|The OG, Heady Topper.|
I expend a lot of digital ink on The Silver Key writing about how my eyes were opened to a new kind of fantasy when I discovered Robert E. Howard, and the great passion and respect I possess for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. But I have a couple of additional passions as well. One of them happens to be beer. And I can say without reservation that my life changed in 2014 when I drank my first can of Heady Topper.
I’m not sure how many of my visitors are from the New England region of the United States, but among the many reasons why I enjoy living here (along with fall, and the mountains of New Hampshire, and the seacoast) is the beer scene. New England gave birth to a style of beer that has become my favorite, the New England India Pale Ale, or NEIPA.
NEIPAs are characterized by their hazy appearance, citrus aroma, and hop-forwardness. Some are double dry hopped, with the likes of Citra, Mosaic, and Galaxy hops added in whole, late in the brewing process, to add even more hoppy goodness and piney bite. In the last decade the NEIPA has exploded in popularity and has become a staple at breweries everywhere. But we largely have Heady Topper, the OG, and the Alchemist Brewery in Vermont to thank.
I’ve never been a beer snob. I started with the likes of Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Coors, and will still drink a cold Coors Lite on a hot summer day. But in the late 90s I began to branch out and discover the joys of smaller breweries and styles beyond Lagers and Pilsners. Sam Adams Boston Lager was an early favorite, as was Harpoon IPA and Long Trail IPA. Blue Moon, a Belgian White, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and Magic Hat #9, another pale, were also early favorites. These were “craft beers” before the true small, local craft beer scene began to emerge in the late 2000s.
As the 21st century rolled around I started hearing about this new beer called Heady Topper. An article in the Boston Globe described Massachusetts residents driving for three hours up to Stowe, then waiting for another 2-3 hours in line, to get it. Who the hell would wait for a beer, when my local packie offers immediate convenience?
How good could it possibly be?
I had the chance to find out in 2014 while up in VT visiting some friends. My friend had picked up some Heady Topper, Focal Banger, and Crusher from the Alchemist, and I finally got to crack a few cans with him, in front of a wood fire in the cold mountains outside of Burlington.
Mind blown. My eyes were opened to what beer could truly be. I didn’t weep, but something inside me was moved, and since then I’ve been all in on the craft beer craze. Later I took a trek up to Stowe to buy a two-case allotment from the Alchemist. My wallet and waistline have paid the price.
Heady Topper is 8% ABV and packs a punch. It’s also very hop forward. You can’t give a new beer drinker a Heady Topper or any of the high IBU IPAs right out of the gate. It’s cruel, like plopping a wobbly new skier on a double black diamond ski run. You need to build up to it, condition your palette, before taking that kind of plunge. I don’t believe I could have enjoyed Heady had not I had a history of drinking Harpoon and Sierra Nevadas and the like.
Since Heady Topper many other amazing NEIPAs have come along with their own takes on the style, and many believe the Alchemist has been surpassed. That could very well be the case. My personal favorite is Bissell Brothers Brewing in Portland, ME, whose Swish (which can only be purchased at the brewery, in limited releases, and for which I have waited nearly 2 hours in line to obtain) is so good that words fail me. I also love their flagship Ale, Substance, as well as Reciprocal. They don’t make a bad beer.
|Heavy hitters. From left to right, Trillium Fort Point, Battery |
Steele Flume, Kettlehead The Agent, Swish (Bissell Brothers),
Sip of Sunshine, and Focal Banger (Alchemist)
Other favorite beers and breweries include:
- Fort Point, Trillium Brewing, Boston MA (actually a pale, but double dry hopped and in same ballpark as the New England IPA
- Ponyhawk, Resilience Brewing, Littleton NH
- Flume, Battery Steele Brewing, Portland ME
- Sip of Sunshine, Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Waitsfield VT (though brewed elsewhere)
- It’s Complicated Being a Wizard, Burlington Beer Company, Shelburne, VT
- The Agent, Kettlehead Brewing, Tilton, NH
- Fiddlehead IPA, Fiddlehead Brewing Company, Shelburne VT
I do like other styles of beer beyond the IPA. There is an amazing brewery about 10 minutes from my house in neighboring Amesbury, Brewery Silvaticus, which makes wonderful German inspired ales and lagers and stouts, amazingly well-balanced beers that are a joy to drink. It’s wonderful to walk into Silvaticus and see the stainless steel brewing tanks set against old brickwork, drink a beer or three, shoot the shit, and watch the world go by.
Today local craft breweries are springing up everywhere. While the pandemic has certainly slowed their growth and put a few out of business, from 2008 through 2016 craft breweries grew sixfold. Their superior product has put a major dent in the goliaths. Over the same period shipments from the likes of Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Heineken, Pabst, fell 14%. Local craft breweries have the advantage of producing fresher, unpasteurized beer, hyper-locally, and often offer great atmosphere and personality. The small breweries of today remind me somewhat of the classic Irish Pubs. Instead of loud music and 20-somethings pressed shoulder-to-shoulder, swilling shit beer, craft breweries gather folks of all ages to gab, and revel in well-made local product.
I’m very glad to be living in this golden age of beer.