According to more than 8,000 ratings on BeerAdvocate.com, the user forum of industry bible Beer Advocate magazine, Heady Topper has ranked as the best beer in the world for more than two years. (As of September, Heady’s rating stood at 4.73 out of 5.) At 8 percent alcohol by volume, Heady Topper is described in the official Beer Advocate review as tasting “raw, sweet, super bitter, semi-dry,” with flavors reminiscent of “… malt sweetness, hop oil, orange, mouthful of grass.”
“Hop insanity in a can!” Beer Advocate summed up. “The greatness forgives the sheer rawness it brings to the palate. In our opinion, this is what sets it apart from other highly hopped ales in the U.S.”
Legally, you can only buy Heady Topper in Vermont. The beer is not distributed beyond the state, so people scan the Alchemist website for release dates and locations and make pilgrimages, camping in their cars the night before it’s available. (Neil Patrick Harris allegedly requested it once an hour when he hosted the Emmys last year.) When Kimmich once blogged that Heady would be on tap at the Alchemist Pub the following day, a Florida man booked the next flight north. “He kept reading about the beer and said he just had to try it,” recalls Kimmich. “For eight hours he sat at the bar and drank nothing else.”
It has also been illicitly sold in restaurants, bars, and liquor stores as far west as Los Angeles; last year, a criminal defense attorney in Burlington was cited for selling alcohol without a license after she sold five cases to undercover investigators for double the retail price. The black market led Alchemist to develop an authorized Heady Topper retailer sticker now plastered in the windows of Vermont pubs, restaurants, and grocery and liquor stores. And, after numerous complaints from neighbors about congestion and near-accidents caused by crowds, the cannery had to shutter its retail operation. By spring 2015, the couple hopes to have opened a retail shop and second brewery in Stowe, where they willl produce Focal Banger, an American IPA. Kimmich says the location is ideal: next to a graveyard, where the neighbors won’t put up a fuss.
Kimmich considers the cultic following to be flattering yet weird. Heady generally sells out within hours, but Kimmich is adamant that “we’re not trying to keep it rare. We’re making as much as we possibly can—9,000 barrels a year, which is six times the amount we produced when we started.” He compares its limited availability to a favorite restaurant in a distant zip code, something uniquely regional that stirs a haze of longing. “People complain that they can’t get Heady outside Vermont, but am I gonna [complain] that I can’t get the same mind-blowing sushi I once had in San Francisco?” he asks. “No. I’m going to look forward to getting it the next time I’m in San Francisco.”
Saying he would never raise prices to “elevate our beer to something elitist,” Kimmich adds, “We don’t want the brewing industry to become the wine industry. I’m from Pittsburgh, where you drink beer out of a can.” As for the offers of investors and distributors looking to expand Alchemist’s reach regionally or nationally, Kimmich responds with a scratch of his sandy-colored beard: “There’s no way in hell.”
A refusal to sell out or allow outside factors to compromise the purity of his craft seems fitting for Kimmich, who has described himself as a “borderline neurotic perfectionist.” Says Jen, “He seems so laid back—no one would hang out with him and think, ‘This guy’s OCD.’ But he is meticulous when it comes to technique and the brewing process. He’s like a great chef in terms of how he designs and develops a recipe.” The Alchemist’s operations manager, Lara Lonon, calls him “a visionary. John loves to experiment, so he’s always improving something, and that passion spreads to everyone here.” Polewacyk, the former Seven Barrel manager who now owns the Vermont Pub & Brewery, says Kimmich makes “this Herculean effort in terms of the ingredients he uses and techniques he’s developed. There’s something he does with Heady Topper that I’ve never heard of any other brewer doing.” (It’s a trade secret; don’t even ask.)
That obsessiveness goes beyond brewing: Kimmich has strong opinions on how you should drink his beer, as well. He refused to fill growlers at the pub, cringing at the image of someone stowing his beer in a car trunk and sampling the unfiltered and unpasteurized beer days or weeks later with his buddies. “Once you buy our beer, you can do whatever the hell you want with it,” he says about the black market. “But I do care if the beer is not treated right, then it’s sold to someone and that person’s experience isn’t what it should be. That’s not a fair representation of what we do.” That’s why he prefers people not even pour Heady into a glass—doing so risks sacrificing its hoppy aromas—but drink straight from its silver-and-black can, which bears a psychedelic swirly drawing of a bearded man with a frothing head of hop cones, below the bold, pleading letters: DRINK FROM THE CAN!