As a small army worked double-time last week to shape wood, metal and paint inside the new Alchemist Brewery in Stowe, something happened that was new but entirely anticipated.
The new brewery at 100 Cottage Club Road won’t open for another couple of weeks, but it passed the sniff test. Founder John Kimmich stirred the fermenting grains and hot water into an aromatic stew, and steam bathed his head in the kind of sauna experience that some enterprising spa could capture and market if it were to pour cans of India Pale Ale onto hot lava rocks.
“All I’ve smelled is cut steel,” Kimmich said of the construction that’s been underway for much of the past year. “Dude, when you walk in here, there’s just this smell of money, and of anxiety.”
Now? The brewery and retail shop are going to be separated by a counter big enough to rest your elbows on. No glass window? Heck no. You’re missing half of what the Alchemist is about if you don’t let the folks smell what they came for.
“To me, that’s the greatest thing in the world,” Kimmich said.
He sniffed the air, adjusted a valve, and sprayed some water into the mash tun full of nascent Crusher double IPA, releasing more aromatic steam.
The Alchemist is a place in Vermont.
The original pub on Waterbury’s Main Street was the place to go and have fun. The Kimmichs — John and wife Jen, who runs everything else not related to hops and hot wort — were something of pioneers when they opened up shop in 2003. Their risk was Waterbury’s reward, a venture taken that gave the locals a place to drink, eat and make merry, and eventually landed the town on the map as one of the New England’s best beer towns.
The brewpub had hearty food — a half-chicken roasted in mushroom sauce, big burritos, charcuterie — that was put on the menu to pair with a diverse slate of beers with names such as Holy Cow, Donovan’s Red, Enraptured and Luscious. And this little beer called Heady Topper.
A flood destroyed the pub in 2011.
But the Alchemist is a place in Vermont. The Kimmichs had already built a separate beer canning facility up Route 100 in Waterbury Center, on a hill. It opened the week Tropical Storm Irene wreaked havoc on dozens of Vermont riverside towns.
Then, something weird happened. The beloved brewpub was suddenly down to one beer, but that one beer quickly became one of the highest-rated beers in the world: Heady Topper, the O.G. 16-ounce silver can of double India Pale Ale, currently sitting at No. 5 on BeerAdvocate’s list of best beers in the world.
It’s been atop that list, and several others, for half a decade.
Vermonters within a 45-minute drive of the cannery have had no problem getting Heady — or its younger, less boozy sibling Focal Banger — since the place had to shut down to the public two years ago. Folks were lining up for hours to shell out $75 for their maximum case of six four-packs, and were parking on the neighbors’ lawns.
The new brewery in Stowe is slated to open to the general public in about a month, although there’s no hard and fast date when you’re dealing with a food product that takes about five weeks from grain to glass.
The new building is a handsome piece of architecture housing an innovative 21st-century alchemy lab that turns straw into gold in quantities far outpacing the smaller cannery in Waterbury.
Still, we’re talking Alchemist standards of bigness here. Out-of-staters thinking cans are going to start showing up on their shelves had better keep their travel plans to Vermont.
“This building looks big, but it really isn’t,” Jen Kimmich said. “When we talk about growth, we’re talking little bumps to meet local demand.”
So while the building is big, room is being reserved for the vats and tanks, valves and levers, steel and chrome to grow. The curve of the ceiling isn’t just soothing and evocative of the mountains around it; it’s there so the Alchemist can grow upward as needed.
“This is us looking 20, 30 years into the future,” John Kimmich said. “I can’t tell you how many breweries expand, and their quality goes down.”
Actually, he probably could, but he refrains. The Kimmichs strive to be good neighbors, which is why they closed the cannery to the public, why they boosted distribution to local stores but didn’t really change the delivery radius, and why they politely complied with all manner of zoning stipulations Stowe folks lobbed at them.
Consequently, there’s a left-turn lane on Mountain Road now, required by the state and funded out of the Kimmichs’ pockets. There’s a super high-tech wastewater system that puts out the same amount of effluent as a few modest homes. And there’s a ventilation system that keeps all that aroma within the walls, so as not to upset neighbors’ olfactory sensibilities.
That’s all right, though. Customers can keep all that sensory enjoyment to themselves.
“People like coming in and seeing it, learning about it and smelling it,” Jen said.
Focus on Focal
The retail and sampling areas are designed to handle the lines that will inevitably form, and to keep the action away from the Cottage Club Road side of the building. The building is bedecked with funky illustrations that longtime art director Jess Graham has brought to the company.
The back yard will be landscaped with all manner of trees and shrubs, with barley and hops growing among the walkable grounds, to help show what goes into the beer.
The Stowe brewery will mostly make and pour Focal Banger — the cannery is Waterbury is still going to handle the Heady Topper load, although there will be plenty of the silver cans at the Stowe retail space. Brewery output will break down to about two-thirds Focal Banger and one-third whatever Kimmich and his brewers fancy at the time. Last Friday, they were brewing the Crusher.
Being in the new Alchemist is like being on a cruise ship, with Kimmich the captain. He has a relatively modest control panel perched atop a small platform situated snugly between the mash tun and the kettle. To complete the nautical metaphor, he’s stirring the mash with a nice wooden canoe paddle.
The computers could largely handle a brew run, but Kimmich and his coterie prefer to be able to flip switches, turn valves and pull levers. Poking, prodding, stirring, spraying, sweating.
“They have breweries where you can just push a button and walk away,” he said. “I’m more hands-on.”
Once launched, the visitor’s center will be open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Individuals can buy up to one case of Focal Banger and one mixed case of Heady Topper and whatever specialty is brewing, or three 4-packs of Heady and special. More info at alchemistbeer.com/blog.