A guardian angel might have been sitting on John Kimmich’s shoulder when he first considered brewing the double IPA that became Heady Topper — a hops-mad angel with foresight, perhaps.
A few years on, a muddy river that swallowed most of downtown Waterbury flooded the Alchemist Pub & Brewery, filled its basement, and climbed four feet up the walls of the main floor. Once the water receded, the staff toggled between shock and tears as they tried to salvage what they could and make sense of the disaster.
With the storm’s terrible shock, though, came a blessing of sorts. Kimmich already knew his Heady Topper had gained a cult following. Fans occasionally tried to smuggle it (and other beers) out of the pub in their own jars. Even so, who could have predicted this double India pale ale would end up saving the Alchemist just as much as the people who have rallied behind the pub since Tropical Storm Irene ravaged Vermont?
Kimmich’s brewery was in the basement of the pub, and he lost all of his beer and inventory. At first, the damage seemed overwhelming. The basement was a dank, dark, tangled mess of seemingly ruined equipment.
Then waves of volunteers began showing up — employees, customers, neighbors, strangers — to take on the messy, stinky cleanup. Before this, John Kimmich and his wife, Jen, weren’t aware of how much locals valued them. “It wasn’t until then that we realized how much the Alchemist meant to people. You get lost in the daily grind of running a restaurant,” says Kimmich. “It was an eye opener. We own the building. Were we going to leave it an empty shell? We owed it to our customers to continue.”
As this drama unfolded, five minutes north, at 35 Crossroad in Waterbury, a few batches of beer had survived. That’s where the Alchemist was on track to expand: The cannery and tasting room, housed in a former chocolate factory, were due to open the Friday after the storm. The place is devoted solely to brewing, canning and selling a single beer: Heady Topper. “We’d be out looking for jobs if we didn’t have this place,” says Kimmich as he mounts a shelf in the tasting room.
The amber-colored Heady Topper is brewed with a mélange of American-grown hops (Kimmich won’t reveal exactly which) that he adds at various points during the boil. Those resins eventually cosset the drinker with successive waves of pine and citrus flavors. “It’s not my biggest beer,” says the bearded Kimmich, wearing the same Superman shirt he sports in a looping video that runs in the tasting room. “People just gravitated to it.”
Kimmich is a stickler for controlling the creation and dissemination of his brews. He resisted offering growlers at the Alchemist, for instance, even when people begged. But canning the beer? That was something he could consider. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Kimmich says that sipping beer from cans was a formative experience for him. More usefully, a can keeps out the UV rays that can render a hoppy beer “lightstruck,” lending it a skunky flavor. Cans are also eminently recyclable, points out Kimmich, and portable. So, he and Jen began developing a plan to can their beer. “How cool to have IPA in a can?” he asks.
The couple began planning the cannery last winter; they built a 15-barrel system and decorated their tasting room with vintage ephemera and backlit photos of hops cones along the ceiling. They waited and waited on steel fermenters from California. By early August, the first batch of beer was finally under way.
At three and a half weeks old, it’s ready for canning.
The front of each Heady Topper can bears an ink drawing by artist Dan Blakeslee of a bearded, Rumpelstiltskin-esque man with a frothing head of hop cones. Once a week, a batch of these emblazoned silver cans makes its way down a conveyor belt, where each is purged of oxygen and then filled with beer. After being capped, the cans sort into four-packs at the bottom of the belt. The whole thing is incredibly efficient: 1800 cans per hour are filled while visitors watch from behind a low wall.
At the small wooden bar out front, the place is like the Wonkaland of beer. Two taps dispense Heady Topper samples into mini tulip glasses. Behind the bar, a refrigerator is filled with tall-boy cans of the brew, and nothing else. (Also for sale: Alchemist memorabilia such as Frisbees, T-shirts and beer koozies).
Kimmich has ringed the top of each can with an entreaty in capital letters: “DRINK FROM THE CAN! DRINK FROM THE CAN!” By pouring Heady Topper into a glass, the label notes, you risk losing some of the aromas.
Once popped open, those aromas seem to blow from the can’s tiny opening, piney and dense. The first sip is bold and bitter. On the second, citrus and pine resins emerge, and each sip leaves the mouth thirsting for more. And, given the beer’s 8 percent alcohol content, a gentle haze settles in.
On a recent weekday, Heady Topper pilgrims trickle steadily into the tasting room, buy cases for themselves or to split with friends and sip samples as they fish for credit cards. The first batch sold out within days, and the second, 310-case batch appears likely to do the same.
Miraculously, the Alchemist’s brewing equipment survived the flood, and Kimmich is busy rebuilding his brewery in the basement of the restaurant. Heady Topper may be all that fans have of the Alchemist for a few months, but it’s no small change. Somewhere, an angel is smiling.