Just because you make one of the most popular beers in the world doesn’t mean you have to make enough for everybody.
“The more common something is, the less special it is,” said Jen Kimmich, co-owner of The Alchemist with her husband, John.
The Stowe brewery and visitors center on Cottage Club Road has been busy every weekend this summer, but it’s not as chaotic as last year, when the gleaming doors opened to the public for the first time in July, with lines hundreds deep.
“We’re running out of Heady every day now, Focal a lot of days,” Kimmich said, “but it’s lasting longer, and the business is spread out more.”
“Our staffing is so strong, the parking lot is well organized, everything is really smooth,” Kimmich said.
At 10,000 barrels per year, the Stowe brewery is churning out cans of hop-laced goodness at its capacity; the Waterbury brewery produces about the same volume in Heady Topper — the world-famous super-hopped double India Pale Ale — alone.
About 51 total employees, split between the two locations, turn water into liquid gold and can it for consumption.
Heady is eternally popular, and one of only two year-round beers (Focal Banger, an American IPA, is the other), but many recipes from The Alchemist’s early Waterbury brewpub days are resurrected on rotation, with names like Crusher, Beelzebub, Pappy’s Porter, Luscious and Petit Mutant.
“We try to find a balance between the beers that most people want, the real popular ones, and then the ones that maybe fewer people want but we really like, so maybe they just last a little longer,” Kimmich said.
“There’s definitely this mystique around Heady Topper, but I think as far as locals go, and our regular customers, they enjoy the other beers just as much,” Kimmich said.
But when people visit, they’ve heard of Heady Topper, and that’s what gets them in the door.
“It gives us security, gives us room to play with other beers, but with Heady, we can always make more if we ever need to — but I don’t think we do,” she laughed. “I think we have a really good balance.”
Speaking of balance, there’s good news for those whose insides may not mesh well with their drinking desires.
Kimmich is gluten-intolerant, but after tests of Heady Topper and Focal Banger showed gluten levels of less than 8 parts per million — as low as the test could measure, and well under the 20 ppm required by the Food & Drug Administration for gluten-free labeling — “the gloves were off,” she said.
Aside from specific brews like Sterk Wit, a witbier containing wheat, “we don’t put wheat in our beers,” Kimmich said.
“I think there’s some people that can’t have any gluten at all. But for me, it doesn’t bother me, and I’ve recommended it to other people who have asked,” she said.
Lean and clean
The Kimmichs think both big and small when it comes to their impact on the environment, from divesting from fossil fuels to adding electric car chargers to their parking lots, but their focus is really on their own footprint.
With just a 30-mile distribution radius, The Alchemist’s beer doesn’t have a long ride in a truck to get to its destination. The Waterbury brewery is totally solar-powered, Kimmich said, and there are plans to install solar in Stowe as well.
There’s also an extensive “sidestreaming” policy, where all the leftovers from the beer-brewing process — tank wash, yeast slurry, hop residue — are kept out of the drains and town water systems.
The resulting effluent is picked up daily by Moretown-based Grow Compost and taken to the anaerobic digester at Vermont Technical College in Randolph, where it produces electricity for Green Mountain Power, renewable heat for the college and recycled nutrients for farms.
Kimmich says The Alchemist has invested more than $1 million in wastewater systems, including a moving-bed biofilm reactor in Stowe, and has a fulltime wastewater manager — Stever Miller, lead cellar and water operator — and a consultant.
“It’s a big commitment, both time and money, but it’s so worth it,” Kimmich said.
The strength of effluent the breweries end up putting down the drain is about a pound per day — about the same as one home, Kimmich said.
“Not only is it good for us, it helps dilute higher-strength effluent going through the system from other restaurants and breweries that don’t have big systems,” Kimmich said.
The Alchemist’s Stowe brewery recently won an award from the Green Mountain Water Environment Association, nominated by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.
Next in the design pipeline is a greenhouse attached to the brewery, which will use the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation to grow plants — trees destined for riparian buffer work, lettuces for employee kitchens and food shelves, maybe even incorporating aquaponics.
Kimmich said that, growing up, she was always a bit of an activist, interested in social issues.
“I would always kind of rant about it, and nobody would listen … then all of a sudden the Heady Topper phenomenon happened, and people started listening to me,” Kimmich said.
Owning a prominent business and being recognizable within the community, “you’re also given this power. You have to stand up for what’s right,” Kimmich said.
Legislation for paid family medical leave or sick days, equal pay and women’s issues, clean energy and more — “they’re issues that make our business stronger and we know they make our communities stronger, and our families stronger, and it just makes sense for Vermonters,” she said.
That sense of community is key for Kimmich, who grew up in Barre and has lived in Stowe for 16 years with John. Their son, Charlie, just started eighth grade.
Their Alchemist Opportunity Fund, which began five years ago, is designed to provide scholarships to students who don’t usually get them, Kimmich said.
“We kind of wanted to get that so-so student,” Kimmich laughed, noting similarities to her and John: “We didn’t love being in school.”
Job training, helping kids identify different career pathways, and getting young people, especially young women, into nontraditional roles, like plumbing, HVAC and truck driving, “can be the difference between $20 an hour and $10 an hour,” Kimmich said.
Vermont has a great high school graduation rate — more than 90 percent, and well above the national median of around 78 percent — but many don’t end up going to college, Kimmich said.
“A lot don’t even have those ‘soft skills’ that make them good employees, so we’re trying to help those students, and help employers,” she said.
Focusing on schools in The Alchemist’s “footprint” helps keep their resources local and not spread too thin, Kimmich said.
“Lamoille County has some real generational poverty, and they’re part of our footprint, and they need help, so we’re excited to be a part of that,” she said.
“I think oftentimes when people talk about our community, they’re really talking about Stowe and the people who live in Stowe, and I think they forget to include all the people who support our town and who really work in our town,” Kimmich said.
The people working counters at convenience stores, cleaning hotel rooms, washing dishes, service staff, changing sheets and folding towels at the resort —“they’re a part of our community, and they keep it going,” Kimmich said.
“It’s not just our little microcosm of Stowe. Stowe alone can’t keep everything going.”
As the country reels from recent floods and storms, Vermonters are reminded of Tropical Storm Irene, which hit at the end of August 2011.
The original Alchemist, a brewpub opened in 2003 on South Main Street in Waterbury, was destroyed in the flooding, but the Kimmichs’ dream stayed alive. A new canning facility was ready to go in Waterbury Center, and Heady Topper production stayed strong for the next five years.
Running the original brewpub was great, Kimmich said, but the restaurant life felt like “always chasing your tail” — struggling with bills, scheduling, staffing.
Now, “to be able to have the resources to focus on bigger things, it’s great.”
“It’s good to kind of — not reinvent yourself, because it’s still the same business — just evolve,” Kimmich said.
She thinks the craft beer industry is coming into its own, and once the hype calms down, small breweries will be standing stronger than ever.
“Beer’s not trendy; it’s been around forever,” Kimmich said. “It’s sustainable; it can last forever.”
The Alchemist has doubled production in the last year and a half, but the Kimmichs are happy where they are now.
“The smaller you are, the more secure you are. The more local you are, the better off you are. … If we could do this forever, we’d be tickled. We just want to be local; we want to be Vermont.”