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Sip this world-class beer straight from the tallboy

Jim Galligan

Brewer John Kimmich insists that you drink Heady Topper straight from the can in order to keep the flavor intact.

On the surface, Heady Topper is a hard beer to wrap your head around.  The flavor is easy to appreciate -- it’s an amazingly delicious Double IPA brewed by the Alchemist in Vermont -- but everything else about the beer is … different.

First up, it’s a truly world-class beer that only comes in 16-ounce tallboy cans, a container first introduced by Schlitz in 1954.  Not exactly a prestigious wrapper. 

If you pour Heady Topper vigorously into your glass as is recommended by some experts to release the flavor of a beer, you’ll find a throng of little white chucks floating happily about.  To be honest, it kind of looks like homebrew.

The floaties are clusters of malt proteins and hop resins, which continue to add character to the beer even after it’s been canned.  The beer’s brewer, John Kimmich, is not about to filter them out just to make his beer look pretty in a glass.

But you’re not even supposed to pour it into a glass, according to the lettering that rings Heady Topper’s opening, which proclaims “DRINK IT FROM THE CAN!” This is a consumption method beer geeks are taught to avoid because the container’s small opening robs you of the beer’s aroma, a major component of the flavor. 

Add it all up, and you might think that John is flying by the seat of his pants.  But Heady Topper’s quirks aren’t the work of an iconoclastic Vermont hippie – they are the precisely calculated moves of a master brewer who just happens to have a rebellious streak.

John says he has a single mission when it comes to Heady Topper. “From the beginning, we asked ‘how do we present it in its perfect condition?’” he told TODAY.com. Skip glass bottles, he advised. “The beer always changed in the bottle.”

But it fares very well in cans, which do a better job of protecting Heady Topper from light and air, both of which rob beer of its freshness. 

A sip rewards you with a gush of bitter hops that radiate a fruity, almost tropical essence as they blend with the beer’s substantial malt foundation. The balance is spectacular, reminiscent of a warm homemade biscuit topped with pineapple marmalade. The finish is dry and will leave you wanting more.  This beer might have an ABV of 8%, but you could sip on it all day long, marveling at the hop kick, but with your palate perfectly poised to appreciate the next sip.

“The heart of the beer is my private strain of Conan ale yeast,” John explained. “It produces very distinct apricot and tropical fruit esters, but you have to know how to handle it, how to draw the character out.” It took years of tweaking to get the age and the generation of the Conan yeast just right so it would produce the flavor John wanted.

John says that drinking Heady Topper from the can protects it from oxidization, because a barrier of carbon dioxide stays parked on top of the beer, keeping the oxygen at bay and the beer’s essence intact from the first sip to the last.  Skeptical, I conducted a little experiment to see if his theory holds up, and it does. I was surprised by the results, but keeping it in the can maintains the beer’s integrity better.

“Craft beer tried to distance itself from the old canned stuff, to present itself as something more special that’s worthy of a glass,” John said. “I call it the ‘wine-ification’ of beer.  I love the idea of a world class Double IPA brought down to earth.”

This beer’s wonderful flavor and scarcity (it’s only available in Vermont, and even there it’s hard to get) has made Heady Topper a growing legend in craft beer circles.  But don’t call it a hyped beer.

 “I hate to see that word used with us. ‘Hype’ is something contrived, something that marketing departments set in motion,” he said. “I think our commitment to quality and sticking to our guns is driving the success of Heady Topper.”

If you find yourself anywhere near Vermont, take a little detour and try to get a taste of Heady Topper for yourself. Your taste buds will tell you that John Kimmich knows what he’s talking about.

Jim Galligan is co-founder of the Beer and Whiskey Brothers blog, where he and his brother Don cover the ever-evolving world of craft beer and distilled spirits. Follow him on Twitter. 

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