MONTPELIER, Vt. - Let's not call this a "beer run." That has such a... Friday night frat boy connotation. Let's instead call this a "beer journey."
The ultimate beer journey. For the ultimate cult beer.
If you have even a passing interest in great beer, chances are good you've heard of Heady Topper, the intensely hoppy, grapefruitily-delicious American double IPA by The Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury, Vermont. It is wildly popular, famously hard to get, and always comes emblazoned with the admonishment: "Drink from the can!"
How wildly popular? It has been rated one of the top beers in the world and a four-pack of EMPTY cans sells for nearly $8 on eBay. How hard to get? You can't visit the brewery, people have been busted for trying to resell the stuff online, and the beer is sold only at a handful of shops and eateries in central Vermont, some of which get lines of people waiting hours for a chance to nab some on delivery day.
If you happen to live in central Vermont, you've got it made. For the rest of us? Road trip! After all, autumn is a lovely time to hit the back roads of Vermont. Take in the foliage, grab some artisanal cheeses, do a little apple picking, and fill the trunk of your car with as much Heady Topper as you can get your hands on.
Your journey starts online at the Alchemist Brewery website, which lists the locations Heady Topper is sold, as well as the delivery dates for each. Pay close attention to those delivery dates; locations sell out fast. Now plot your trip around the major drop spots for the beer — Burlington, Stowe, Montpelier and Waterbury. But don't jump behind the wheel just yet.
To optimize the indulgent nature of this trip, first overlay your route with the Vermont Cheese Trail Map, which shows you the locations and hours of the state's amazing artisanal cheesemakers. Some, such as the Cabot Creamery Cooperative, are major operations offering tours and samples. Others are small-scale family farms with honour boxes. You'll eat well either way.
I set out on my journey early on a Wednesday morning. Since I was coming up from the south, my search began in Barre, where I visited the rather nondescript Beverage Baron. It was for naught. Taped to the cooler was a sign that looked as though it never came down: "Sorry we're out of Heady Topper." When I explained my mission to the clerk? "Wow! Good luck."
But things improved when I moved across town to the Maplewood Convenience Store, where a clerk directed me to a back cooler with just a handful of four-packs left. "I'm surprised we have any," she told me. "Usually it's gone by Tuesday morning." This time the sign on the cooler admonished me to limit my purchase to just two four-packs. This became the theme of the day.
And therein lies the challenge of buying Heady Topper. It's not enough to be in the right place at the right time, because no one place will let you stock up. To buy in any quantity, you have to hit many places.
So I did. Next up, Montpelier, the state capital and home to quaint restaurants, funky shops and comfortable bookstores. My first stop was a bust. Ditto for the second, the Hunger Mountain Co-Op, a mini Whole Foods sort of place. But the Co-Op is a fine place to grab lunch, with tons of easy-to-grab items. I enjoyed a local heirloom apple, a slab of sweet ginger chili salmon and a wedge of Cabot clothbound cheddar on the outdoor patio.
It took another two stops in Montpelier before I had snagged some Heady Topper. I was allowed to buy another two four-packs from Yankee Wine & Spirits. Total can count thus far: 16.
Next, I headed 15 minutes north to Waterbury. This would prove a Heady Topper guzzler's goldmine because most of the shops in this town were getting their deliveries that day. First stop — Crossroad Beverage, a convenience store/liquor shop. At first, I was stymied. No Heady Topper. No admonishing signs on the cooler. So I asked. The clerk rolled her eyes. "It's behind the counter!"
Duh! So I nabbed another two four-packs... AND a snazzy carrying box bearing the Alchemist logo to keep my growing cache from rolling around on the back seat.
Onward to Waterbury Village Market, a mini grocer at which I was confronted by a wall of just-delivered Heady Topper. Two more four-packs (yet again the limit per customer) were mine! All mine! Can count: 32!
Final stop, the Craft Beer Cellar, a funky-in-the-extreme beer shop owned by a couple young guys who clearly love their beer. After a day spent mostly in the car and dingy convenience stores, this place was a little sip of heaven. It was hard to not want one of every just about everything they sell. Their one flaw? They limit you to just ONE four-pack of Heady Topper. Which I bought, of course.
By this point in your day, you might start to feel a little self-conscious. After all, you've spent many hours and gallons of gas chasing... beer. Don't feel bad. Or at least, don't feel like you're alone. Chances are good you'll run into the same people again and again as you go through your day. "Hey! You were ahead of me in line at Village Market," a man clutching Heady Topper at Beer Cellar told me. "Any tips for where else I can go?"
My tally for the day — 10 stops, 281 miles, 36 cans of Heady Topper. And by the time I got home and was finally able to crack a can? Worth every mile.
If You Go...
THE ALCHEMIST BREWERY: http://alchemistbeer.com/
VERMONT CHEESE TRAIL MAP: http://www.vtcheese.com/cheesetrail.htm