Normally, of course, buying beer couldn't be simpler: You walk into the store or bar/restaurant, order or pick up the one you want, pay, and enjoy. But here in Vermont, home to several of the most sought after ones, it's a little more complicated. It's not quite like trying to purchase California condor eggs or anything, but it's still a little tricky.
I'm mostly talking about Heady Topper, of course. This beer, made by The Alchemist brewery in Waterbury, Vermont, is considered by Beer Advocate (www.beeradvocate.com) to be the very best beer in the world. It's a robust double/imperial India Pale Ale, with an 8% alcohol content. But, unfortunately for beer aficionados, it's a small brewery that doesn't ship its product more than about 20-25 miles from where it's made. The Alchemist is particularly concerned with Heady's freshness, so they always keep it refridgerated, and in cans (which block light better than bottles) or kegs.
All of this causes some zaniness and shenanigans. The Alchemist has caught people trying to steal and resell their beers by secretly pouring it into other bottles on site, for example. And, although it's illegal, people have attempted/succeeded in reselling Heady on ebay or Craigslist, with incredible markup. A case that costs about $70-80 in Vermont may go for $250 elsewhere. A 16 ounce can that goes for $3 at the brewery has been marked up to $18 in Washington, D.C. People have even successfully sold empty Heady cans! Which, frankly, amazes me. Is there also a black market for rare Cuban cigar stubs?
Anyway, as you can understand by now, finding Heady Topper usually takes some research. You have to go to the brewery website, which lists which stores or restaurants in the Waterbury, VT area are licensed to stock it. And you have to know the day, or even the time they're delivered. There's almost zero chance that a store that gets some in Thursday morning will have any left Friday, or even Thursday evening. The first time I bought it, a couple of winters ago, I just got lucky. The tiny minimart across the street from the hotel I was staying in had a surprisingly good selection, and got Heady on Thursdays at 2 p.m. We happened to get back a little early from work that day, so I was able to get the penultimate four pack at about 3 p.m.
I was away from VT for a while, but I just returned recently. So last week I thought I'd try again. This time I had my sights on another rare "whale"--Lawson's Finest Liquids. Like The Alchemist, they don't currently sell to the public from their brewery, and they're well respected but don't ship very far. Happily The Beverage Warehouse in Winooski, VT advertised getting both types on Saturday. They opened at 10 a.m. I thought I was being clever and/or ridiculous by getting there at about 9:25. My embarrassment quickly turned to concern, as there was already a line of probably 50-60 people. A woman in front of me walked up to the front of the line, and learned that those people (who brought camping chairs) had arrived at 7:30 a.m.! At 10, the line finally moved, as we all filed in and snaked our way through the aisles of the store. After another ten minutes or so, I finally reached a door near the back of the store. A man handed me two 4 packs (16 ounce cans) of Heady Topper, and one 4 pack (also 16 ounce cans) of Lawson's Sip of Sunshine IPA (8% alcohol), which was #28 overall at Beer Advocate at the time. Also, I just made it, as the supply ran out maybe 5-6 people behind me. The Heady was $13.19 per 4 pack, and the Lawson's $13.99 (not including tax). (Incidentally, I now realize I was kind of gouged the first time I bought Heady, since I paid $16-17 that time. Overall I felt a little strange. I'd gotten up early on a weekend, waited in line for like 45 minutes, all to buy some beer. The cashier even remarked that she couldn't believe that people did what we had.
I'm sure readers by now are wondering, "How did they taste?" Is the punch line that I waited in line, like I was trying to buy concert tickets or something, only to discover that the beer itself was mediocre or even bad? Are Heady Topper and Sip of Sunshine all hype, all pretentious customers getting off on the fact that they got something rare? I'm happy to report that this wasn't the case. (I guess it was at least partially obvious, since I bought Heady Topper again, but anyway.) Both Heady and Sip are exceptional IPA's. Well balanced, bitterly hoppy in a tasty way, and both hide their relatively high alcohol contents well. I would say that Heady is slightly overrated, in that I don't know that it's the absolute best beer ever. For example, staying in the double/imperial IPA category, I think that Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA, Victory's Dirtwolf, Sixpoint's Resin, Lagunitas's Sucks, Stone's Enjoy By, Green Flash's Palate Wrecker, and Great Lake's Erie Monster are all in the same league at least. And beers in other categories are contenders as well.
All in all, though, I don't have any regrets. It was a little obsessive and silly, and a bit expensive, but like I said, the beers were excellent. So if you're in the Central/Northern Vermont area, I highly recommend a beer tour. I guess it's one of the beer versions of a Napa Valley wine tour, with lots of choices in a relatively small area. I also found that Bent Hill, Frost, and Fiddlehead were very good VT microbrews. Next on the "to get" list is Hill Farmstead's offerings.
But, if you do actually pay for empty cans just to trick your friends into thinking you had a rare beer (and not for say, a can collection), I'll think you're kind of a weirdo.