Up the airy mountain, down the rushing glen.
We dare not go a-hunting for fear of little men.
You see, nobody ever goes in and nobody ever comes out!
Those 29 words -uttered by the creepiest travelling tinsmith in the history of the profession—set the tone in the beginning of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory for how special it is for anyone who gets the opportunity to step behind the gates to visit the nexus of Wonka’s candy empire. While there’s no imposing wrought iron keeping prying eyes from seeing what’s happening inside The Alchemist Brewery, the message is the same: you can’t come in here. Still, husband and wife team John and Jen Kimmich were kind enough to give us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the operation that churns out Beer Advocate’s top-rated beer, Heady Topper. They also shared some of the plans for the future of their family business.
As you drive through the streets of Waterbury, a small town with a population just over 5,000 in northern Vermont, you might be surprised by how much big business is going on. This is where Ben & Jerry’s whips up Chunky Monkey to help you survive your break-ups, and Keurig Green Mountain pumps out K-Cups to help you survive the work week. In stark contrast to those two massive operations, The Alchemist occupies an unassuming two-story building that’s literally the next driveway down from the ice cream guys. For those who haven’t visited many craft breweries, this hardly seems like the building that would produce such a highly-regarded beer, but in this industry, some of the best stuff comes out of small, unassuming structures.
Walking up the long staircase from the parking lot to the back door, I was greeted by Jen Kimmich, who would give me a quick tour of the production facility, but not before providing a geekable moment by popping open a can of Heady Topper right off of the canning line and handing it to me. I’ve had the opportunity to try the beer a few times in the past, but it’s safe to say that I’ll probably never get it that fresh again. As you’d expect, the air was so thick with the beautiful, resiny essence of hops that it permeated my senses to the point where I could almost taste them.
While a few employees were hard at work filling cases of four-packs by hand, the brewing staff was busy creating one of a dozen 15-barrel brews they make every week. To ensure a consistent product, they blend four batches together at a time before canning and shipping them out to all of their accounts, which often sell out within a day. With this level of activity going on year-round, The Alchemist’s grand production comes in at right around 9,000 barrels annually.
Eventually, Jen handed me off to her husband John, a Pennsylvania native who greeted my own Maryland roots with light-hearted disgust (Ravens and Steelers fans are like oil and water). He showed us a few more of the brewery’s prized possessions, including a row of original seats from Forbes Field, the original home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. With the tour over, John Kimmich provided yet another beer geek moment by sitting down with me for nearly an hour to drink and talk beer.
Photo via The Alchemist/Facebook
For John Kimmich, this whole adventure into the world of craft beer started while taking classes at Penn State. “My freshman year of college, I made a batch of homebrew with my brother-in-law, and I was just hooked right away,” said Kimmich. “By my junior year, I had no idea what I was going to do. I eventually scrounged enough money together to buy a car and moved to Vermont to ask for a job at Vermont Pub and Brewery. I hadn’t touched base with anybody, it was just like ‘I’m going to go work for Greg Noonan,’ and I did. That’s where I met Jen, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Eventually, after working his way up from server to brewing staff at Vermont Brewing & Pub, Kimmich parlayed his experience into opening The Alchemist Pub and Brewery in 2003. In the years that followed, he used the pub as an outlet to flex his brewing chops to create styles that ran the gamut from hoppy to sour. “We brewed 60 or 70 different beers over the eight years,” said Kimmich. But one brew in particular put them on the map.
“We’ve been making [Heady Topper] since 2004 on a limited basis and it got more and more widely known through the years we had the pub, and we never even did growler fills,” said Kimmich. “So once we were able to package it and people could take it home and share it, [the popularity] sped up exponentially.”In response to the exponential growth in popularity for the Double IPA, Kimmich opted to open a second location to act as a production and canning facility. At the time, they had no idea how important that decision would be.
Next Page: Disaster strikes The Alchemist, and the future of Heady Topper
In August of 2011, Hurricane Irene cut a swath across the East Coast, and in the process became the seventh-costliest hurricane in the history of the United States. In Waterbury, 15 inches of rain caused the Winooski River to overflow, and more than 200 homes suffered some level of damage or destruction. As the waters rose in the town’s downtown core, several businesses took the brunt of the flood’s surge, and one of them was The Alchemist Pub and Brewery.
“Thankfully at the time we had found this property to begin canning,” said Kimmich. “The flood hit on Sunday, and Tuesday was scheduled to be our first canning run of Heady Topper. The timing of it was what saved our asses, because if we hadn’t been building this brewery, we would have been gone.”
As the waters receded, and residents took stock of the situation, the damage to The Alchemist was considerable. While the Kimmiches had flood insurance, it didn’t cover the building’s basement, which is where they housed much of the brewing operation. In the dullest of silver linings, they were able to raise some funds off of product that survived. “Luscious was an imperial stout that I had made for 11.11.11, but the flood hit in August, so it never made it to that release,” said Kimmich. “Those were the only two of 20 tanks that had salvageable contents. So that original batch, we bottled and sold out of the pub after it was gutted just to raise cash because we were so broke.”
With the brewpub destroyed, the entire Alchemist operation shifted to the new canning facility. As they cranked out cans of Heady Topper, the makeshift visitor’s center became ground zero for anyone who wanted to snag a case of the hoppy elixir, and the crowds kept growing. Unfortunately, that created the need for yet another shift in the small brewery’s operations.
Plenty of craziness accompanies the top spot in Beer Advocate’s rankings, and before long, the crowds increased to the point where the small brewery could no longer handle the influx of people. “It was bad,” said Kimmich. “There were days when the cars were backed up and affecting traffic on Route 100, which is the busiest stretch of road in the state of Vermont. It handles more than 124,000 cars per day, which for around here is a lot. When we started messing with traffic there, it was a big issue, but before we were told we had to, we saw it coming and shut it down.”
When they made the decision to close the brewery to the public in November of 2013, the company concentrated on filling orders for local accounts, which all fell within a 20-mile radius of Waterbury. Since the cannery was no longer the place to buy Heady Topper, lines at grocery and liquor stores became the norm on the scheduled delivery days listed on The Alchemist’s website. To this day, every location generally sells out within a few hours or within a day if things are very slow.
While brewing Heady Topper is quite rewarding for the company, it was also important for the brewers to keep flexing their chops. As they brewed new beers that didn’t have federal label approval, they embarked on a series of truck sales, which Vermont law allows under provisions that permit the sale of growlers at farmers markets. “Our first one had maybe 350 cases, and a lot of people went home without beer,” said Kimmich. “For the next one we started doing two beers and mixing cases so more people could get beer. The most we ever sold in a day was 550 cases, and that was just too much.”
The decision to close the cannery to the public certainly sent shock waves through the craft beer world, as a beer road trip that ends at a grocery store just doesn’t have the same panache as a visit to the brewery. While the closure was a hit to fans with designs on a pilgrimage, it left the staff at The Alchemist wanting as well. Starting with the brewpub’s eight-year existence and continuing through the retail store period at the cannery, they had always been able to interact with customers while they were enjoying their beers. With that in mind, plans are in the works to build an all-new visitors center in the nearby ski town of Stowe.
Describing the new project, Kimmich lamented the loss of interaction with the outside world. “The only reason we’re doing the new place is because we have no contact with our customers anymore. We’re this little isolated place, and beer goes out and out and out, but we don’t see people anymore. It’s important for us to have that again, and that’s a big motivator.”
When it opens in just over a year, the new facility will double capacity for The Alchemist, have a full retail store for swag purchases, and most importantly to Kimmich, it will create 24 more jobs in the state of Vermont. To alleviate the biggest problem for past visitors to the cannery, the new location will also have 100 parking spaces on the four-acre property. They’ll also be more disciplined when it comes to selling beer, trading their old method of selling until they ran out (usually on Thursday of every week) for a daily allotment that assures visitors have the opportunity to buy every day.
Once the new place is up and running, The Alchemist hopes that it will be a year-round draw to a small town that normally sees a massive drop-off once ski season ends.“When we open there, all of these hotels that are hurting from April until November will be jumping,” said Kimmich. “Our customers will still come up and get a hotel for the night. They’ll get a case, hang out and drink in Stowe. In the morning, they’ll buy another case and then they’ll hit the road. We’re not putting in a pub or food of any kind. You’ll be able to buy tasters, and look over the half-wall to see the process, see it and smell it, and then get the fuck out.”
There is one more thing worth noting: if you think that the additional capacity will make it easier to get Heady Topper, you’re in for a rude awakening. While it is true that the system at the Stowe location will allow them to crank out 9,000 more barrels of beer every year, the brew kettles in the new spot will be used to produce other offerings like the newly-canned Focal Banger IPA, and Beelzebub Stout, which is set to eventually become The Alchemist’s third federally-approved can. The Kimmiches aren’t out for world domination, in fact, that seems the furthest thing from the plans of this small business.
“We don’t want to be making 40,000 barrels per year,” said Kimmich. “People ask me all of the time, ‘aren’t you going to be making more Heady Topper?’ Why? To what end? 40,000 barrels of Heady Topper isn’t going to be enough just like 100,000 barrels of Heady Topper isn’t going to be enough, so why even go down that road? You’re never going to be able to fill demand, and I wouldn’t want to be big enough to fill demand.”
“We have it now where everybody is happy to come to work, and it’s not a crazy schedule where you feel like you’re always trying to catch up,” added Kimmich. “Isn’t that what you’re really looking for? Everybody has to work, but you don’t want work to suck. If work can actually be good and fun, that almost outweighs financial gain.”
It seems, for now, that things are finally going to start settling down for The Alchemist. Whether it’s a testament to the quality of their products, or their ability to use that laid-back Vermont sensibility to roll with the punches, this company has managed to survive a lifetime’s worth of crises in 12 short years. Whatever the future holds for this family business, you can rest assured that John and Jen Kimmich will do it their own way.