Story by ROBERT KIENER
Photographs by GORDON MILLER
MEET THE ALCHEMISTS The inside story of how John and Jen Kimmich spun hops and hard work into liquid gold
MEET THE ALCHEMISTS
just before 9:30 and the Alchemist Brewery won’t open for another hour and a half, but that doesn’t stop carful after carful of beer-thirsty customers, or “hopheads” as some describe themselves, from trying to pull into the company’s still-closed parking lot off Cottage Club Road. “Sorry,” says Alchemist employee Shane Rumrill, as he patiently explains to yet another driver that the parking lot won’t open until 10 o’clock on this sunny Saturday morning. “We will open in a half hour. Could you please come back then. And it would be great if you wouldn’t park on the roadside. It bothers our neighbors.”
Over the next 15 minutes Rumrill repeats the same mantra to drivers of more than a dozen cars, many of which sport outof-state license plates. All of these beer lovers, including a “beercationing” couple from Iowa (“Hi, we’re Tim and Julie Carlisle-Kane from Elkader, Iowa”), have descended on the Stowe brewery for the same reason: The chance to buy a case of Heady Topper, the ultra-hoppy Alchemist brew that’s been rated “Best in the World” and is available only in Vermont. The brewery is fast becoming the craft beer lovers’ Mecca. As yet another driver tries to sneakily pull into the parking lot, Rumrill, sounding slightly exasperated, repeats his request. Pointing to several cars that have parked up the road and are waiting—or hovering—for the lot to open, he tells me, “It’s nutty. It’s almost always like this on weekends. People go a little bit crazy for our beer!” Make that “a lot crazy” as I will discover time and time again during the week I spend investigating the story behind the beer that’s turned the craft brewing industry on its head and made a young, hardworking Stowe couple, John and Jen Kimmich, successful—and rich—beyond their wildest dreams.
Charlie, Jen, and John Kimmich in the new Alchemist brewery in Stowe. 160
MEET THE ALCHEMISTS
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his hops-to-riches story starts in the early 1990s with Pittsburgh native John Kimmich. While majoring in logistics at Penn State he came across a book, “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing,” and decided to make his own home brew with his brotherin-law. “It was a Vermont beer, a bottle of Catamount Porter, that got me interested in craft brewing,” explains Kimmich as he sits in his expansive office on the second floor of the Alchemist’s newly-built 16,000 square-foot, $10 million brewery and headquarters in Stowe. Kimmich and his bother-in-law won a prize ribbon for their maiden efforts. “I guess that’s when I got bitten by the home-brewing and craft-brewing bug. I also began to think that brewing beer might be something that I could do by myself. I liked the idea of being able to be my own boss,” he explains. He tells me that he remembers explaining to his sister, “I need to find a career where I make something. I can’t envision ever having a job that requires me to wear a suit.” Kimmich wrote his senior research paper, “The Evolution of the Brewing Industry Post-Prohibition,”
and after graduating he returned to Pittsburgh where he took a $4.75/hour job with a beer- and wine-making shop. The shop had a vast library of brewing books and magazines, which Kimmich devoured during his nine months working there. The pay was low but for Kimmich it was like getting his graduate degree in craft brewing. After reading home brewing books by Vermont-based brewing expert Greg Noonan, he decided to leave his job and move to Vermont to pick Noonan’s brain.
Crowds gathered within minutes of the announcement of the Alchemist’s grand opening in Stowe, happlily waiting 30 to 40 minutes to get inside for a chance to buy. Inset: A valve on one of the vats.
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MEET THE ALCHEMISTS Locals filled the tables and the bar, lured by the tasty, reasonably-priced food and John’s various craft beers, which he brewed in the basement with equipment he had bought second hand or had scrounged for free. Although he would offer as many as 80 different varieties of craft beer, from pilsners to ales and more over the years, the eventual standout success was the hazy, boozy, fruit-flavored double Indian Pale Ale (IPA) called Heady Topper. Indeed, “Heady,” as the couple now refers to it, would make them world famous.
Joel Hartman atop a vat in the brewery in Stowe. A Focal Banger sample.
The shaggy haired, T-shirt- and jeans-wearing 45-year-old smiles as he remembers his brash, younger self: “I met Greg at his new brewery in West Lebanon and told him, ‘I’ve got everything I own in my car and I’ve moved here to work for you. I’ll do any job you have if you’ll teach me about brewing.’ He gave me a job as a waiter.” Kimmich waited tables and volunteered to come in on his days off to learn about brewing. He was such a fast learner that a year later Noonan offered him the job as head brewer at his Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington. That’s where Kimmich met Jen, a Barre native who was waiting tables after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Vermont. “I asked her out but she turned me down,” says Kimmich, as Jen smiles from behind her desk. She picks up the story: “I was just playing hard to get. But he didn’t ask me out again so a month later I asked him out. The next month we were engaged.” They married a year and a half later. Jen shared her new husband’s dream of being independent and the pair began drawing up plans for opening their own brewery and pub. After a stint out West and in Boston they returned to Vermont where, among other jobs, Jen was food and beverage manager at Stowe’s Green Mountain Inn and John worked as a bellman at the Trapp Family Lodge. “A bellman!” laughs John. “Well, we had bills to pay.” And a dream to bankroll. Says Jen, “We were focused on saving money, home brewing our own beers, and creating a business plan for our first venture.” 164
Eventually, while the craft brewery phenomenon began to take off across the country, they found what they thought was an ideal location for their very own brewery and pub, which they planned to call The Alchemist, in Waterbury. “Even though we thought it was the perfect location, not many other people agreed,” says Jen. “People warned us, ‘No one goes to Waterbury. You’ll go broke.’ But we disagreed.” As they would often do throughout their business career, they soon proved the naysayers wrong. The Alchemist opened in November 2003 and was an instant success. “Thank God,” remembers John. “We had blown through all our savings and a $100,000 loan by opening day. It was make it or break it.” Adds Jen,” And the day before we opened I found out I was pregnant.”
eady Topper was not originally a hit. But as John tinkered with the recipe, taming some of its hop-produced bitterness to make it more drinkable and better balanced, sales took off. “I was experimenting, trying to get more flavor and aroma out of the hops,” says John. Word about the double IPA spread quickly via online craft beer sites and it wasn’t unusual to see cars with out-of-state license plates parked outside the Alchemist. “We noticed more and more out-of-town customers who told us they had heard about Heady and traveled here to try it,” says Jen. Once, after John posted on Facebook that Heady Topper would be available the next morning at the brewpub, a beer lover flew up from Florida the next day just to sample it. “We knew we had a winner,” remembers John. “We were just trying to make the best beer we could and we were amazed as everybody was about how fast the word spread.” Their timing was impeccable. Heady Topper took off just as the craft beer movement gained speed. According to the Brewers Association there were only 405 microbreweries in the nation in 2000, but by 2015 there would be 2,400. Heady Topper was becoming so popular that Jen began talking to John about opening a separate brewery devoted solely to producing it. “He said I was crazy and that we were already working too hard,” remembers Jen. But she kept pitching the idea. “I was worried that we had all our eggs in one basket and the production brewery idea appealed to me.” Says John, “I fought her until I realized she was on to something.” One of their customers helped convince John. “We found out this guy was buying Heady at our bar, taking it into the bathroom where he poured it into bottles, capped them, and snuck them out of the bar,” says John. Once home, the customer would plaster homemade labels on the beer, using Alchemist T-shirt artwork he had downloaded from the internet, and sell and trade the beer online. “I busted him after I found out what he was doing,” says John, who confesses he was flattered but also concerned about the possible damage to Heady Topper’s reputation from the illegal sales. In response, John hand bottled 600 bottles of their best seller. They sold out in a day and he finally agreed with Jen that a production brewery would be a wise business decision.
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Experts told them that limiting their new brewery to just one beer would be a mistake. “You need variety,” they said. Jen and John disagreed. When John decided to sell Heady Topper in 16ounce cans, more “experts” told the Kimmichs that buyers would prefer bottles. Again, the couple didn’t listen. A like-minded banker offered them a loan and they soon broke ground on a new cannery just up the road from their brewpub, near Ben and Jerry’s, another company founded by a pair of iconoclasts. The new facility would brew Heady Topper. Exclusively. In cans. “I guess we’re both stubborn,” says Kimmich with a hint of a smile. Costs mounted but the Kimmichs were adamant they didn’t want investors. “We maxed out our credit cards and subsisted mostly on Ramen noodles,” remembers Jen. “It was touch and go for a while.”
t was early evening on Aug. 28, 2011 when Jen, John, and their 7-year-old son, Charlie, were watching television at their home in Stowe. The brewpub was closed due to Hurricane Irene, which was forecast to bring torrential rains to Vermont. Suddenly Jen got a text from an Alchemist employee who lived in Waterbury that read, “They are evacuating Waterbury. Floods are coming.” Despite Jen’s objections, John jumped into his car and drove to Waterbury. He unlocked the brewpub’s front door just in time to see water rising through the ground floor’s floorboards. When he opened the door to the basement he was shocked to see the brewery completely flooded.
Everything, from his company records to his precious beer recipes to the brew tanks were floating in the ever-rising waters. He quickly shut off the gas mains and called Jen, telling her, “It’s gone. Everything. It’s full of water.” Faced with the destruction and possible loss of everything he and Jen had worked, saved, and scrimped for, John sloshed through the water to the bar before he left for home. As he listened to— and felt—the 800-pound brewing tanks bobbing in the flood waters below and smashing against the basement ceiling, he poured himself what he would later realize was his farewell toast to his brewJen Kimmich chats with Nick Ogrizovich, a profespub. The beer’s name? sional disc golfer whose events the brewery has Holy Cow. sponsored. The selfie generation—capturing the The new cannery started Alchemist spirit via cell phone. operations the day after the flood. “Thank God,” says 167
MEET THE ALCHEMISTS
Jen today. “Without it we would have been broke. And 23 of our brewpub employees would have lost their jobs.” The Kimmichs soon realized it would be impossible to reopen the brewpub. Happily, the demand for the new cans of Heady Topper soared and the new brewery and cannery prospered. John and Jen dodged a bullet. Heady Topper had been rated “Best Beer in The World” by the Beer Advocate and other craft beer sites. Demand continued to skyrocket. Hop-heads raved about it in online beer chat rooms, calling it everything from “Best. Beer. Ever.” to “simply phenomenal” to “canned happiness.” The Kimmichs regularly sold out of the beer as fast as they could brew it. “We started out brewing 300 cases a week,” remembers Jen. “Then we doubled and tripled. The demand was crazy!” (They now brew 2,000 cases a week.)
eady Topper quickly achieved cult beer status. Overwhelmed by the demand, the Kimmichs had to limit sales to customers who visited their cannery in Waterbury in order to have enough beer to distribute to their 132 retail customers—beverage shops, bars, and restaurants—in their local, 27-mile radius distribution area. That didn’t stop devoted Heady Topper lovers. Some would buy their allotted beer, return to their car, change their clothes, perhaps add a wig and a fake beard and get back in line, hoping their “disguise” would fool the seller. It usually didn’t. Others would follow the Heady Topper delivery van, a white Freightliner Sprinter decorated with paintings of bright green hops, hoping to buy beer from the driver or popping into a store as soon as he made his
Jen and John Kimmich. Jen Martin pours for a customer.
deliveries. Retail outlets were deluged with calls from eager buyers, inquiring, “Do you have any Heady Topper?” Long lines formed on delivery days. Shops usually sold out of the beer the day it was delivered. The independent website HeadySpotter.com was set up to tip off hopheads to the Alchemists’ delivery schedule and was regularly updated with reports on availability at retail outlets. Its motto: “Heady Spotter democratizes the hunt for the most elusive beer in the country.” Heady Topper aficionados from all over New England, and farther afield, made “beer runs” to northern Vermont to stock up on the hard-to-find beer. Cooler sales went through the roof at hardware stores throughout Waterbury. “There were steady streams—a barrage, actually—of people coming through buying coolers for the Heady Topper they’d just bought,” says Waterbury True Value manager Jen Forkey. Sales of bagged ice also boomed. Peter Miller, a photographer and writer who also runs a bed and breakfast near the cannery, saw his room rentals jump. “I had so many new customers, including some from as far away as Costa Rica, who told me they’d come here just to try Heady Topper.” A black market for the rare beer soon developed. Unscrupulous buyers illegally sold Heady Topper online via sites such as eBay and Craigslist. In 2013 undercover investigators from Vermont’s Department of Liquor Control arrested a 28-year-old Burlington woman attempting to sell five cases on Craigslist for $1,250, more than triple the retail price. Four-packs of Heady Topper regularly—and illegally—still go for anywhere from $60 to $100 on eBay.
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MEET THE ALCHEMISTS The Alchemist’s Waterbury brewery and cannery eventually became a victim of its own success, a textbook case of too much of a good thing. “So many customers were showing up at our cannery that even we couldn’t find a parking place,” says Jen. Neighbors were complaining about car traffic and congestion. “Keep Out” signs popped up on lawns throughout the neighborhood. During one half-hour period in the summer of 2013 an angry neighbor counted 26 cars turning around in her driveway after missing the cannery’s entrance. Push had come to shove. In November 2013 Jen and John announced they were closing the retail side of their cannery and brewery and would look for a new, larger location.
inally. After years of negotiating with town planners, raising money, working with architects and engineers, and watching their latest dream take shape, Jen and John were about to announce the opening of their brand new, 16,000square-foot Alchemist Brewery in Stowe on June 30, 2016. “Somehow we blew it and our opening message appeared on our website several hours before it should have,” says Jen. Although they removed the opening announcement after just ten minutes, word had gotten out. Beer geeks turned to Twitter, Facebook, and all forms of social media to sound the alarm: The Alchemist was back. By the time Jen reposted the message just before the brewery’s 2 p.m. opening, the parking lot was packed with cars. In the first hour alone more than 200 people had lined up and come through the doors, leaving with armfuls of Heady Topper and its first cousin, the fruity, hoppy IPA called Focal Banger. “The House That Heady Built,” as the Stowe Reporter dubbed the new brewery, includes a visitor center, a tasting bar and a 30-barrel, state-of-theart brewing system that will produce Focal Banger and a rotating roster of seasonal beers. Heady Topper will be brewed exclusively in Waterbury. As Jen and John lead me through a tour of the new facility, Jen explains, “We are doing whatever we can to be a good neighbor.” Anticipating increased traffic, they paid for the creation of a left-turn lane on the Mountain Road. They also installed a $1 million bio-film reactor to treat their new brewery’s wastewater and designed a ventilation system that will prevent any brewery scents from reaching the outside. Parking attendants direct traffic and prevent eager beer pilgrims from parking on the roadside before opening hours. So far, so good. When a Waterbury resident claimed the Kimmichs’ parking policy at their new brewery was “rude, arrogant, not neighborly” in a letter to the editor of the Stowe Reporter, readers blasted him. They defended the brewery and called him, among other unprintables, “entitled” and “an idiot.” Although the Kimmichs have received numerous offers from outside
FAMILY RESTAURANT & SPORTS BAR Sue Thayer expresses a common sentiment. Toby Garland is the popular Heady Topper delivery guy.
investors, they are not interested in selling off any part of their business. “I think we are both too much of control freaks,” jokes Jen. “Also, we are in this for the long haul and want to build a business that cares about its reputation as much as it does its employees and the environment.” They have also resisted calls to raise the price of their beer. “We could raise it but why would we?” asks John. “We make a decent profit and we want people to enjoy it. There’s a lot more to life than making money. Bigger doesn’t always mean better.” When I ask John how he reacts to being called a craft brewing “pioneer” and “expert,” he crinkles his nose and waves his hand dismissively. “I’m not really into all that stuff,” he says. “I just want to make great, reasonably priced beer that people love. Besides, Jen won’t ever let me get a big head.” He and Jen are equally dismissive of what they describe as the “wineification” of craft brewing. “There are so many people who treat craft beer like it’s something sacred or mysterious,” says Jen. “They go on and on about it like wine snobs. We think beer is beer. Simple.” John nods his head in agreement and makes a small confession that will undoubtedly make beer snobs shudder: “I love our beers but I’m still a big fan of Iron City, the pilsner I grew up with in Pittsburgh. My brother brings me cases of the stuff whenever he visits. I love it.”
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The Alchemist’s parking lot is packed with satisfied customers who have just bought cases of Heady Topper and Focal Banger, and a long line of customers snakes out the brewery’s front door and alongside the parking lot. “It’s business as usual,” Shane Rumrill tells me as he directs even more cars into the lot. As customer after customer happily open their trunks to show me the coolers full of Alchemist beer they’ve just purchased, Shane tells me about a recent visitor to the brewery. “I’ve heard a lot of stories about how much people love Heady Topper, but this one amazed even me,” he says. “Two weeks ago a guy driving a car with Canadian plates pulled into the lot. We got to talking and he told me he was from Brazil and had rented the car while visiting Montreal. He’d read about Heady on the internet and was super excited to get his first taste.” I nod and tell him I’ve heard that Heady is world famous. “But there’s more,” says Rumrill. “He wasn’t just visiting Montreal. He was on his honeymoon! He had left his bride behind for the day to drive here for a case of Heady Topper. How’s that for a devoted hophead!” n
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The amazing rags to riches story of Vermont's most successful brewers