A couple of weeks ago, we saw rumblings on social media that Heady Topper, from The Alchemist in Vermont, was available in select bottle shops and bars around San Diego. My first thought was that these were black market beers since The Alchemist famously doesn’t distribute beyond an incredibly tiny footprint in Vermont. For years, if people outside of this 25 square miles wanted to get their hands on a Heady Topper, they had to trade for it or make the pilgrimage to Vermont, wait in line, and get their allotment of this hazy brew. So how did Heady Topper, along with Focal Banger IPA and Crusher IPA, get so far West?
Heady Out West
It turns out, the good people at The Alchemist did, in fact, send the beer out to SoCal. According to The Full Pint, who reached out to the Vermont brewery, they stated :
“Every now and again, we have some extra pallets of beer that we like to send sporadically to different markets. We’ve sent pallets to New York City for example, and we decided to send some to the Los Angeles and surrounding markets.”
All It’s Hopped Up To Be?
For those uninitiated, Heady Topper is perhaps the original hazy IPA. Once infamously hard to get, this beer has been the gold standard in hazy IPAs by which many others are measured. Hazy IPAs were New England brewers’ answers to the dry, hop-monsters of the West Coast. By tweaking brewing recipes they were able to create IPAs that people described as tropical, fruity and juicy. Why juicy? Probably because these beers are known for their bright, tropical notes and soft finish. While hazy beers were once thought of as a flash-in-the-pan style, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, this year, the Great American Beer Festival will create a category for hazy ales in a move that legitimizes this growing style further.
I took a trip to Vermont in April and brought back so many local IPAs that I had to buy a suitcase to hold them all. There really is a ton of great beer coming out of Vermont and this haul was no exception. This time, I brought back Head Topper, Focal Banger, Sip of Sunshine from Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Cone Head from Zero Gravity, and Second Fiddle from Fiddlehead Brewery. One notable thing was that it wasn’t difficult to get Heady Topper or Focal Banger this time around in VT. When, on previous trips, I had to align just right with drop-off times and locations to score a 4-pack, this time around, it was available pretty much in every bottle shop I went to. If the market for Heady is softening in VT, it could be one reason why they might be testing out new markets for distribution.
I brought the beers back to the brewery and we tasted through the East Coast IPAs. First, let’s be clear, they were all great beers. All were hoppy, bright and fresh, with a touch of malt character when compared to many West Coast IPAs. One thing did stand out to me; now that hazy IPAs have been a thing for a couple years out here in SD, the San Diego brewing community has gotten pretty good at making them. So good, that many San Diego hazy IPAs rival if not surpass Heady Topper and Focal Banger. When I first tasted Heady, years ago, I was deliciously surprised by the style, the myth, and the taste. Now, we have so many great hazy IPAs available to us that while the beer was still good, it didn’t seem to pack the punch it once did to my palate. Perhaps my palate has even evolved somewhat to expect the juice-bombs that we enjoy here in SD, including Thorn’s own Hopster Pot Hazy IPA. The West Coast likes going big, and it appears that our take on hazy IPAs is no exception.
In the end, if The Alchemist starts distributing regularly here to San Diego, it would be a welcomed addition to our already rich San Diego beer scene. After all, we aren’t exclusionary of non-local beers, as long as they are good and with the high-quality beers coming out of this Vermont brewery, that wouldn’t be an issue.
Do you have a favorite San Diego hazy IPA that you think is as good or better than Heady Topper?