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MEET THE ALCHEMISTS

The inside story of how John and Jen Kimmich
Story by ROBERT KIENER / Photographs by GORDON MILLER

spun hops and hard work into liquid gold
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MEET THE ALCHEMISTS

IT’S
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 out-

of-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.

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MEET THE ALCHEMISTS

Coffee, espresso, tea, lattes,
fresh baked goods,
and the best grilled cheese in town.
Join us for the treats;
stay for the conversation.

T
his hops-to-riches story starts in the early 1990s with Pittsburgh native John Kimmich. and after graduating he returned to Pittsburgh Crowds gathered within minutes of the
While majoring in logistics at Penn State he came across a book, “The Complete Joy of where he took a $4.75/hour job with a beer- and announcement of the Alchemist’s grand
Home Brewing,” and decided to make his own home brew with his brother- wine-making shop. The shop opening in Stowe, happlily waiting 30 to
in-law. “It was a Vermont beer, a bottle of Catamount Porter, that got me had a vast library of brewing 40 minutes to get inside for a chance to
interested in craft brewing,” explains Kimmich as he sits in his expansive books and magazines, which buy. Inset: A valve on one of the vats.
office on the second floor of the Alchemist’s newly-built 16,000 square-foot, $10 Kimmich devoured during his
million brewery and headquarters in Stowe. nine months working there. The
Kimmich and his bother-in-law won a prize ribbon for their maiden efforts. “I pay was low but for Kimmich it
guess that’s when I got bitten by the home-brewing and craft-brewing bug. I also was like getting his graduate
began to think that brewing beer might be something that I could do by myself. I degree in craft brewing. After
liked the idea of being able to be my own boss,” he explains. He tells me that he reading home brewing books by 1880 MOUNTAIN ROAD, STOWE
remembers explaining to his sister, “I need to find a career where I make something. Vermont-based brewing expert 802.760.6151 | PKCOFFEE.COM
I can’t envision ever having a job that requires me to wear a suit.” Greg Noonan, he decided to leave his job and move
Kimmich wrote his senior research paper, “The Evolution of the Brewing Industry Post-Prohibition,” to Vermont to pick Noonan’s brain.

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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 sec-
ond hand or had scrounged for free. Although
Joel Hartman atop a vat in he would offer as many as 80 different vari-
the brewery in Stowe. eties of craft beer, from pilsners to ales and
A Focal Banger sample. more over the years, the eventual standout suc-
cess 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.

H
eady Topper was not originally a
hit. But as John tinkered with the
recipe, taming some of its hop-pro-
duced bitterness to make it more
drinkable and better balanced, sales
took off. “I was experimenting, trying to get Great Breakfast, Great Dining, Good Times
more flavor and aroma out of the hops,” says
John. Word about the double IPA spread quick-
I t’s al ways good to go Dutch
ly via online craft beer sites and it wasn’t
unusual to see cars with out-of-state license
plates parked outside the Alchemist. “We at t he
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 990 Mountain Road 802.253.8921
DUTCH PANCAKE CAFE & GREY FOX INN 990 Mountain Road, Stowe
brewpub, a beer lover flew up from Florida the stowegreyfoxinn.com
802-253-8921 | greyfoxinn.com
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 every-
body 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 brew-
ery idea appealed to me.” Says John, “I fought
The shaggy haired, T-shirt- and jeans-wearing 45-year-old smiles as he remembers his brash, Eventually, while the craft brewery phenome- her until I realized she was on to something.”
younger self: “I met Greg at his new brewery in West Lebanon and told him, ‘I’ve got everything I non began to take off across the country, they One of their customers helped convince
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 found what they thought was an ideal location John. “We found out this guy was buying
brewing.’ He gave me a job as a waiter.” for their very own brewery and pub, which they Heady at our bar, taking it into the bathroom
Kimmich waited tables and volunteered to come in on his days off to learn about brewing. He planned to call The Alchemist, in Waterbury. where he poured it into bottles, capped them,
was such a fast learner that a year later Noonan offered him the job as head brewer at his Vermont “Even though we thought it was the perfect loca- and snuck them out of the bar,” says John.
Pub and Brewery in Burlington. That’s where Kimmich met Jen, a Barre native who was waiting tion, not many other people agreed,” says Jen. Once home, the customer would plaster home-

Tastings and more!
tables after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Vermont. “People warned us, ‘No one goes to Waterbury. made labels on the beer, using Alchemist T-shirt
“I asked her out but she turned me down,” says Kimmich, as Jen smiles from behind her desk. You’ll go broke.’ But we disagreed.” As they artwork he had downloaded from the internet,

Smugglers' Notch Distillery, LLC VODKA • GINS • BOURBONS • WHISKEY • RUM
She picks up the story: “I was just playing hard to get. But he didn’t ask me out again so a month would often do throughout their business career, and sell and trade the beer online.
later I asked him out. The next month we were engaged.” They married a year and a half later. they soon proved the naysayers wrong. “I busted him after I found out what he was
Jen shared her new husband’s dream of being independent and the pair began drawing up plans The Alchemist opened in November 2003 doing,” says John, who confesses he was flat- — OPEN DAILY — 750 mL and 50 mL
for opening their own brewery and pub. After a stint out West and in Boston they returned to and was an instant success. “Thank God,” tered but also concerned about the possible Barrel House: 2657 Waterbury Stowe Rd. mini-bottle combo packages
Vermont where, among other jobs, Jen was food and beverage manager at Stowe’s Green remembers John. “We had blown through all damage to Heady Topper’s reputation from the Waterbury Center, VT gift packs • packaged cocktails • mixers

Distillery: 276 Main St. Jeffersonville, VT
Mountain Inn and John worked as a bellman at the Trapp Family Lodge. our savings and a $100,000 loan by opening illegal sales. In response, John hand bottled 600 shot glasses rocks glasses • Glencairn whiskey glasses
flasks • bourbon barrel aged maple syrup
“A bellman!” laughs John. “Well, we had bills to pay.” And a dream to bankroll. Says Jen, “We day. It was make it or break it.” Adds Jen,” bottles of their best seller. They sold out in a day
smugglersnotchdistillery.com
books • decals • apparel
were focused on saving money, home brewing our own beers, and creating a business plan for our And the day before we opened I found out I and he finally agreed with Jen that a production
first venture.” was pregnant.” brewery would be a wise business decision. 802-309-3077

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MEET THE ALCHEMISTS

For BREAKFAST, LUNCH and CATERING!
Open daily from 6:30 a.m.
www.mccarthysrestaurantstowe.com

Experts told them that limiting their new brewery to just one beer would be a mistake. “You Everything, from his company records to his
need variety,” they said. Jen and John disagreed. When John decided to sell Heady Topper in 16- precious beer recipes to the brew tanks were
ounce cans, more “experts” told the Kimmichs that buyers would prefer bottles. Again, the couple floating in the ever-rising waters. He quickly
didn’t listen. shut off the gas mains and called Jen, telling
A like-minded banker offered them a loan and they soon broke ground on a new cannery just her, “It’s gone. Everything. It’s full of water.”
up the road from their brewpub, near Ben and Jerry’s, anoth- Faced with the destruc-
er company founded by a pair of iconoclasts. The new facili- tion and possible loss of
ty would brew Heady Topper. Exclusively. In cans. “I guess everything he and Jen had
we’re both stubborn,” says Kimmich with a hint of a smile. worked, saved, and
Costs mounted but the Kimmichs were adamant they did- scrimped for, John sloshed
n’t want investors. “We maxed out our credit cards and sub- through the water to the
sisted mostly on Ramen noodles,” remembers Jen. “It was bar before he left for
touch and go for a while.” home. As he listened to—
and felt—the 800-pound

I
t was early evening on Aug. 28, 2011 when Jen, John, brewing tanks bobbing in
and their 7-year-old son, Charlie, were watching televi- the flood waters below and
sion at their home in Stowe. The brewpub was closed smashing against the base-
due to Hurricane Irene, which was forecast to bring tor- ment ceiling, he poured
rential rains to Vermont. Suddenly Jen got a text from an himself what he would
Alchemist employee who lived in Waterbury that read, later realize was his
“They are evacuating Waterbury. Floods are coming.” Jen Kimmich chats with Nick Ogrizovich, a profes- farewell toast to his brew-
Despite Jen’s objections, John jumped into his car and sional disc golfer whose events the brewery has pub. The beer’s name?
drove to Waterbury. He unlocked the brewpub’s front door sponsored. The selfie generation—capturing the Holy Cow.
just in time to see water rising through the ground floor’s Alchemist spirit via cell phone. The new cannery started
floorboards. When he opened the door to the basement he operations the day after the
was shocked to see the brewery completely flooded. flood. “Thank God,” says

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MEET THE ALCHEMISTS

Jen today. “Without it we would have been broke. And 23 of our brew- Jen and John Kimmich. Jen Martin pours for a customer.
pub employees would have lost their jobs.” The Kimmichs soon real-
ized 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. deliveries. Retail outlets were deluged with calls from eager buyers,
Heady Topper had been rated “Best Beer in The World” by the Beer inquiring, “Do you have any Heady Topper?” Long lines formed on deliv-
Advocate and other craft beer sites. Demand continued to skyrocket. ery days. Shops usually sold out of the beer the day it was delivered.
Hop-heads raved about it in online beer chat rooms, calling it everything The independent website HeadySpotter.com was set up to tip off hop-
from “Best. Beer. Ever.” to “simply phenomenal” to “canned happiness.” heads to the Alchemists’ delivery schedule and was regularly updated
The Kimmichs regularly sold out of the beer as fast as they could brew with reports on availability at retail outlets. Its motto: “Heady Spotter
it. “We started out brewing 300 cases a week,” remembers Jen. “Then democratizes the hunt for the most elusive beer in the country.” Heady
we doubled and tripled. The demand was crazy!” (They now brew 2,000 Topper aficionados from all over New England, and farther afield, made
cases a week.) “beer runs” to northern Vermont to stock up on the hard-to-find beer.
Cooler sales went through the roof at hardware stores throughout

H
eady Topper quickly Waterbury. “There were steady streams—a bar-
achieved cult beer status. rage, actually—of people coming through buy- Rediscover Edson Hill
Overwhelmed by the ing coolers for the Heady Topper they’d just
demand, the Kimmichs had bought,” says Waterbury True Value manager Jen Gracious interiors in our 23 luxurious guest rooms.
to limit sales to customers Forkey. Sales of bagged ice also boomed. Peter Fine dining in our elegant dining room with spectacular views.
who visited their cannery in Miller, a photographer and writer who also runs
Waterbury in order to have enough a bed and breakfast near the cannery, saw his
beer to distribute to their 132 retail Apres-ski in our cozy tavern with creative libations and local brews!
room rentals jump. “I had so many new cus-
customers—beverage shops, bars, and tomers, including some from as far away as Miles of cross country and snowshoe trails with
restaurants—in their local, 27-mile Costa Rica, who told me they’d come here just ski-on access to the Catamount Trail.
radius distribution area. That didn’t to try Heady Topper.”
stop devoted Heady Topper lovers. A black market for the rare beer soon devel-
Some would buy their allotted beer, oped. Unscrupulous buyers illegally sold Heady
Eat. Drink. Stay
return to their car, change their Topper online via sites such as eBay and
Come visit... you won’t want to leave!
clothes, perhaps add a wig and a fake Craigslist. In 2013 undercover investigators from
beard and get back in line, hoping Vermont’s Department of Liquor Control arrest- Restaurant & Tavern – Open Tuesday through Saturday – Reservations Required
their “disguise” would fool the seller. It usually didn’t. ed a 28-year-old Burlington woman attempting to sell five cases on
Others would follow the Heady Topper delivery van, a white Craigslist for $1,250, more than triple the retail price. Four-packs of
edsonhill.com 1500 Edson Hill Road Stowe Vermont 802-253-7371
Freightliner Sprinter decorated with paintings of bright green hops, hoping Heady Topper regularly—and illegally—still go for anywhere from $60
to buy beer from the driver or popping into a store as soon as he made his to $100 on eBay.
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MEET THE ALCHEMISTS FAMILY RESTAURANT
& SPORTS BAR
The Alchemist’s Waterbury brewery Sue Thayer expresses a common senti-
and cannery eventually became a victim ment. Toby Garland is the popular Over 25 years
of its own success, a textbook case of Heady Topper delivery guy.
too much of a good thing. “So many of Food, Fun & Friends
customers were showing up at our can-
nery that even we couldn’t find a park- Stop by for dinner and see why
ing place,” says Jen. Neighbors were investors, they are not interested in selling we’re one of Stowe’s favorite spots
complaining about car traffic and con- off any part of their business. “I think we for more than 25 years!
gestion. “Keep Out” signs popped up on are both too much of control freaks,”
lawns throughout the neighborhood. jokes Jen. “Also, we are in this for the BBQ • SEAFOOD • BURGERS
During one half-hour period in the sum- long haul and want to build a business Est. 1992 Lunch • Dinner • Late Night
mer of 2013 an angry neighbor counted that cares about its reputation as much as Great children’s menu!
26 cars turning around in her driveway it does its employees and the environ-
after missing the cannery’s entrance. ment.”
Push had come to shove. In They have also resisted calls to raise
■ frappes / milkshakes ■ children’s menu
November 2013 Jen and John the price of their beer. “We could raise it
but why would we?” asks John. “We
■ egg cream ■ burgers
announced they were closing the retail
side of their cannery and brewery and make a decent profit and we want people ■ delicious sundaes ■ salads
would look for a new, larger location. to enjoy it. There’s a lot more to life than
making money. Bigger doesn’t always ■ ice cream sodas ■ homemade soups

F
inally. After years of negotiat- mean better.”
ing with town planners, raising When I ask John how he reacts to ■ malts ■ take-out “You can’t beat that flavor!”
money, working with architects being called a craft brewing “pioneer” Open daily
and engineers, and watching and “expert,” he crinkles his nose and Yes! We have fresh, local VT beef burgers! 140 Cottage Club Road, Stowe
their latest dream take shape, waves his hand dismissively. “I’m not
Jen and John were about to announce really into all that stuff,” he says. “I just open 7 days a week - lunch & dinner
the opening of their brand new, 16,000- want to make great, reasonably priced 802-253-9281
square-foot Alchemist Brewery in beer that people love. Besides, Jen won’t 253-4269 • 57 DEPOT STREET
Stowe on June 30, 2016. “Somehow we ever let me get a big head.” One block off main street NFL SUNDAY TICKET
blew it and our opening message He and Jen are equally dismissive of 30 TVs including 6 Big Screens!
appeared on our website several hours what they describe as the “wineification”
before it should have,” says Jen. of craft brewing. “There are so many peo-
Although they removed the opening ple who treat craft beer like it’s some-
announcement after just ten minutes, thing sacred or mysterious,” says Jen.
word had gotten out. Beer geeks turned “They go on and on about it like wine
to Twitter, Facebook, and all forms of snobs. We think beer is beer. Simple.”
social media to sound the alarm: The John nods his head in agreement and
Alchemist was back. By the time Jen makes a small confession that will
reposted the message just before the undoubtedly make beer snobs shudder: “I
brewery’s 2 p.m. opening, the parking love our beers but I’m still a big fan of
lot was packed with cars. In the first Iron City, the pilsner I grew up with in
hour alone more than 200 people had Pittsburgh. My brother brings me cases of
lined up and come through the doors, the stuff whenever he visits. I love it.”
leaving with armfuls of Heady Topper

T
and its first cousin, the fruity, hoppy The Alchemist’s parking lot is
IPA called Focal Banger. packed with satisfied customers
“The House That Heady Built,” as who have just bought cases of
the Stowe Reporter dubbed the new Heady Topper and Focal Banger,
brewery, includes a visitor center, a and a long line of customers
tasting bar and a 30-barrel, state-of-the- snakes out the brewery’s front door and
art brewing system that will produce alongside the parking lot. “It’s business
Focal Banger and a rotating roster of seasonal beers. Heady Topper will as usual,” Shane Rumrill tells me as he directs even more cars into the
be brewed exclusively in Waterbury. lot.
As Jen and John lead me through a tour of the new facility, Jen As customer after customer happily open their trunks to show me the
explains, “We are doing whatever we can to be a good neighbor.” coolers full of Alchemist beer they’ve just purchased, Shane tells me
Anticipating increased traffic, they paid for the creation of a left-turn about a recent visitor to the brewery.
lane on the Mountain Road. They also installed a $1 million bio-film “I’ve heard a lot of stories about how much people love Heady
reactor to treat their new brewery’s wastewater and designed a ventila- Topper, but this one amazed even me,” he says. “Two weeks ago a guy
tion system that will prevent any brewery scents from reaching the out- driving a car with Canadian plates pulled into the lot. We got to talking
side. Parking attendants direct traffic and prevent eager beer pilgrims and he told me he was from Brazil and had rented the car while visiting 18 Edson Hill Road, Stowe VT
from parking on the roadside before opening hours. Montreal. He’d read about Heady on the internet and was super excited
So far, so good. When a Waterbury resident claimed the Kimmichs’ parking to get his first taste.” www.juniorsatstowe.com • (802) 253 5677
policy at their new brewery was “rude, arrogant, not neighborly” in a letter to I nod and tell him I’ve heard that Heady is world famous. “But there’s
the editor of the Stowe Reporter, readers blasted him. They defended the more,” says Rumrill. “He wasn’t just visiting Montreal. He was on his OWNER - CHEF CATERING
brewery and called him, among other unprintables, “entitled” and “an idiot.” honeymoon! He had left his bride behind for the day to drive here for a
Although the Kimmichs have received numerous offers from outside case of Heady Topper. How’s that for a devoted hophead!” n
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