When I venture out on my first Heady Topper expedition, I find myself up earlier than I want to be and barreling north on I-89, equipped with a large cooler in the back seat. As I cross the spine of the Green Mountains, I begin to feel that I am racing against the clock as well as against other beer lovers. The prize at the end of the quest is Heady Topper, one of the most highly rated, hard-to-get beers in the country.
Brewed by The Alchemist in Waterbury, Vermont, this double IPA is only available in limited quantities at a handful of locations not that far from Eastman. Happening upon this coveted four-pack by chance is very unlikely, but planning an early morning beer run will get you a happy—or should I say “hoppy”?—result.
Every Thursday morning, beer lovers from around New England and beyond point their cars toward Montpelier and aim for the Hunger Mountain Coop, where 160 cases of Heady Topper go on sale promptly at 8:00 a.m., limit one case per customer. If you want one of those cases, the advice is to get there early.
As I travel up I-89, the quest becomes competitive. I eye the blue sedan that just sped past me—are those twenty-somethings in the car about to beat me to the beer line? I accelerate and wonder what kind of jostling and positioning tactics await me at the store. Do fights break out over who got there first?
I needn’t have worried—there is no rugby scrum at the front door. Instead, a queue hugs the outside of the Coop, and when I join the line, a staff member gives me a number. Civility reigns! And the mood is convivial. People of all ages have driven from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, and other areas of Vermont. One businessman, headed from Boston to Montreal for a meeting, adds this detour to his trip. Craft beer aficionados discuss their favorites, such as Sip of Sunshine from Lawson’s Finest Liquids, and offer advice on tracking down other hard-to-find beers. Several people plan to go from Montpelier to Winooski, where another Heady Topper delivery is scheduled for later in the morning, and then arc back to Greensboro Bend for a stop at Hill Farmstead Brewery. Hill Farmstead beers, anecdotally regarded as good as Heady Topper, are available only at the brewery. I am told that Hill Farmstead and Heady Topper remain the most popular tents at the annual Burlington Beerfest, the 2015 event selling out in a mere 11 minutes. Talk dwindles as the beer hour approaches.
Finally it’s time. The early-morning dash to Montpelier is about to pay off. The organizer calls in buyers ten at a time, and the pallet empties quickly. Today there is a bonus buy: two packs of Maple Breakfast Stout from 14th Star Brewery. I add them to my cart. Who can resist a beer that pairs with steel-cut oats? Loot in hand, people emerge from the store with satisfied, happy faces, looking like they’ve won a prize. And they have: six four-packs of 16-ounce Heady Topper, at $75.
On subsequent trips, I take advantage of the Coop’s amenities after I snag my beer—notably the superb made-to-order breakfast sandwiches from the grill. One time I find Cheddy Topper on sale, a cheddar made with you-guessed-it. But the most fun in making the trip is to discover what special beer will be on offer that morning along with the requisite case of Heady and to experience firsthand the Heady Topper phenomenon that shows no sign of dimming—the last time I went, I arrived at 7:40 a.m. and was number 43 in line.
Now that I’ve spilled my secrets about buying Heady Topper, I’ll have to get up even earlier in the race for one of those 160 cases. But, hey, what are neighbors for?
For those already plotting a trip to Waterbury, Vermont, the drive takes about 75 minutes.