BEHIND THE ALCHEMIST BREWERY
EGM Questionnaire with John Kimmich
By Maria Buteux Reade | Photography by Brent Harrewyn
When John Kimmich checked on his pub the evening of August 28, 2011, he had just enough time to turn off the pilots of the gas stoves. Opening the door to the basement, he saw that water had risen nearly to the ceiling. So the brewer headed to the taps and poured one last beer.
As John drank it, he could feel tanks bobbing in the basement below his feet. Within minutes, the floodwater was already a few inches deep on the first floor.
But brewers are a creative and determined lot. Although Irene shuttered the popular watering hole (gives new meaning to that term), The Alchemist revived itself. Serendipitously, John and Jen Kimmich, co-owners of The Alchemist in Waterbury, already had Plan B under way. Within days of the tropical storm, the first silver and black cans of Heady Topper rolled off the line and into the hands of lucky consumers.
And thus the craze began. Farewell pub, hello cans!
The Alchemist Brewery, which now lives high on a dry hillside, produces 9,000 barrels of Heady Topper each year compared to the 400 barrels John had brewed at the pub. They brew four days a week and can on three days.
“People hound us to distribute beyond our 25-mile range, but we just don’t have enough beer to expand,” explained John. “We deliver to 160 accounts and it’s a constant juggle of who gets how many cases.”
John began his career in 1994, waiting tables at a brew pub in West Lebanon, NH. On his days off, he volunteered and worked with Greg Noonan, the owner and brewer. A year later, Noonan offered John the job as head brewer at the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington. And that’s where John met Jen.
“We were engaged within a month and married a year and half later. We just had our 17th anniversary.”
This spring, The Alchemist will break ground for a brand new enterprise in Stowe which will contain a brewery, pub and retail space. Heady Topper will still be produced in Waterbury while Stowe will brew two additional flagship beers, Focal Banger and Holy Cow, as well as some seasonal offerings.
“We’re building a pretty cool thing that has surpassed our expectations. Barring any catastrophes, this new pub and brewery in Stowe will be there for another 400 years,” said Jen.
John added, “It’s amazing to be able to focus on just a couple of high-quality products. Back at the Waterbury pub, I was brewing 70 or 80 different styles. Brewers feel they have to prove something. That was fun and challenging but… I think we’ve shown that if you concentrate on making one product exceedingly well, you don’t need to make anything else.”
Edible Green Mountains: One cannot live on beer alone. So what’s your favorite cuisine?
John Kimmich: We love Asian food—Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese.
EGM: A few ingredients always in your fridge or pantry?
JK: Grapeseed oil, yogurt, eggs, ice cream.
EGM: Late-night snack?
JK: Cabot Pepper Jack.
EGM: Favorite Vermont ingredients?
JK: Heirloom beets, local cheeses, especially Jasper Hill Harbison.
EGM: Best Vermont pubs, cafés, eateries?
JK: Asian Noodle House on Church Street in Burlington, Tiny Thai, Hen of the Wood, Misery Loves Company.
EGM: Describe an ideal day (or evening) off.
JK: We like to hike, bike, ski or snowboard with our 10-year-old son, Charlie. Then take a family hot tub, a homecooked meal and a cold beer.
EGM: Describe yourselves as eaters. What are your go-to foods?
JK: We try to eat clean, unprocessed food. Lots of salads and local meats.
EGM: That being said, any guilty food or drink pleasures?
JK: Beer and Jasper Hill Harbison. And Doritos.
EGM: How did you land in Vermont?
JK: Jen grew up here and graduated from UVM. I moved here from Pittsburgh in 1994 to make beer. We chose to stay because Vermont is a forward-thinking, liberal state, and we can’t imagine living anywhere else.
EGM: Why is Vermont such fertile ground for craft beers and farm-to-table eating?
JK: Vermonters appreciate craft and quality.
EGM: How has the Vermont food and drink scene evolved in the last 10 years? Where do you see it going?
JK: Like everywhere else, there is a strong and growing movement towards eating locally grown and produced food.
EGM: Any mentors or sources of inspiration?
JK: Greg Noonan, now deceased, owner of the Vermont Pub and Brewery.
EGM: If you weren’t a brewer, what would you be?
JK: A sad cog in the corporate machine.
EGM: A surprising passion you have?
JK: We loathe Japanese knotweed.
EGM: How did you get where you are today?
JK: Lots of hard work, sacrifice and dedication.
EGM: In your opinion, what are some of the top beers on the market today?
JK: Depends on the day.
EGM: Describe a typical day at The Alchemist.
JK: We do what needs to be done: make beer, package beer, distribute beer.
EGM: What role do you each play in the business? How do you balance each other?
JK: I oversee all brewing and operations and Jen oversees the distribution, human resources and financial planning. We work together with our incredible staff on marketing and branding.
EGM: Words of wisdom to anyone who harbors a dream, outlandish or feasible?
JK: Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, and do your homework.
Maria Reade works at Someday Farm in southwestern Vermont, and she will pull any string, including interviews, to stockpile Heady Topper.