Wednesday, January 11, 2012

DRANK: Heady Topper, The Alchemist, Waterbury, Vermont, USA - CAN

There's going to be some much going on in this post, I'm not sure where to start. This one's going to have a "phoenix from the ashes" slant, along with a little brewing 101, plus the can versus bottle debate—that's all before I even get to the review. Luckily for me, both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer scored it a perfect 100, so maybe it's worth all the fuss.

All right, lets start with the phoenix scenario. Back, during mid-October, in my One For the Road: Vermont post, I mentioned that a number of Vermont breweries and brew pubs were destroyed when Hurricane Irene ran ramshackle through the the Northeast corridor. Unfortunately, The Alchemist Pub and Brewery was one of those places. In August, when the Winooski River flooded the village of Waterbury, The Alchemist and every other business and residence in town, found themselves knee deep in the big muddy—literally. Initially, it looked as if a little, or in this case a shit ton of elbow grease would be able to get the place back up in running. It became clear, quickly, that as much as everyone wanted that to happen, the Alchemist Pub and Brewery was too far gone for a rebuild.

Okay, enough with the bummer stuff.

What's amazing, about all this, is that owners John and Jennifer Kimmich were already in the process of expanding their operation. Four days—that's right, four days—after the flood, their new cannery, dubbed the Alchemist Cannery, officially began operation. John and Jennifer would move their brewing system to the new location and keep doing what they do best—brew great beer. The plan is to focus on Heady Topper for now, but there is also talk of a smaller 60 seat pub on the site of the old place, as well.

Up next— a little Brewing 101. One of the things that makes Heady Topper a bit unusual among it's Double IPA peers, is it's measure of 120 International Bittering Units, or IBUs. IBUs, for the uninitiated, is a scale for determining a beer's bitterness—the higher the number the more bitter the beer. The number is a bit subjective, but it's a decent guideline. It's important to remember IBUs don't measure hoppiness—hoppiness isn't quantitative. That would be like assessing a pizza's oregano-ness. Here's the other thing about IBUs—they're a bit one-sided. Take two beers, say a Pale Ale with an IBU rate of 30 and an Imperial Stout with a rate of 60. According to the numbers the Stout should be more bitter. Take a sip of both and the APA is the one with the more aggressive bitterness —why? Because the Stout's gravity is way higher than the APA, so the bitterness has a lot of malt sweetness and character to contend with. This relationship between gravity and bitterness is referred to as the BUGU ratio, or the Bittering Units/Gravity Units ratio. 

"Shit, math." You say.

It's actually simple. Just look at each beer's original gravity (OG), or the beer's gravity prior to fermentation—let's say 1.052 for the APA and 1.085 for the Stout. We can shorten those gravity numbers to just 52 and 85. Now divide those numbers into each beer's respective IBU rates. The APA works out to 57:100, or .57 while the Stout hits 70:100, or .7. The closer to 50:100, or .5, the more balanced the beer. So, even though Heady Topper has an IBU rate of 120, it's OG is fairly high as well—I'm guessing in the 1.080ish range—making it hoppy rather than overtly bitter. 

By the way, this is easily the longest, single beer review I've ever done.

Okay, let's get into the whole can versus bottle thing—no math I promise. I'm a can proponent, they're ergonomic, they keep cold well and they keep out light—all good stuff. The Alchemist takes it a step further. Normally I don't quote copy from cans or bottles, but I'm going to do it here, because this is a great take on the whole can thing. Not only does the Alchemist can rather than bottle, they ask that you actually drink directly from the can—yup, you read that right, a craft brewer suggesting to drink their beer—sans glass.
Why do I recommend you drink it from the can? Quite simply, to ensure a delightful, hop experience. The act of pouring it in a glass smells nice, but it releases the essential hop aromas that we have worked so hard to retain. - John Kimmich
Never heard that one before! Is it horse shit to sell canned beer, maybe, maybe not—but I'm drinking it from the can. You present me with an argument like that and I'll take the bait every time.

So how's the beer? Every bit as good as you'd expect with a score of a perfect 100. What more needs to be said? Besides, I've said enough already.

Oh wait! I do have one last thing to say—Thanks to Chad for giving me this one! 


  1. That wasn't so much a review as it was a Beer 101 article. C'mon man I was really looking forward to hearing you dissect this one.

    "So how's the beer? Every bit as good as you'd expect with a score of a perfect 100. What more needs to be said? Besides, I've said enough already." = total copout.

    That's like coming back from Vegas and people ask you what you did and what it's like and just saying "if you've seen the commercials you know, the end". Bullshit!

  2. By all means, Chad, don't hold back. Let me know how you really feel.

  3. Ya know, by the time I got through everything I wanted to write about, I was thinking everything was getting a bit long-winded!