Off To See The Alchemist: A Quest for the Elusive Heady Topper

On November 9th, we asked K.B. Gould and Henry Phillips to make a fall pilgrimage to the Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury, Vermont.

Henry Phillips

Editor’s Note:
On November 9th, we dispatched writer K.B. Gould, photographer Henry Phillips and driver Dave Watson to chronicling the All-American Road Trip. Think blue skies, endless asphalt, a full tank of gas and the wind in your hair. Think roadside bathroom breaks. Think Bob Dylan with the windows down and the speakers up and a cigarette in your hand. In addition to capturing an American right of passage, they captured something else besides: Heady Topper, the highest-rated beer in the world.

We got into a fender-bender as we left Manhattan. An SUV merged into our lane, forcing us toward the guardrail. My buddy, Dave, lay on the horn, and the offending vehicle swerved away, though not before we heard the sound of metal scraping metal.

The other driver pulled to the shoulder and made sure we were all right. After checking the damage — negligible — we got back on the highway, a half hour late but otherwise not much worse for the wear.

What were we late for, really? Our destination was Waterbury, Vermont, home of the Alchemist Cannery. They make Heady Topper, one of the highest rated beers in the world. How we got there — and how long we took — were up to our discretion. That’s the beauty of the American road trip.

The idea to make pilgrimage to the Alchemist and secure the sweetest of suds arose side-by-side with a roundup of the ten best Russian Imperial Stouts. For whatever reason, I pitched and wrote “Za Zdarovye! The 10 Best Russian Imperial Stouts” first, waiting until November 5th to make my play for the Alchemist trip. My boss agreed, and asked where it was. I Googled the address. To my surprise, I found an article just two hours old, announcing the cannery’s November 15th closure of their retail operation.

Like many others involved the beer world, I was shocked. Why would a young, well-respected cannery that possessed one of the world’s greatest beers shutter their retail operation? To understand the answer, it helps to know a little about the Alchemist.

As a senior at Penn State University, John Kimmich picked up a dog-eared copy of The Complete Joy of Home Brewing. While discussing the book with his brother-in-law, the pair decided to brew a beer of their own. When it won a ribbon in a local competition, John decided to focus his last two semesters on brewing, even writing his final senior paper on the post-prohibition evolution of the industry.

Post-college, John spent nine months working at a beer and wine making shop. Then, with $4,000, he bought a Subaru and moved to Vermont. His plan was to work for Greg Noonan, the famed (late) owner of the Vermont Pub and Brewery. As Kimmich writes in an article on, “I first went to the Vermont Pub and Brewery and asked Nancy Noonan for a job. She told me that she didn’t have anything, but that I should check with their new brewery in West Lebanon. So I got back in my car and drove two hours to the Seven Barrel Brewery. I walked in, ordered some beers and asked if Greg was available. When he came up and introduced himself, I said, ‘I’ve got everything I own out in my car and I moved here to work for you. I’ll do any job you have if you’ll help me learn about brewing.’”

A year later, Greg made John Head Brewer of the Vermont Pub and Brewery. There, he met a waitress named Jen, a student at the University of Vermont. They got engaged, and then married. In 2003, they borrowed $150,000 to open their own place, The Alchemist Pub and Brewery, a 60-seat brew pub in Waterbury village. Again, in the article, John describes his lifestyle: “We now had zero money coming in and only money going out. It was about then that my diet was reduced to pretty much chicken salad sandwiches and ramen noodles. I lost 20 pounds in the next few months. My stomach was always rolling, and my mind raced as I lay in bed at night.”

On November 29th, 2003, The Alchemist Pub and Brewery opened to a packed house, helping to alleviate some of John’s worries. From his seven-barrel basement brewery, he crafted the beers that supplied the taps upstairs. Among his revolving offerings, a double-IPA called Heady Topper attracted more attention than others; restaurant workers often found patrons illegally filling up bottles in bathrooms to take home.

Because of Heady Topper’s success, the Kimmich’s planned to open The Alchemist Cannery. Since the Oskar Blues brewery canned the first American craft beer in 2002, more and more breweries had turned to cans. For the Kimmich’s, cans made sense: they provided the unfiltered, unpasteurized beer with greater UV protection than bottles. Additionally, they took less energy to produce, ship and recycle, don’t shatter, and were more portable, allowing patrons to take them anywhere from hikes to concerts.

In August 2011, just three days before 15-barrel cannery was scheduled to open, Tropical Storm Irene destroyed The Alchemist Pub and Brewery. Because FEMA flood zone regulations prevented the Kimmich’s from rebuilding their basement brewery, they decided to focus their attention on the nascent cannery.

As word of Heady Topper’s deliciousness escaped, patrons began visiting from all over the world, coming from as far away as Europe and Australia. The market exploded, and, before the cannery instituted a case limit, one overzealous patron even stuffed his car with 17 cases (retail value: $1,275).

Today, the cannery produces 180 barrels of Heady per week, all of which goes to local liquor stores, or gets sold from their retail operation. However, the success comes with a price: neighbors complained about the rowdy beer fans, many of whom are less than respectful.

“The busier they’ve gotten, the more chaotic my life has gotten,” said Amy Kinsell, one of The Alchemist’s neighbors, speaking to the Associated Press. During a half hour period last summer, 26 people turned around in her driveway.

In order to appease their neighbors, the Kimmich’s — who’ve always been close to the community — decided to close shop until they found a more suitable location. For the neighbors, this meant some peace and quiet. For me and fellow GP staffer Henry Phillips, it meant that the upcoming weekend was the last possible time for us to see the Cannery in its original incarnation.

Quickly, I recruited a driver: Dave Watson, an old friend of mine from Duke. Standing 6 feet tall, and weighing 170 pounds, he curated a rugged stubble that made him look as if he had just jumped out of a helicopter, or left an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. At 8:30 on Saturday morning, we piled our gear into Dave’s 2004 Honda Civic and headed north out of Manhattan. In the fall especially, the drive is beautiful: concrete and asphalt change to trees and fallen leaves. On a gloomy day, listening to Bon Iver, the drive becomes even more poetic. But I wasn’t in the brooding mood — I put on “R U Mine?” by the Arctic Monkeys and stepped up the adrenaline. Then the SUV nearly killed us and really got the blood pumping.

I considered smoking a cigarette. I had 3 with me, taken from a friend, and a red BIC lighter that I bought at our first gas stop. I smoked them once or twice per year, usually to remind myself of joyous occasions during which I had smoked them in the past: the time I took a road trip through the Adirondack Mountains and listened to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited; the time that my college roommate and I broke into an Econ classroom and lit up at our desks.

Instead, I focused on Dave’s question: if you could be a superhero, which one would you be?

At 3:00 PM, we rolled into Waterbury. When we got the cannery — next to the original Ben and Jerry’s factory and across from Shaw’s Grocery — the first thing we saw was a sign: sold out. We were devastated. At multiple points during the five-hour drive, we had discussed buying as many cases as possible ($72 for twenty-four 16oz cans) to send to friends and family across the country. For a moment, it looked like we drove five hours for nothing. I know I talked about the beauty of the journey, and I meant it, but… I really, really wanted the destination.

From the outside, The Alchemist doesn’t look much like a destination. It looks like a warehouse. Which it is. The dusty parking doesn’t seem equipped to handle traffic. Inside, we found ourselves in a closet-sized retail store that sold Alchemist t-shirts, glasses and koozies. There was a bar that accommodated two comfortably; three if the people squeezed. It doubled as a checkout and tasting area. Through the  windows beside the bar, we saw the operation: stainless steel brewing tanks, as well as a machine that put the beer into cans. Given the beer’s reputation, the presentation was mildly disappointing. Where were the pyrotechnics? The fireworks? The Oompa-Loompas?

Of course, the Kimmich’s never knew how popular their beer would be, which explains the cannery’s lack of polish. I saw why they decided to move. They didn’t really have a choice.

After getting acquainted with the space, Henry and I introduced ourselves to a cannery representative. She told us that they sold out of Heady on Thursday. However, as she proffered three snifters full of amber liquid, topped with an inch of fluffy white foam, it became clear that the cannery saved enough for samples. She brought us upstairs to answer our questions; we toasted, and we drank.

Sweet Jesus. How to do the beer justice? The hazy, murky orange brew reminded me of Allagash White, another unfiltered beer, though the similarities between the two end there. On the nose of Heady, one gets characteristic IPA notes — refreshing citrus and hops — that become more nuanced in the mouth. The ‘refreshing citrus’ sharpens to ‘grapefruit’; the ‘hops’ turn into ‘pine’. A light carbonation and easy, dry finish rounded out the well-balanced brew. Does it live up to the hype? Sure. I can’t imagine tasting a drink much better.

It was dark when we left the cannery. We ducked into Shaw’s across the street and bought paper towels, a gallon of water, a can of beans and steaks for the campsite. Then we headed to Stowe Beverage, a local liquor store, so that I could talk to owner Bob Vienckowski. On account of his beard, the locals call him Santa.

As we talked, it became clear that Santa knew his shit. Behind him, an empty bottle of Pliny the Elder sat on a shelf, and an equally rare bottle of George T. Stagg sat on the counter, ready for packaging. I asked about the Stagg’s son, the rare Stagg Jr., and Santa proudly pointed to a box by his feet. Someone bought the last bottle an hour before my visit.

“What’s the local community think?” I asked him, referring to Heady Topper.

“What’s the community think?” he echoed to a tall, weather-worn local searching through the bourbon rack.

“We want the tourists to fuck off,” said the man. “Stop stealing our beer.”

I bought a bottle of Logsdon Seizoen Bretta, which is only sold on the West Coast, and, strangely enough, Vermont, as well as Santa’s last 4-pack of Heady Topper. In the time that it took us to finish a conversation about the three bottles of Kentucky Breakfast Stout that he keeps in his personal cellar beside a bottle of retired Kate the Great, one of the best Russian Imperial Stouts ever made, three parties entered the store and asked for the Heady. Three parties left, disappointed.

Spoils in hand, we drove to the campsite. The owner seemed surprised to see us. It was late in the season, and cold — probably 25 degrees. We didn’t look prepared. We weren’t. With the moon obscured by clouds, it was pitch dark, and we didn’t bring flashlights. We had three tents, but only two sleeping bags. We left the chocolate for s’mores at home. But we were young, driven and committed: we paid our fee, drove to our plot, unpacked our gear and tried to set up camp.

By the light of our phones, we searched for kindling. It was scarce. Dry kindling was even scarcer. For every ten sticks we found, we threw eight into the creek. Eventually, we gathered enough to get the fire started. My hands felt like woodblocks as I arranged the twigs into a teepee.

“Did we bring a lighter?” asked Dave.

My heart sank. Then I remembered the three unsmoked cigarettes in the car, and the red BIC. Victory.

Even with the lighter, it took 20 minutes to start the fire. Dave set his cast-iron skillet over the meager flames. After a while, we threw in the steaks. They sizzled encouragingly. Using a tire iron, we positioned the can of beans at the base of the fire. When the food was ready, I distributed the Heady Toppers. This was why we had driven 5 hours. This was why we had almost gotten killed. This was why we were cramming three dudes into a two-person tent.

We popped the tops. The carbonation hissed. Slowly, I raised the can to my lips and filled my mouth with the golden nectar. I figured the beer was worth the trip. Judging by their silence, Henry and Dave agreed.

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