make boatloads of money for the brewers.
Justin: Early on, it was regionally specific and nearly impossible to get in quantity. Things like bachelor parties would be based around following The Alchemist delivery truck around Vermont, so it wasn’t just beer geeks. There were local news stories about how the “best beer in the world was from right here in Vermont,” and all that stuff. I remember during my first meeting with my tax guy he said, “Have you ever tried Heady Topper?” He’s not a beer guy at all but his brother-in-law or something had told him about it. Everyone loves it.
John: We’re in a really nice place now where maybe once or twice a year we do a shipment to New York City, once or twice a year we’ll do a shipment to Philly. It’s more of a little treat. We’ll send beer down to Manhattan and it’ll be picked up on Tuesday, in all the bars on Friday, and gone by Sunday.
If you did it on a regular basis, it wouldn’t be treated the same way, it wouldn’t be as special. That’s part of the reason we don’t want to grow. I often use the same comparisons to your favorite pizza. Like if you’re going to a Lombardy’s, you don’t walk out of there and say, “Why the hell can’t I get this Lombardy’s in Texas?” You say, “No. When I’m in New York I’m going to Lombardy’s.” It’s like I’m not gonna complain that I can’t get Lombardy’s in Vermont, because if I could, it’s gonna suck. It’s not gonna be the same.
Zach: The product is very good in and of itself, but just like [notoriously hard-to-find bourbon] Pappy [van Winkle], our brains tell us things we can’t easily get our hands on taste that much better. It’s like umami if, you know, umami tasted like capitalism.
VinePair: Any future distribution plans?
John: No. We expanded two years ago when we built the place in Stowe and got our retail back and all those other things, but that’s it. That’s as big as we’re gonna grow.
VinePair: Tell us about Focal Banger.
John: It started in 2007 as a draft IPA and when we were deciding what beer to can second, that was the one. It fit what we wanted for a follow-up to Heady Topper… which was a weird thing for us because so many people had no idea we had been making dozens and dozens of different beers for years.
We’re at that place now where I have the freedom to start dipping back into these old recipes and experimenting, putting out small batches and keeping it fun. Focal Banger was that next step.
VinePair: What kind of legacy does Heady Topper have?
Zach: People are still coming in asking for Heady. People still use it as a recommendation base. There are more IPA drinkers today than when I first opened, which I thought was impossible years ago, but their tastes have evolved and their expectations are much, much higher. Most know to look for dates and that shopping local is usually the best way to go.
John: Look at how many craft breweries grow and grow and all of a sudden you can get them everywhere and it’s just not that special anymore. And always, almost always, the quality suffers. We’re never going to let that happen.