WATERBURY, Vt. — For someone in pursuit of a Heady Topper — the world's top-ranked beer at the moment my plane touched down in Vermont — I made the mistake of arriving on a Sunday.
I had driven directly to a bar in Burlington that research told me served Heady Topper. And sure enough, the beer was listed on the menu for $7 per 16-ounce can. Even more important than the price were the two words beside it: "Limited availability." This was, after all, the top-ranked beer in the world.
So when I asked the bartender about that evening's availability of Heady Topper — a ripe, pungent, earthy imperial India pale ale — he smirked at the sadly ignorant visitor before him.
"That's usually gone by the middle of the weekend," he said.
Indeed, tracking down Heady (as the locals call it) is nearly an Olympic sport in Vermont. Most weeks, the beer sells out within days — or hours — at the grocery stores, liquor stores and restaurants inside the beer's 20-mile distribution radius. The Alchemist, the brewery responsible for the liquid gold, cans more the following week, and the process and mania begin anew.
After choosing my runner-up beer, I asked the bartender: Why such fuss for Heady Topper?
"It just has a following," he said. "And it's a great beer."
As if on cue, a bearded man then ambled up to the bar and asked, "Any Heady Topper tonight?"
Everyone laughed, except the poor guy who just wanted a beer.
Though nothing about Heady Topper screams Vermont — hundreds of breweries attempt the double IPA style, and many do it quite well — drinking a Heady has become an elemental experience when visiting the state. If finding it in Vermont can be a challenge, finding it elsewhere can be downright impossible.
Heady traces its roots back 10 years, when The Alchemist was a brew pub in the tiny town of Waterbury. It was one of dozens of beers The Alchemist made, and it showed up on taps only a few times a year. It wasn't even the pub's most popular beer.
As fate had it, The Alchemist's owners, John and Jen Kimmich, who are married, launched their production brewery in August 2011, and the first beer they decided to can for distribution was Heady Topper. At the end of that month, Hurricane Irene rolled in and flooded their pub, along with large swaths of Vermont. With the production brewery unscathed, they chose to focus on canning their beer rather than reopening the brew pub.
The Kimmiches knew Heady was a sensation almost immediately. No store, bar or their taproom could keep it in stock, which, amazingly, remains the case 18 months later. Bars called from Paris, asking how they could get some. After months of hovering near the top spot of Beer Advocate's user-generated online beer rankings, it recently seized the top spot. As of press time, it hadn't relinquished it.
The couple had planned to can a second beer, but the crowds, who usually buy the beer by the case, won't let them.
"We can't," Jen Kimmich said. "Why spread people thin on two brands when we're already limited on one brand?"
After striking out in Burlington, I took a direct route to some Heady the next day: I went to the brewery. Housed in a white clapboard building just beyond an architect's office and a Chinese restaurant, The Alchemist would be easy to miss if you weren't on a mission to find the world's top-ranked beer.
On that Monday — well-known by beer lovers as one of the two days Heady is canned — plenty of people were on that very mission. The parking lot bore license plates from Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ontario and an SUV with Massachusetts plates where Mitch Waters, 54, of Hanover, Mass., was stashing his freshly procured case.
He compared his love for Heady to, of all things, the Coors he drank in college. That beer also was legendary at the time, mostly for not being distributed east of the Mississippi River.
"Beer is always better when it's unavailable where you live," Waters said.
But that couldn't explain all of Heady Topper's charms, and in the brewery's small taproom, where free samples flowed for an adoring crowd of guys with knit caps and beards, I found out for myself.