Heady Topper is the pride of Vermont’s Alchemist and is one of the most sought after IPAs in the world. It is a hop head’s dream with its juicy and pungent blast of citrus and tropical fruit that finishes smooth with a pleasant lingering bitterness. Once Heady hits your lips, it is easy to understand how truly special this beer is… and if you want some, the catch is that you have to travel to Vermont to get it or find a really nice friend or beer trader to send you some. The Alchemist only distributes a small amount of the beer throughout the region and sells the lion’s share right out of their production facility in Waterbury, Vermont. My wife and I made the trek last year and will be going again in August. A beercation to Vermont is a must for all craft beer aficionados. It is a truly amazing area. We filled the entire car with Heady Topper as well as beers from Lawson’s Finest Liquids and Hill Farmstead.
John Kimmich of the Alchemist doesn’t like to give away too many secrets about his coveted Heady Topper, but a few key nuggets of information have slipped out over time. Kimmich says that one of the biggest components in the flavor profile of the beer is their proprietary yeast strain that is affectionately called Conan. Heady is unfiltered and packaged in a can that insists that you “Drink From the Can!” rather than pour into a glass as you typically would with such a fine brew. The reason for this is twofold: the wide mouth can opening funnels the aromatic hop blast straight at your face and the beer itself is often cloudy with a rather large amount of sediment and floaties.
That’s Conan swimming around in your beer. You’d normally want to rack off most of your yeast in an IPA, but quite a bit of Conan is intentionally left in Heady Topper. This is a very unique strain of ale yeast with very high attenuation and it produces a distinct peach flavor when fermented in the high 60s. The peach flavor can become more prominent if you underpitch Conan and ferment in the 68-72 degree range. It’s a flavor that is very complimentary to citrus and fruit forward hops. You’ll end up with a very juicy and tropical fruit forward beer that is both unique and delicious.
After enjoying hundreds of cans of Heady Topper and reading a lot about Conan, we decided to harvest the yeast for a couple of our own beer projects. We planned to pitch the dregs of one can of Heady into a very small low gravity starter that would be stepped up enough to pitch into a 2.5 gallon batch of a lightly hopped IPA. The yeast would then be washed and stored for a couple of future projects that are currently in the planning phase. We have no interest in cloning Heady Topper – we just want to experiment with Conan and see what this beast can do.
Here’s how we did it. It just takes time, patience, and care.
First, we drank a can of Heady Topper supplied by one of our friends that had just returned from Vermont. We decanted the beer and left as much sediment in the can as possible. We made ~200 ml of a 1.020 wort using light dry malt extract and reverse osmosis water. This process is continually repeated throughout using more light DME and more water to increase the gravity and size of our wort as we step up the yeast.
We poured the 200 ml of wort into a sanitized 2L flask on a stir plate and pitched the dregs from the Heady Topper can and let her rip.
After about 48 hours, we put the flask in the refrigerator to cold crash for 48 hours so that all the yeast would fall out of suspension. It’s hard to see in the photo, but there’s some white wispy strands of yeast floating around toward the bottom.
We decanted a bit of the wort, being sure not to disturb any of the yeast. We then added ~400 ml of 1.030 wort and put it back on the stir plate for 48 hours followed by another 48 hour cold crash.
The Conan was stepped up yet again, this time with ~700 ml of 1.035 wort. After decanting and adding the fresh wort, it spent another 48 hours on the stir plate followed by another 48 hour cold crash. As you can see below, it started foaming and raging pretty quickly. This is a very active yeast strain.
After 48 hour cold crash of the 700 ml step.
We stepped up the starter one last time using ~1200 ml of 1.040 wort. With the yeast slurry left in the flask, we ended up with about 1300 ml total volume as you can see below. It also started foaming and bubbling almost immediately. We left this on the stir plate for 48 more hours followed by our standard 48 hour cold crash.
After 48 hour cold crash of the 1200 ml step.
Now we are ready to brew and pitch this bad boy. We brewed a 2.5 gallon batch of IPA with an OG of 1.053. This beer was basically an oversized starter that we wanted to use to wash the Conan for future batches. When washing yeast, it is best to have a lower gravity beer without a ton of hops – so that’s exactly what we did here. The plan was to go easy on the hop additions during the boil and then dry hop the living shit out of the beer after racking it off the yeast.
Our grain bill was mostly pale malt with just a bit of crystal malt and Carapils. This beer was lightly hopped with Simcoe and Mosaic, with all but the 60 minute bittering additions occurring at the 10 minute mark and at flameout with a 30 minute hopstand. We were careful to leave as much of the trub in the kettle as possible. After about 7 days fermenting at 68 degrees, we racked the beer right into the keg and added the first charge of dry hops.
We then washed the yeast using this as a guide:
Due to our lower volume, we didn’t try to get 4 full jars of yeast from the beer as shown in the guide above. We initially planned to just do 2 but decided to try for 3 after seeing how much yeast was settled at the bottom of the carboy.
Here are the jars before settling.
Here are the jars after about 48 hours of cold crashing.
We ended up with enough Conan for three new starters and can’t wait to experiment with it.
The beer we made to grow our Conan army was just recently put on tap and it is absolutely amazing – a juicy blend of tropical fruit and peach that finishes smooth and crisp with a very light bitterness. Both peach and citrus are front and center, coming through particularly strong in the aroma. It clocked in at 5.8% ABV. We intentionally racked some of the yeast into the keg to help maintain those peach notes and it worked like a charm. It wasn’t designed to be Heady-like but it definitely has a similar aroma that we are attributing to the Conan.
See more of what we’re up to at the Woodbridge Brewhouse.