On the Beer Trail: The Alchemist's Heady Topper IPA in Vermont

On the Beer Trail

Exploring the country, beer by beer.

Editor's Note: Ethan Fixell tours the country as a comedian—and as a beer drinker. Can he sip a local beer in every state? Watch him try.


[Illustration: Robyn Lee]

Sometimes the ideal setting can elevate an excellent drink to perfection; relishing a place can make an enjoyable set of flavors even more delicious. I was lucky enough to experience this phenomenon in Burlington, Vermont, where I enjoyed one of the best beers of my life.

When my girlfriend and I took a ski weekend in Burlington, I couldn't resist manipulating the romantic getaway for my own selfish gain. (But then, with all the great beer to be had in Vermont, how could any ale-obsessed borderline alcoholic resist?) The selection at Sugarbush's ski lodges is limited, but offers some solid local standbys, including a refreshing Castlerock Ale from Otter Creek Brewing, and Switchback Brewing's smooth, sessionable namesake ale. If you're there, cut through the cold with Long Trail's Hibernator, a slightly creamy, sweetly malted winter warmer.

Slicing through fresh powder on an exciting ski trail (or, as it's known to my girlfriend: slowly saddling sideways down a mountain while praying for your life and damning your boyfriend's existence) is pretty difficult to top. That is, unless you have Burlington friends who can treat you to a beer from Lawson's Finest Liquids, a microbrewery which isn't open to the public for tours or tastings. Sampling their Oak-Aged Fayston Maple Imperial Stout, I felt like a Twilight character as I poured dark blood into my glass. This sweet, chocolatey beer proved a tasty late night treat.

And then our host permitted me to sample a snappy IPA served out of an unlabeled bottle: his very own homebrew.

"It turned out alright," he explained (and it certainly did), "but it doesn't come close to the beer it's modeled after."

I leaned in further. "Which would be...?"

"Heady Topper."

I had heard this name uttered many times before in my travels of New England bars and beer shops, the conversation almost always concluding with "...and hopefully we'll get some in again soon." Devastated by flooding caused by Hurricane Irene, the Alchemist Pub and Brewery was closed for good in August 2011. Fortunately, the Alchemist Cannery soon opened just a few miles down the road, brewing nothing but Heady Topper IPA. I feared that the tragic mythology behind this legendary nectar wouldn't allow it to live up to the hype, but I was determined to track some down.

I found it in a quintessential Vermont bar on Burlington's Bank Street. Wooden walls, giant communal tables, and a blazing fireplace make the basement lounge of the Farmhouse Tap and Grill the perfect winter refueling spot: it's like a ski lodge without the soggy socks or runny noses.

Each can of Heady Topper promises "wave after wave of hoppy goodness." It also requests that imbibers drink straight from the can rather than pouring into a glass. Never one for rebellion, I obliged, and the burst of hops (they use a proprietary blend of six different varieties) tinged with tropical fruit that filled my nostrils was almost unfathomable. The hops aren't any less intense in your mouth, and yet, despite its high ABV (8%), the beer goes down dangerously smoothly. Sitting in Farmhouse's romantic lodge, sipping the best East Coast IPA I've ever had with good friends and the woman I love, I simply couldn't have asked for anything more.

Except maybe some salted nuts. Those would have been good.

About the Author: Ethan Fixell is a writer and comedian from New York City best known as one half of comic "dating coach" duo Dave and Ethan. He is also the creator and editor of ActualConversation.com. For more on Ethan, visit EthanFixell.com.