In 1994, John Kimmich moved from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Vermont with his sights set on working for Greg Noonan at Burlington's Vermont Pub & Brewery. By late 1995, Kimmich was brewing at that pub, where he met his wife and partner, Jen Kimmich. Eight years later, the couple opened the Alchemist Pub and Brewery in downtown Waterbury. It quickly became a local favorite, known for fine, locally sourced food and a bangin' beer selection, including a big, hoppy double IPA called Heady Topper. And then, in August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene washed it all away.
The Kimmiches didn't reopen the pub. Instead, they sold cans of Heady Topper and occasional other brews from the Alchemist Cannery and Tasting Room a few miles away. As the beer's popularity grew, thirsty hopheads — and their cars — filed into lines leading to the brewery, causing traffic and headaches for local commuters. In November 2013, the couple closed the retail space and set about finding a new location that could handle the visitor volume.
They found a site in Stowe and, after a long wait, the new brewery and retail space cleared its final Act 250 hurdle in late April. John Kimmich plans to brew 9,000 barrels of beer (mostly Focal Banger, an IPA; and Beelzebub, an imperial stout) per year in the 16,000-square-foot space, in addition to 9,000 barrels of Heady Topper at the Waterbury brewery.
The Kimmiches say they plan to break ground later this month and hope to open their new retail space in summer 2016. Last week, Seven Days caught up with John Kimmich about Heady mania, working with Noonan and the audacity of making a "Vermont-style IPA."
SEVEN DAYS: What does opening this new brewery mean for you, creatively, as a brewer?
JOHN KIMMICH: Oh, gosh, I mean, it's going to be fantastic! Just to be able to offer the experience we plan to offer — people don't realize just how cool this place is going to be. Once we've had time to really make it our own over the first couple of years, it's going to be a destination, you know? A worldwide destination for beer lovers. It really will! It's going to be something that Vermonters will be able to take great pride in.
But, creatively? I don't know if I crave creative outlets. It's not just brewing; it's everything: The entire process is a creative outlet. The brewery is really going to be a feast for the eyes, I'll tell you that. It'll be the kind of place that is just stunning. With the natural artwork and the landscaping ... the unlimited potential is very exciting.
SD: In terms of the beer, will the extra space allow you to explore things when it comes to brewing?
JK: The sky's the limit, really. We don't have anything to prove, with brewing. I spent years at the pub making every style under the sun, and that's fun and all, but really we're going to focus on certain beers, and we're going to continue to do them perfectly.
SD: Let's go back a bit. How did you get into brewing?
JK: Oh, boy. I discovered home brewing in college [at Pennsylvania State University]. I got my bachelor's in business logistics, and I knew that wasn't the life for me. I wanted to have my own business. So when I started brewing, it gave me that focus. That was back in 1991, and I've been doing it ever since.
SD: What's something important you learned from Greg Noonan?
JK: You couldn't even put it into words. Greg was ... a great friend and an unbelievable mentor. He just taught us so much. He taught us how be smart; how to work for ourselves; how make smart financial decisions and not get overextended so we could always remain sole proprietors. Even now, we don't have investors. Every time Jen and I have put our heads on the chopping block, we parlay that into the next time we put our heads on the block. Greg taught us how to not spend money we don't have. [Noonan died in 2009.]
SD: How has the industry changed since those days — locally and around the country?
JK: It all started with Catamount [Brewery] and VPB. To see how much it's grown since then, it's just a tremendous change. But they laid a lot of the groundwork for guys like me. And then Jen and I laid a ton of groundwork for a lot of people that came after us. I mean, Waterbury itself was ... people told us we were crazy to open our pub there. But we saw the potential; we knew. We knew what we were going to create, and we knew that people would be attracted to it.
People say it's a hard environment to be in now, but at the same time, [brewers have] never had more of a chance to hit the ground running than [they] do now. With the knowledge that's out there, with the acceptance by society, all of those things. At the same time, it's very difficult; the bar has been set very high. So people have standards they have to live up to right out of the gate.
SD: You spent most of your career making beer in brewpubs. Do you miss working in a community setting? Working with food?
JK: Nope, we don't miss the restaurant business — at all. The only thing we miss is that sense of community — to see people coming in, having a good time. But, really, you so rarely had the chance to kick back and enjoy that because you were just working your brains out all the time. No, our lifestyle has never been better than it is now. I would never, ever go back into the restaurant business.
SD: Tell me about the first time you tasted a Heady Topper.
JK: The first time I tasted it? Or the first time I made it? Oh, well, that was like, January 2004. It tasted like what I was shooting for. I'd been making IPAs for a long time, so it was just another IPA. It wasn't like the skies opened up and the sun started shining. You're brewing. You're making beers, and you're proud when they come out.
SD: Did you expect it to be such a hit?
JK: I mean, who can ever expect it to be? We were confident that we were producing great beer and that people were going to respond. And that was quickly proven correct. [We chose] to make Heady Topper our flagship beer because we recognized what it was attracting. We saw the momentum and, you know, we're pretty savvy businesspeople, so that was what we put into the package.
SD: It's become one of the most sought-after beers on the planet. How does it feel to create something that people are so crazy about?
JK: It's satisfying, you know? It's weird, all at the same time. We don't really think about it that way because we're so busy. I think a lot of other people think about it a lot more than we do. We just do what we do, and we constantly strive to live up to our own standards. But it's wild, that's for sure.
SD: We're just starting to see Focal Banger at restaurants. Will that be going out on retail at all?
JK: We've been canning that for about a year and selling it at truck sales. But we just recently got the printed can with the approved federal labels, so now it can go out.
SD: Why limit distribution to within 20-odd miles of the brewery?
JK: Because we can't even cover that much of the state. We limit everybody that gets our beer as it is, and we only hit those accounts. We put ourselves through a tremendous amount of effort and work just to spread it the way we do. That was a conscious decision; we could have taken it to four big distributors and dumped it all there. But that's just not our style or the way we think. We realized that, for those two years when we don't have [our own] retail [outlet], we could spread that out to a lot of mom-and-pops who will really benefit from having our beer.
SD: A lot of newer double IPAs have been compared to Heady Topper; some are even labeled "the new Heady Topper." Thoughts?
JK: I don't know. It's not a bad position to be in. To be a unique example of the style, what else could you want? Let them try to imitate. There is no greater form of flattery.
SD: What do you think about this idea of a "Vermont-style IPA"?
JK: I think it's bullshit. There are delicious IPAs all across this country. I'm by no means saying that there are a lot of delicious IPAs, but boy, there are dynamite IPAs out there. I don't think we're doing anything different here in Vermont. We get a lot of notoriety with Hill Farmstead [Brewery] and Lawson's [Finest Liquids], but I don't think we'd ever be so pretentious as to lay claim to a style. Leave that for the West Coasters.
SD: Where do you see Vermont beer headed in the next year, or five to 10 years? Where's it all going?
JK: Into people's bellies! I mean, where's it need to be going? The industry as a whole is growing, and you're going to see more and more mediocrity get flushed out of the system. Collectively, it will just improve. People are very educated now, and they know what they like and what they don't like. It doesn't matter what your marketing is, or whatever else. If your beer's not good, people aren't going to buy it.
SD: Is the current industry growth sustainable?
JK: It's going to be a crunch for resources, but if you can obtain the hops and the barley, and you can make great beer, there's always going to be room for you.
SD: What would you say to people who are jumping in and opening a brewery?
JK: So many young guys are pretty much starting their brewing career by opening their own place. Whatever. They can take whatever path they want. It's not the path I would have taken or did take, or the path I'd recommend, but hey, it is what it is. If your dad's going to lay some big fat cash on you and you want to go out and open a brewery, good luck.
SD: What would you like to see more of?
JK: Just quality. And it's not just Vermont; it's everywhere. People just think they automatically make great beer because their friends tell them they make great beer. I think there's a tremendous amount of ego coming into it as the younger generation hits. Of course, I don't want to sound like I'm some old man, but it's true. I see a lot of hipster doofuses trying to get into the brewing industry, and they just want the glory. They see this scene. Like it's a thing to be, like, Ooh, I'm a brewer. That's a weird way to get into anything. But, whatever, that translates loud and clear to people; that stuff takes care of itself.
SD: Anything in particular you're looking forward to for the summer of 2015?
JK: Sun? Instead of endless gray skies? Well, I'm getting my old sour project back up and running after having been wiped out in the flood, so that's all exciting stuff, but that more than anything is for our own entertainment. That's just a side project to have fun and to break up the day-to-day.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The original print version of this article was headlined "That's Heady"