Back in 2009, years before Heady Topper became the craft-beer-enthusiast, Double-IPA, tallboy wet dream it is today, it was one of about eighty beers periodically brewed on-site at the Alchemist brewery in Waterbury, Vermont. But whenever the beer was on tap, owners John and Jen Kimmich noticed something strange: customers would order a pint and then sneak off to the bathroom, pour it into a bottle, and take it off the premises. The Kimmiches would later see those illegally procured bottles being sold or traded online.
Once, after the Alchemist’s website announced that Heady Topper would be on tap, a group of guys flew up from Florida that same day to taste it. “We would have lines out the door before we opened on a Friday and no one was local anymore—it was all people traveling,” says Jen.
The Kimmiches began building a brewery in 2011, but two days before the first cans of Heady Topper finally rolled off the line, Hurricane Irene destroyed their pub. After much deliberation, they decided that instead of trying to reopen, they would concentrate on perfecting this one beer: a beer so elusive that people will do crazy things—and spend extravagantly—for just one can.
“We decided early on that we would sell as close to home as possible,” Jen says. It keeps sales revenue and taxes in the community, brings in tourism, and, of course—this is Vermont, after all—is better for the environment. The Kimmiches, who own their distribution company, deliver Heady Topper to 124 bars and restaurants and fifty-four retailers within twenty-seven miles of the brewery, none of which are further north than Stowe or further south than Montpelier. But those cases are usually sold, and often served, within a day, making it difficult for anyone out of state to get their hands on it.
“It’s actually not that hard to get—if you live in Vermont,” says Mitchell Hall, a beer geek who lives in Boston. But like almost all Heady Topper consumers, when he’s able to make the trip up north, he buys as much as he can. “It’s worth getting a case,” he says, since extras never go to waste: whatever you can’t drink can be traded or sold. “People will pay double or triple for Heady Topper on Craigslist or a beer forum.”
Beer sites are clogged with requests from people in other parts of the country looking to trade other in-demand beers—like Goose Island Bourbon County Stout or 831 IPA from Sante Adairius—for cans of fresh Heady Topper. One anonymous fan even set up a website and Twitter feed that lists all Heady Topper drops, pop-up sales, and retail locations, complete with interactive maps. And in December 2013, a 28-year-old attorney was arrested for selling five cases of Heady Topper for $825 to undercover agents from Vermont’s Department of Liquor Control. (Cases usually retail for $75 each.)
Unlike other beloved craft beers that are only released once a year, such as Cigar City Brewing’s Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout, Heady Topper is in regular production. And for a time the Alchemist cannery even had a retail room, where customers could buy cans right off the line. But the space was so besieged with customers that it caused traffic issues in Waterbury, and the Kimmiches had to close the shop. They tried holding truck sales instead, but they still couldn’t handle the crowds. “It was a great way for us to see our consumers, sell the beer, make some money,” Jen says. “But they just got too busy. The last one we had was crazy; we had almost seven hundred people show up for five hundred cases of beer.”
For some beer fanatics, those for whom the chase is as compelling as the beer itself, driving hundreds of miles or engaging in the occasional illicit deal is all a part of the experience. “The people who are paying absurd amounts of money or driving across the country to get Heady Topper—a lot of these people were probably kids who collected baseball cards for the same exact reason,” says Michael Kiser, founder of Good Beer Hunting, a craft-focused brand consultancy based in Chicago. “They’re always chasing down that elusive one.”
Despite the fact that production has increased by 600 percent since the cannery opened (going from 1,500 barrels a year to 9,000), the Kimmiches still can’t begin to keep up with demand. They’re in the process of opening a second, larger facility in Stowe, where they hope to broaden their reach. Among their new customers will undoubtedly be a few “mules”—people who buy as much as they can so they can trade or sell it halfway across the country.
Jokes Kiser, “The USPS is the biggest beer distributor in the country, and nobody knows it.”