Jen and John Kimmich, The Alchemist. Photos by Randolph T Holhut
by Joyce Marcel (This article first appeared in the July issue of Vermont Business Magazine) There are beers. There are unicorns. There are unicorn beers. Less well known are unicorn breweries — they make the unicorn beers. Perhaps the best-known is Vermont's own The Alchemist, which makes Heady Topper, an unfiltered double India pale ale (IPA) with an 8 percent alcoholic kick and enough hops to make the inside of your mouth feel like someone's been playing a bass drum back there. (It has a sister IPA named Focal Banger that tastes like the whole marching band went through your mouth. On horseback.)
Yes, it's a fresh, fizzy, hoppy, citrus-y, lovely beer, but it's coveted status — its unicorn status —comes partly from the fact that it's made in limited quantities and sold — also in limited quantities — only within a 25-mile radius of where it's produced. It's the rarity plus the taste that makes Heady Topper a unicorn.
Heady Topper is one of several popular brews made by The Alchemist, a $26 million-a-year operation founded, privately owned and run by brewer John Kimmich, 47, and his wife, businesswoman Jennifer (Jen) Kimmich, 46, who serves as the company's CEO. The company has two bottling plants: One, in Waterbury, is devoted to Heady Topper; the second is a spacious, light-filled brewery in Stowe, which also has a visitor’s center, a store, a tasting bar and a lawn for parties.
The Alchemist has its own distribution company with three refrigerated trucks. It has its own philanthropic foundation. It has 52 employees who enjoy great benefits.
“We're a family,” Jen said. “We don't have any turnover. Nobody leaves. We make 20,000 barrels a year. We make 10,000 barrels in Waterbury of Heady Topper, and here in Stowe we make 10,000 additional barrels of Focal Banger and all of the other flavors. We run our distribution company out of the Waterbury plant, too, because we have a nice space for it and it's right off of I-89.”
What makes The Alchemist itself a unicorn? Well, when was the last time you met a business owner who didn't talk about growing their business?
“We're not going to grow,” John said. “We're done growing. This is all the beer we're ever going to make. Our growth is going to be through our social footprint and our environmental footprint.”
“We're making as much Heady Topper as we will ever make at our facility,” she said. “Yep, we're making as much beer as we will ever make. This is it.”
How about going public?
“Never,” Jen said with a deep laugh. “It took us so long to get to this point because John and I want to remain the owners. We want to be in control. We don't want to go public. And as soon as a company goes public it becomes about money. Even if you are a socially responsible business, you have stockholders who look at their returns. They expect to make money. If it's just John and I, and we're not reporting to anyone, we can do whatever we want with our money. That's really cool. 'OK, we're going to invest in this wastewater project.' Or, 'We're going to invest in new solar panels.' Or, 'We're going to give this money to some organization.' We love not having to answer to anyone.”
John is a bright-eyed, healthy, happy high priest of beer. He wears his art proudly: his upper body is covered in tattoos of hops, barley, water and the company logo, the ancient alchemy sign for fermentation.
Jen is more cerebral; she's a high-energy woman with an easy laugh who doesn't quite mask the fact that she has intensity to burn.
The atmosphere at the Stowe brewery is light and friendly; people bring their dogs to work and John spent much of his interview time cuddling with one of the couple's two border terriers. Laughter came from the tasting bar as we talked.
The Kimmiches make a great team, one that has worked very hard for their success. And what a success! Heady Topper has become the stuff of legends.
It is said, for example, that when John started making the beer — on tap and sold only at the brew pub he and Jen originally owned in Waterbury — people would carry their full glasses into the bathroom and secretly bottle it themselves so they could take it home. And there's an unconfirmed story about a family in South Africa flying a private jet into Burlington one day just to pick up some cans.
Take that, Budweiser!
In recent years, Vermont has become something of a beer capital. It has 58 craft breweries, and it's been estimated that, per capita, the state has the most in the country. The $360 million-plus industry has spawned beer trails, beer tours, beer celebrations, at least one craft beer guidebook, a host of customized brewery tours, sale of related merchandise and the world’s first beer concierge.
Inside the new Alchemist brewery in Stowe.
With almost every small town in the state home to one or more brewing companies, might there be a beer glut some day? Only time will tell. Right now there appears to be an international demand for new and different beers that is only growing stronger.
What has made Vermont such a center of craft brewing?
It's seems that while he was alive, beer guru Greg Noonan, author and founder/owner of the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington, turned on a whole new generation of young people to the joys of home brewing. John was one of them.
“Greg was one of the best,” John said. “He was an industry leader. He was an author. He had literally written the books on brewing beer. He was in Vermont. The summer before I graduated college, I'd come up and visited Vermont and just fell in love with it. That was my goal. I was going to buy a car and move to Vermont and get a job with Greg.”
John grew up the youngest of six children of a Pittsburgh stockbroker and a mother who was a homemaker. From the beginning, he was a hard worker.
“My dad used to throw me a $10 or $20 after working for 10 hours out in the yard,” John said. “But there was one summer when I was 15 years old and the mailman in his office was taking his four weeks of vacation. So for four weeks, I rode in every morning with my dad to downtown Pittsburgh and delivered the mail like I was the mail man. I've also worked in a lumber store and for a moving company. I worked for the township laying blacktop and shoveling rock.”
John became interested in home brewing (which became legal in 1976) because one of his sisters was dating a man who enjoyed experimenting with fermentation.
“He was dating my sister when I was five and they were teenagers,” John said. “So he's been around my life forever. I remember them brewing and people would laugh because bottles blew up and stuff like that. Anybody that's ever home-brewed has had that happen to them. So when I was in college — and by now he and my sister were married — I came home one weekend and I was over at their house and I found his old dog-eared home brew book — Charlie Papazian's 'The Complete Joy of Home brewing.' I picked it up and started reading it and just was fascinated.”
Back then, John was a business major.
“I knew I wanted to own my own business someday,” he said. “I knew I wanted to create something. I needed to produce something tangible at the end of a day of work. So I just stumbled into beer and it grabbed me. It was the process — the smells, everything. It was an instant attraction.”
After college, John worked two jobs so he could put together the money to get to Vermont and Greg Noonan.
“I worked at a coffee shop from 6 am until 1 pm and then I would start at the homebrew shop from 2 pm to 8 pm,” John said. “It was a home brewing supply store, and I could read every book ever written about beer. My boss, the owner, had every brewing magazine ever written. He had them all organized and set up, and so every day after work I would take another. On my weekends I'd take a handful and go home and just pour through everything and just read and brew at home until I could afford to move. And that's when I went to Vermont to search out Greg.”
It was a legendary meeting.
“I walked in, met him and I said, 'I've got everything I own out in my car’,” John said. “I said, 'I'm here to work for you to learn how to make beer. I'll take any job you can give me.' And so he made me a waiter at his second pub in New Hampshire. And I waited tables for a year. And I'd go in on my days off and work for free in the brewery. And again, you can work six or seven days a week when you're 23 or 24. It's what you do. You work because you need money. I needed money.”
Steve Polewacyk, a co-owner and co-manager of the Vermont Pub and Brewery, remembers when John started.
“John is exceptional,” Polewacyk said. “He was an exceptional student. He applied himself. He worked endless hours as a brewer, asking questions, reading publications, improving his trade, improving his skills. He was hungry to learn everything he possibly could. Very meticulous, methodical and thorough with everything that he handled.”
After a year, Noonan made John head brewer in Burlington. And John started the experimentation that eventually led to Heady Topper.
“When I worked for Greg, IPAs were my passion,” John said. “I love all beer but IPAs were my favorite. And after working for Greg a little while, he trusted that I was going to do what he wanted me to do. And I was going to do it really well. So there was a little bit of freedom there, where I could start doing what I wanted to with some of these beers. I was really pushing things with the flavor profile hopping and the dry hopping. And so I started to get my first taste of it.”
John met Jen while she was working as a waitress at the pub.
“We had our first date and a month later we were engaged,” John said, laughing. “Yeah, I know. It's crazy.”
Jen was born in Brattleboro and grew up in Barre. Her mother was a teacher and her father worked in the social services. She says she has hustled for a living since she had her first paper route when she was nine years old.
“When I was 14, I bused tables,” Jen said. “I worked at the Wayside for years busing tables all through college. And of course, waitressing. Yeah, I've been in the restaurant business since I was 14.”
Jen graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in business but was never happy sitting in a classroom.
“I think today it's a little different,” she said. “There are more options. Students have the ability to get out of the normal, structured classroom a little bit more. But I never enjoyed it. I had a hard time paying attention. I was always somewhere else. So I just did what had to be done to get through school. But I loved working. I always loved working. My favorite part of college was going to work. I loved it. I like hustling. I like organization. I like working with other people. I like the interpersonal stuff. I just love to work. Even though my parents paid for college, I loved always earning my own money for my own clothing and living expenses.”
After she finished college, Jen worked for a summer, saved some money, and began backpacking around the US and the Caribbean.
“I ended up settling back in Burlington, working, saving money again, and then I left and I backpacked around Europe and northern Africa again for another eight months,” she said. “Then I went back to Burlington. I was going to save money, and I didn't know what I was going to do next. Maybe go to Australia. I was still thinking about, 'Gosh, at some point I have to go to graduate school.' But I went back to work at the Vermont Pub and Brewery, where John had been hired on as a new young brewer. We immediately fell in love. Maybe not immediately, but a few months after we met. And so I decided to stay there. We got engaged and I ended up managing it there. I loved food service and then meeting John. He was such a great young brewer. We started talking about what we could do together. Together we built this dream — to open our own brew pub. That was it. All we wanted was a community pub someplace where John could make beer and I could run a restaurant and make ends meet and live happily ever after. That was our goal.”
The couple got married in 1997. The next years were peripatetic, but they discovered a shared propensity for colder climates. They tried Key West for a short while but ended up in Jackson, WY.
“So we're married,” Jen said. “We're going to open up a brew pub. We're not sure where yet, but we're going to do it. So we're working lots of jobs. I'm scrubbing toilets in the morning at the hotel, then trying to squeeze in a little snowboarding before waiting tables and bartending at night. And I was doing it seven days a week. With John it was the same thing. He's working as a bellman and then at the front desk at the ski resort, trying to ski in between. And then we're also working on our business plan on the side. So I'd be working on a financial plan and John would be working on recipes on a homebrew system out in the garage.”
When the couple moved to Boston, their focus remained fixed.
“We worked for other breweries,” Jen said. “We helped expand them. I built out restaurants for people. John built out breweries. All at the same time, we were working, saving as much money as we can, working on our financial plan and working on our recipes. We were looking at locations in Boston for our brew pub. We really liked the idea of an urban space where we could just have beer and maybe one menu item.”
When September 11, 2001 happened, however, the couple decided to move back to Vermont.
“It changed the way we thought,” Jen said. “We wanted the slower lifestyle. We realized we missed Vermont. At that time, we were coming to Vermont on the weekends to snowboard or hike. And we couldn't afford this town-and-country lifestyle. So we landed back here in 2002. We opened our brew pub in 2003.”
The brew pub, of course, was the famous 60-seat The Alchemist in Waterbury. Heady Topper came along about three or four months after the pub opened, and that, as they say, was that.
“I made the first batch of it and people loved it,” John said. “And you don't really think anything of it. It was just a silly thing, just another one of the beers that we make. And so a couple of months later, I'd make another batch. It wasn't on all the time. I'd make it two or three times a year, just seven barrels at a time. And over the years we gained a reputation as having great beer. But then Heady Topper, in and of itself, started to gain its own reputation.”
Were the Kimmiches surprised?
“Jen and I were convinced that people were going to love these beers,” John said. “There certainly was not anything like that available at the time. And yeah, we push the limits. Most brewers will tell you the same thing I tell you — they brew the beer they want to drink. Thankfully, people agree with Jen and our palates and our opinions on what beer should taste like.”
Once online beer-reviewing sites became popular, people from all over the world were able to get together and discuss their favorite beers.
“Then Heady Topper just took on a life of its own,” John said. “it just kept growing and growing. People were traveling from all over to our pub just to try our beer — and then of course, that beer in particular. When we were deciding to open up a packaging brewery, we were on the fence as to what beer would be our beer, what beer would be in the can. But then it was like, 'No! Heady should be the one!' We wanted people to get a good deal, so we wanted it to be priced fairly. It's a 16 ounce can of an 8 percent beer. Three dollars for a can of beer like that is a good deal.”
John intended for Heady Topper to have a working-class vibe.
“We wanted a world-class beer and a very common container,” John said. “We didn't want to elevate it to something like wine. You know, the wine-ification of things. I grew up in Pittsburgh. It's a very working-class environment. We wanted to convey that. And once it was available — for the first time ever — people could take it out and share it. Previous to that, we didn't even fill growlers. You had to drink it at the pub or you just didn't experience it. So when people could experience it and not have to travel a month for it? Then it really exploded. People's eyes are open. It's like, 'Oh my God! This beer really is amazing!' And it's gone from there.”
John is proud of his success in an “aw shucks, ma'am” way.
“We take great pride in what we do,” he said. “We work very hard and never let our guard down and never rest on our laurels. We stay 100 percent focused on what we do and it shows. The quality of the beer, I think, speaks for itself. That and the consistency of the quality of our beer.”
John described his job as “tons of fun.” Of course, it's not such hard work anymore.
“The beauty of it now is that now I don't have to haul every bag of grain and stand over a steaming kettle,” he said. “I can have people do that for me and still have all my creative control down to every last detail. I'm intimately aware of everything that is going on, but I am not chained to the brewhouse now. I have an amazing staff in the brewery. They do exactly what I tell them to do. They understand that I'm telling them to do it a specific way because that's the way to do it. So they get it, you know, and they're very loyal because we are good employers. We both worked so hard in our adult lives, and worked so many jobs, that we're very aware of what bad bosses are. Everybody has had bad bosses and we pledged to ourselves that we would never be that. We would never lose sight of what it means to work for a living and be low man on the totem pole.”
The Kimmiches have created a benefit package that seems like it comes from heaven itself.
“No one is hourly here,” Jen said. “Everyone gets a full-time salary with paid parental leave, family medical leave, paid vacation. Obviously we pay 100 percent of our employees' health insurance. That's 100 percent for the employee and their children. We pay 50 percent per spouse. We have an amazing 401k program. Our manager says he's never seen one like it. An employee can save up to 10 percent of their salary, and we match it 10 percent or 20 percent. So if they make $70,000, they contribute seven, we match seven, and they save $14,000 or so a year. We have employees who have been with us awhile who are really going to be able to retire someday — which is rare these days.”
There are other perks as well. There's a full-time wellness director, staffed kitchens with healthy food for breakfasts, lunches and dinners — along with nitrate-free meats. There are exercise classes and, of course, yoga.
“Jen and John always had a goal of owning their own brewery,” Steve Polewacyk said. “As a testimony to Greg Noonan, they were very concerned about being good owners. And they have achieved that. Everybody who has ever worked for them loves them. They treat people with high regard. They are wonderful employers. They're a great couple. Very close. They have a wonderful family. They jointly care about the environment.”
And Every Now and Then, There's a Screwup
Success does not come in a straight line, John said. Mistakes are a time for learning.
“We had one batch of Heady Topper that we had to send to the compost, but it was because we ran out of fuel mid-boil and so it scorched,” John said. “And so we had to dump it. But that was just because the propane didn't get delivered on time. Mistakes are times to learn. If you're not making mistakes, you're not advancing right. Like the brew house is forgetting to set the temperature controller, and your beer, all of a sudden, is 92 degrees. It's fermenting like crazy and producing heat. Those things happen. I tell this to all my brewers: if you mess up, don't try to hide it. Tell me about it, because I guarantee that whatever you just did, I've done before. You know you will make mistakes. You'll do something stupid and you're going to be in a situation where you need to solve it. You can't just ignore it and think, 'God, I don't want to get in trouble.' I've been doing this for over 20 years. I've done all the things you can do right and I've pretty much done all the things you can do wrong, too.”
Take water quality, for example. You'd think that was easy. Better water, better beer. No?
“There's less and less room for mediocrity,” John said. “The breweries that brew with their water and don't treat it — because they say, 'This is the terroir of our water,' generally brew lame beer.”
Water has to be “corrected,” said the master brewer.
“If you're not correcting and building a water profile appropriate to the type of beer you're brewing, your beer is going to suffer,” John said. “So you could start with just about any water as long as it tastes good. You could adjust that water to brew anything that you want to make. Of course if your water has weird things in it, that's a challenge to overcome. But if you have good-tasting neutral water you could make anything in the world. There are breweries, however, that do that. They say, 'Oh, we use our water and it's great. We don't do anything to it.' But that's probably why the only good beer they brew is stout, because the malt naturally compensates and creates the proper pH. But their light beer is a train wreck because they're not doing anything to their water. If I'm forced to drink beer from a mediocre brewery, I order a dark beer. That's kind of a default. The ingredients themselves will help correct the shortcomings. If you really want to tell if a brewer is talented or knows what they're doing, go try their lightest beer. Try their gold ale. Try their pilsner. If they create that beer well, then you can pretty much assume the rest are going to be quality.”
Starting a Brew Pub
The Kimmiches started their brew pub with their life's savings, which amounted to $30,000. They used the money to leverage a $150,000 bank loan. By this time, they had already salvaged used brewing equipment from eBay. They painted the building themselves.
“We were a small pub,” Jen said. “It doesn't take much pay off a 150,000 dollar loan. But I should also say that the day after we opened we were broke. We had about $20 in the bank.”
They were quickly doing over a million dollars gross in sales each year.
“We weren't making a lot of money. but John and I were making our salary,” Jen said. “We offered over 20 good jobs. We were building a family with our employees and it was great. We had great first eight years running our pub. It was everything we dreamed of.”
But let's back up the story a little.
“The day after we opened, my husband made me take a pregnancy test in the basement of the pub,” Jen said. “I had been in denial for a few weeks because I was so stressed getting this restaurant open. So I go into the bathroom, and when I come out I can't even look at it because I'm so stressed. And I hand it to John and look at him. He says, 'We're having a baby!' And I just started crying like I was not happy. I was shocked. I was scared. I said, 'How are we going to do this?' And he said, 'It's OK. It's all going to be great.' And it all turned out great. Ten months later I was hosting and bartending with the baby in the Bjorn.”
These were challenging years.
“We couldn't afford child care,” Jen said. “We didn't have health insurance. So the first five years we juggled. John would go in and brew early in the morning and I'd be home with the baby. And then I go into work in the afternoon, and I'd hand the baby off to John. He'd come home with Charlie and I'd work at night. And we did that for five years. We didn't see a lot of each other but we were with our son all the time. It was fortunate that we had the flexibility to even be with our child and not worry about child care. But it was hard. I don't know how people do it. It's a real challenge.”
Building A Cannery
In January of 2011, the Kimmiches decided to build their first production brewery in Waterbury. There were good reasons for taking the plunge — it might have been inspired by those people who were secretly bottling beer in the Alchemist's bathroom.
Just like the brew pub, the Kimmiches did the brewery on a shoestring. They took a $350,000 loan from the Community National Bank in Derby, where their banker was Justin Bourgeois, now known as the “Lender to the (Food and Drink) Stars,” according to a profile in Seven Days last year.
“The first loan I ever wrote was for the brew pub,” Bourgeois said. “It was considered a restaurant deal and I was told very specifically, by my boss, that we don't do restaurant deals. But I had chance to meet Jen and John. I hadn't even drunk John's beer yet. But we got them a loan and set up the Waterbury pub, and then I drank the beer and all bets were off. I like John, Jen and John's beer.”
John and Jen have put Waterbury on the map, Bourgeois said.
“I'm a native Vermonter, and I don't think it's recognized what they did for Waterbury,” Bourgeois said. “Think back to what Waterbury was before they opened the pub. There was no reason to go there. The state offices were there, great, but there was no restaurant scene. Just a bunch of dive bars. When the Alchemist came on line it started to change Waterbury. It allowed other bars and restaurants to flourish. I remember Jen's place being packed and her sending customers to other places. Now Waterbury has a flourishing restaurant scene. And now they call it 'Waterbeery.' It all started with the Alchemist. It's revitalized Waterbury. It's a place to go to instead of a place to go through.”
Tropical Storm Irene
And just when you think you're doing well...
The plant was a day or so away from turning out the first cans of Heady Topper. The Kimmiches were ready. The customers were thirsty. And along came Irene and wiped out the pub.
“It's August 29, the night the flood came and destroyed our pub,” Jen said. “So the next morning, the morning of August 30th — I think it was August 30th (29th actually); it was a Monday morning — we actually went to the cannery for the first cans to come off the line. We thought it was just going to be the most exciting moment. And then I went down to Waterbury and started calling in the trucks and the pumps and just organizing.”
It was a tough moment.
“We had a choice to make,” Jen said. “Either curl up in a ball and give up, or do you put your head down and get to work? And for us, you know, it was get to work. You don't even make that decision — all of your employees are there, they need their jobs, and they're willing to put their boots on and get to work. You just all do it. It was teamwork. At the end the day, even after cleaning all day and all the stress, we were able to go home to our condominium with our son and order pizza.”
Other people had it much worse, Jen said.
“We had neighbors all around us — elderly people, low income people,” she said. “You see them after a flood and they're on their lawn with all their belongings. There's no room to feel sorry for yourself. We've got to get the pub open. Do what you got to do. The next few months were really interesting. It was a blur. It was probably one of the craziest times of my life.”
Initially, the plan was for Jen and John to reopen the pub and begin afresh. But things were a mess. All their food had been stored in the basement, and it quickly rotted out. Their accounting books and papers, their computers, the brewing equipment — all of it was ruined.
“I spent a week getting the fetid mess out of the basement,” Jen said. “It was disgusting. Between the food and the bobbing tanks, it was awful. We finally got the place gutted. We started rebuilding.”
Their insurance company played a few games on them, but they had flood insurance as well as insurance on the contents of the pub, so the insurance company finally came through.
“The reason we had insurance on our contents is because we used the pub as collateral on the new production brewery,” Jen said.
Their banker, Bourgeois, was there every day.
“After the big flood, I went over and John was there, covered in mud, fishing stuff out of the basement,” Bourgeois said. “I said, 'Dude, what do I do to help?' He stopped what he was doing and said, 'Go work with Jen. Talk her off the cliff.' And so I did. There was a significant amount of paperwork for the insurance and relief loans. I spend a lot of time working with them on the paperwork, and that Friday, the first run of Heady Topper came off. Talk about chaos! While I was sitting at the Alchemist, I called our executives and said, 'We have to defer payments on loans.' And they said, 'That's fine. Let's not be part of the problem.' It didn't happen like that with a lot with other banks, but I like our bank. Waterbury was a Zombie apocalypse. It was extremely empty and all you heard were generators all through the town.”
The building was eventually rehabbed, but John and Jen never reopened the pub.
“I love the restaurant business, but we did it for so long,” Jen said. “It's hard to make money in a restaurant. The bottom line is really thin. And our employees that work for us today, who started working for us as servers, have much better jobs today because we have the money to give them the benefits and really take care of them. When we had the restaurant we couldn't do that. You just don't make enough money.”
There were also practicalities the Kimmiches could not ignore.
“We did not install our basement again because FEMA had come in,” Jen said. “It was now designated as a special flood zone. With that new designation there were building restrictions. You were supposed to raise your building, which we got to pass on because it was historic. No basement construction, which meant we wouldn't have been approved to put a brewery in the basement. And we didn't want a regular old restaurant — that wasn't our business. We were definitely in the brewing business. But then the other piece of it was no bank would give us a loan to rebuild a brew pub in the flood zone and no insurance company would give us insurance. So there was no way we could have gone back into that space, even if we wanted to. So what we ended up doing was leasing out the spot to the Prohibition Pig. We sold them the building a couple years later, which has been great for them. Then we've really focused on our production rate.”
The week after the flood, the Vermont Economic Development Authority was offering $100,000 loans for emergency cleanup. The Kimmiches applied and had their money by the end of the week.
“And I said to John, I've been thinking about it,” Jen said. “We can take this $100,000 and use it to pay for the bills that are coming in for the flood clean up. Or we cannot pay those bills. We can sit on them a couple of weeks, because I'm getting pretty good at juggling bills and holding people off.”
She laughed deeply. “It's a life skill.”
Jen wanted to invest the $100,000 in some new tanks and double down on production.
“Then, when we have beer in five weeks’ time, we're going to have twice as much income coming in,” Jen said. “So we did it. We ordered tanks from China. We had them within a week. We doubled production right away. Eight months later we increased production 600 percent and we hired back every single employee that had lost their job that wanted to work for us — and most of them still work for us.”
Jen illustrated this with some stories.
“Our distribution manager started as a hostess when she was 16 and never went to college,” Jen said. “We've sent her to some classes, but she's just amazing. And she's almost 30 now Our CFO has been with us for years. Our canning line manager started out as a bartender. Our operations manager also started out as a bartender. We have drivers that started out as servers. Our retail manager here used to be a server for us. I worked with him 18 years ago, before he even started working for us at the pub. So we're a family.”
Bourgeois and his bank were happy partners.
“They wanted to do an expanded production facility,” Bourgeois said. “It wasn't a matter of if we were going to do it. It was a matter of how. And we got it done so Jen and John remained sole owners.”
Since he started working with the Kimmiches, Bourgeois has learned how to structure these kinds of loans.
“We all collectively worked together, but it came down to my bank agreeing that this thing would continue to be the juggernaut it already is,” Bourgeois said. “And they never questioned that. We have two awesome people – Jen's the business side and John's the master brewer. It's a beautiful family environment over there. They're hugely philanthropic. They give scholarships through their foundation. They helped create the Stowe Jazz Festival and they hosted it the inaugural year. They released a beer with proceeds going to connect the Stowe and Waterbury mountain bike trail system — and they raised significant money. I can talk about them all day. They're taking their success and they're sharing it. They're great people. You can't say no to people like that. The structure we were able to land on has been mirrored by a bunch of other banks to get similar operations financed.”
Bourgeois now derives status even outside of Vermont because of his association with The Alchemist.
“When I travel outside the state, and it comes out I'm involved with the Alchemist, people know about Heady Topper,” Bourgeois said. “Now I'm known as the “beer lender.'
A Second Production Facility
The production facility at Stowe cost $11 million — again, financed with a loan written by Bourgeois and Community National Bank.
In Stowe, the Kimmiches were committed to installing a $1 million state-of-the-art water-treatment system to minimize the environmental impact of the beer production. But because the technology is not required by regulation, it was more difficult to finance, Jen said. But, she told Seven Days, "Justin sold it to the bank."
“Obviously, we've put a significant amount into the facility,” Jen said. “So yes, this is it. I mean this is all we ever need. We love this space and it's environmentally friendly and we have room for visitors and it's great. Okay?”
What is it about Heady Topper that makes it so insanely popular? John says it's a combination of skill and love.
“That's the difference between somebody who is highly skilled and somebody who just isn't,” he said. “Anybody can make a pizza. Anybody can make a dough. Put sauce and cheese on it and throw in the oven and call it pizza. But when you go to a pizza restaurant that blows your mind, what is it? Ask and they'll say, 'I make dough and I put sauce and cheese on it. Do you like it?' And you say, 'Yes, it's the best thing ever. Why is this so good?' There's so many things that go into it. You know it's technique. It is attention to detail. It's intangible things. There's love there. You know, there is love in our beer.”
Then there's yeast.
“I don't want to come off as like some esoteric cosmic kind of person,” John said. “But yeast is a living organism, a single-celled organism with a life. And it interacts with its surroundings. I am a firm believer when people say, 'What is it about your beer?' It's everything about our beer. It's the atmosphere that we create for our employees. It is the way the beer is handled. It is the energy surrounding that beer at its moment of creation that gives it that special something.”
When the Kimmiches think about making more Heady Topper — John's father-in-law calls it Hedda Hopper, after the 1950s Hollywood gossip columnist — their fear is that they might lose control over the quality.
“We got criticized for so long,” Jen said. “People accuse us of not making as much as we could and trying to control the market. And it's not that. That's why we built this place in Stowe, where you can taste and buy Heady Topper. We want to make as much beer as we can in a way that's really sustainable. Something that we can maintain for a long time. It's about responsibility.”
Heady Topper, as well as the other brews The Alchemist puts out, are brewed on a schedule, packed in packages of four or six (four for Heady Topper, for example, six for Focal Banger), and delivered to retail stores in refrigerated trucks on a schedule. The schedule is listed on The Alchemist's web site.
“Our drivers are our best ambassadors,” Jen said. “They take care of our retailers great.”
When the trucks arrive at the retail stores, the drivers often find lines of people waiting for them. There is a cap on how many cans a person can buy: usually four or six four-packs at a time. This has led to stories about people who buy their limit, run to their car, change their clothing, put on a wig, and get back in line. If they manager to fool the store owners, some of them sell the extra beer on eBay.
Every now and then a pallet of Heady Topper appears in New York and the gossip about exclusivity — or the lack thereof — starts again.
“If we ever get to the point where we can have it all over Vermont, we'd love to,” Jen said. “But right now, during our busy times, our local accounts are running out and they want more. We go from so busy to having mud season, when the roads are bad. When it's mud season, we'll send some beer to New York City or Philadelphia. But if we expanded our distribution, then when we got really busy, we wouldn't have enough beer. So it's kind of it's a tough balance. But at some point I think we'll be able to get a little further south in Vermont.”
Controlling deliveries keeps the beer fresh.
“We don't store beer,” Jen said. “Everything we make, we move. Every week. We have really small coolers. which keeps us on our toes. It can be a challenge, and sometimes I wish we had bigger coolers. But at the same time, I have to make sure that beer gets moved every week. Like, 'Oh, we had a slow week. We got a couple extra pallets.' Like boom! The next week we're sending two pallets to New York to make sure we have room. I mean it's that close, always.”
Keeping the beer fresh has always been their intention.
“That's why we built the place in Stowe,” Jen said. “We want to make as much beer as we can in a way that's really sustainable. Something that we can maintain for a long time. You can't just grow fast and expect to maintain your values and get the best ingredients and do the right thing environmentally. It takes time. It took us years just to get our environmental process to where we want it to be.”
It’s also continues to receive national recognition.
In June, the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) magazine, Zymurgy, released its 16th annual “Best Beers in America”. The trio of lists details the top-ranked beers, breweries and brewery portfolios in the US, according to AHA members and homebrewers.
The Alchemist was recognized in two of the three categories. Heady Topper has been named the third best beer in America. This is the fifth consecutive year that Heady Topper has placed in the top 6. However, this is the first year that The Alchemist has made the top 10 Brewery in America list, coming in at number 9.
John Kimmich said he is “very proud of our entire team’s commitment to making and selling consistent, high quality beer, while providing the best service and distribution we can.”
Hill Farmstead in Greensboro was ranked 6th in the Portfolio section.
The Kimmiches believe in giving back to their customers, their employees and now, to their community. Jen is chairman of the Vermont Main Street Alliance, serves on the Vermont Workforce Development Board, works on environmental issues and helped create The Alchemist Foundation, which got its 501(c)3 status in 2017.
The Kimmiches launched the foundation with a $200,000 donation in 2017; the foundation expects their 2018 donation to be similar. The Foundation can also raise additional funds through grant writing and fundraising.
“Just yesterday the foundation awarded 13 $6,000 scholarships to local graduates,” Jen said. “We love our community and we're so much happier now that we're able to do more for it and still do what we love. We are involved with artwork and making great beer and we have festivals. Tonight we have Thursday Nights on the Lawn. We'll be doing burgers outside. We have the freedom to do more interesting things and get back to the community more and it's just it's more enriching.”
Liz Schlegel is the executive director of The Alchemist Foundation. A Waterbury resident, she has known the Kimmiches since they first opened their brew pub.
“After Irene, when John and Jen decided to do a scholarship for some flood-affected young people, they asked me to help with that,” Schlegel said. “They first awarded scholarships in June of 2012, focused on victims of flooding. After that, we started developing a more formal process because they liked this scholarship thing and wanted to do more of it. I said, 'I'll go work with the schools.' Since then we've done half a dozen a year. When they opened in Stowe, we'd been talking about expanding the scholarships. But they had been talking about expanding the foundation. Jen called me up and said, 'We're going to do the foundation thing. When can you quit your job?'”
The Kimmiches didn't think the scholarships were enough, Schlegel said.
“Jen is on the state Workforce Development Board,” Schlegel said. “She was appointed by former Governor Peter Shumlin and was reappointed by Governor Phil Scott. What had started with, 'Hey, let's help out some young folks and put college into reach' broadened into 'Let’s put opportunities within reach of young folks whether they're going on to college or to some training program.' Here in Vermont, we're pretty strong at graduating young people from high school, but not as strong sending them on to their next opportunity. That's really what drove the creation of the foundation: trying to figure out how to solve that problem.”
The foundation is “place-based,” focused on students attending and graduating from high schools dotting the stretch of Route 100 where most of the breweries' employees live and work.
“Our primary area is Warren to Eden, stretching from the Mad River Valley north through Lamoille County,” says its website.
Attorney and former Speaker of the House Shap Smith is on the board of The Alchemist Foundation.
“I'm one of the founding members,” Smith said. “I got involved because I'm really impressed with Jen and John and their commitment to giving kids who don't always have the opportunity in front of them and helping them to succeed. Jen is just a ball of energy. She can speak to most Vermonters and holds their concerns in her heart. I dropped by one Thursday afternoon and they were having a teacher appreciation event. They were feeding the teachers and giving them two free beers and letting them hang out. And I thought, 'That really is about supporting the community and being a positive reinforcer of things the state cares about.' They're doing that for a lot of organizations this summer. There are a lot of people who talk their values, and I think John and Jen really live what they believe.”
Right now the foundation works with four high schools. So far, roughly 35 to 40 students have received scholarships of up to $6,000 over four years.
“It's multi-year renewable,” Schlegel said. “The students check in with us after every term. The amount is tailored to the student. I suspect this year or next we'll do other funding things – write grants, maybe form partnerships with other nonprofits. John and Jen are incredibly generous donors throughout the community. I'm always in awe of how many things they give to and how many organizations they support. And they're very committed to making sure there are opportunities for young folks to have good jobs in Vermont and stay here if they want to stay here. There are a lot of employers looking for employees and young people may be unsure of the opportunities. Closing that gap is part of my work. Scholarships alone are not necessarily enough.”
Schlegel called the Kimmiches “forces of nature in the Vermont business community.”
“I love how much of an innovator John is, and they're just as innovative in the way they run their business,” Schlegel said. “I have a great deal of respect for that, and I feel really lucky to work on youth opportunity.”
Restaurants can eat you alive, Jen said. She's glad she and John aren't running one anymore.
“Restaurants are hard,” she said. “No one really runs a restaurant forever. You can't. It's exhausting. You have so much liability. It's really just hard to make ends meet. It's a tough, tough business. I can't even tell you how many months John and I went without pay. And up until five years ago, we lived in a 1,100-square-foot condominium with our son. That's all we could afford. It wasn't easy. And now we have a better quality of life. I'm not washing dishes on Friday night. And we're able to do more with the foundation.”
After all, how much money does a person need? John asked.
“I was perfectly happy working and living with Jen when we made a fraction of what we make now,” John said. “If you've got a roof over your head and you've got a car and you're doing fun things and you have the money to take nice vacations, then what the hell? Everything else, it's gravy. It's icing on the cake. It's important to us to give.”
The Kimmiches clearly know how to enjoy life. They work hard, they play hard, and when they come home at night, they like to relax with a cocktail.
“It's kind of crazy, the way that works,” John said. “Sometimes you don't feel like having a beer. You just want a gin-and-tonic.”
John used this as an example of how some people can love one flavor while another person outright dislikes it.
“Just the other night, I was mixing Jen's cocktail at home,” John said. “There's this drink that she likes to have. It's called a negroni. She loves it, while to me it is like a knife in the head. I mean it is just the most horrible taste sensation in my mouth. It's revolting. And she loves it. How can that possibly be?
How can something that is so extremely offensive to one person be found delicious by somebody standing right next to them? That's life. That's what makes the world great. Some people eat bugs every day, but some people would cringe at the idea of eating a bug.”
Yes, people have different tastes. Like the people who fly their private jets into Burlington so they can scoop up some Heady Topper. Or the ones who buy cans from a store, then run to their car, change clothes, then return to the line as a different person to buy some more. Or the ones who sell their cans on eBay? Has John started a cult?
“If we started focusing on that, we're going to start having an inflated sense of self-worth,” John said.
“That isn't going to help anyone. A lot of people like Heady Topper, yes. And rightfully so. It's a delicious beer. There's no doubt that I like it. I don't think you're being arrogant if you agree that something is delicious. But if you start dwelling on it and listening to people telling you how great you are and this and that, you end up getting complacent. I consider myself very fortunate to have found what I'm passionate about and talented at doing. Who doesn't want to find that life?”
Just don't use the word “luck,” he said.
“I think people create opportunity through hard work and good timing and paying attention to their surroundings when opportunities present themselves,” John said. “So it's not really luck. The word 'luck' connotes dumb luck, like it just fell into my lap. And I know it is hard work and dedication and staying focused and being aware of where you want to end up and how you are going to get there and recognizing when opportunities present themselves and having the guts to step off that cliff when the time is right and not hesitate.”
Success has bought the Kimmiches a happy life.
“Now there are all these really great things we can do,” Jen said. “We're where we want to be. We're successful. We own the company. No one can tell us what to do. We have enough space to welcome guests and have events outside. We just want to keep doing what we're doing. We want to focus on our foundation and our local community We're comfortable now. We just want to evolve and do cool things and have fun. And you know, our soul hasn't changed.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the photographer who took the photos for this story. He is also the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.