A Flood of Support

By Spencer Powlison

John Kimmich was ready. Vermonters have a knack for bracing themselves in the face of adversity, and he had done just that, knowing the Alchemist Pub and Brewery was likely gone. The Winooski River had ravaged the small town of Waterbury, Vt., home to his modest brewpub, and as he made his way through town, it was clear that the Alchemist had been inundated by the floodwaters of tropical storm Irene.

The Alchemist

The storm struck Vermont on August 28, 2011, and in the course of less than 24 hours, over eight inches of rain resulted in three deaths and 250 closed roads or bridges. Some rivers, like the Otter Creek, quadrupled their depth during that same 24-hour period. Now, standing in silt and mud, looking in on the upturned, ruined tanks of his award-winning beer, Kimmich knew he had to rebuild, but he also knew he couldn’t do it alone.

For 14 years, prior to the Declaration of Independence, Vermont was a sovereign, independent state with its own government. In many ways, that spirit is still alive today, especially in the small towns and hamlets, like Waterbury, which is only a few years short of its 250th birthday. The spirit, however, is not one of contrarian defiance, but rather a sense of community, that intangible and often overwrought concept of small-town unity.

The spirit of Vermont is also found in many places beyond the small state, and it has a place in communities that do not operate within physical borders, like the craft brewing industry. So, when John Kimmich stood before the destruction of his brewpub and his town, he knew he was not alone—both as a Vermonter and a craft brewer.

The AlchemistAll was not lost for the Alchemist. Even though the brewpub’s warm, well-worn interior and 95 percent of the fermenting beer had been ruined, Kimmich found two tanks of beer—both rare and exceptional varieties—waiting for him after the water receded. So, with the determination to save this beer he called Steve Miller, the general manager at Harpoon Brewery’s Windsor, VT facility. The two had become good friends while working together with the Vermont Brewers Association, and as is the case throughout most of the craft brewing industry, two businesses that might at face value seem to be competitors were actually closely tied by collegial bonds.

Although Harpoon itself wasn’t directly affected by the floods, many of its employees were essentially trapped in their homes with numerous roads and bridges destroyed by the waters. The folksy New England saying “You can’t get there from here” had taken on a new, somewhat grim meaning as relief could only reach some towns by helicopter. Despite being understaffed, Miller knew that Harpoon had to help the Alchemist, and first and foremost, that meant getting the surviving beer out of the ravaged, powerless brewpub and into kegs so it could be transported to refrigeration and then a suitable place for bottling.

In the course of two days, the Harpoon staff scrambled to clean and sanitize 64 kegs to transfer the beer, and with the help of Miller’s friends and a local landscaping company, they made it up to Waterbury to save the barrels of Heretic Double IPA and Luscious Imperial Stout.

With the beer safely into cold storage at Harpoon, the Alchemist had cleared its first hurdle, but Kimmich still faced the prospect of rebuilding the brewpub to which he’d dedicated the last five years of his life. As if that weren’t enough, the Alchemist’s canning facility was also set to begin production the Friday after the flood. Not one to be deterred, Kimmich carried on, grateful not only for the help from his fellow brewers and capable staff, but also for the fact that his home was spared by the flood.

With typical Vermont stoicism, he explains: “Lots of people lost their homes and are sleeping in shelters. Our home was fine, so we can’t bitch—for us, it’s just things that can be repaired or replaced.” And so he dove headlong into the rebuilding process, with neighborly help coming in swift and unexpected ways, like the young neighbor who popped into the Alchemist’s alley entrance with a cordless drill, at the exact moment when Kimmich and his wife were trying to fix a broken stairwell. “The stairwell had been lifted off the frame by the water,” explains Kimmich, “And we were at a loss without any tools. But this kid showed up, fixed it in 20 minutes, and I don’t think we even know his name.”

The AlchemistHelp poured in from complete strangers and old friends, and across Vermont the sense of unity was strong. Steve Miller of Harpoon remarked, “Everyone I have talked to in Vermont has commented on how they have been amazed and overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from fellow Vermonters.” Soon, two additional Vermont brewers had offered their support to save the surviving Alchemist beers. The kegs in storage at Harpoon were transferred into tanks at Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville. There, they were bottled with assistance from Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro Bend. The concept of a collaboration beer had taken on a new, spontaneous meaning as three brewers pooled their resources in the face of adversity to come to the aid of one of their own.

Once put in perspective, it isn’t surprising that this collaboration beer came to life in the aftermath of the Vermont’s worst disaster in the last century. In a sense, Vermont itself is an exercise in collaboration. Between the variable, extreme climate, rugged terrain and sizeable lake on its Western border, it’s impressive that 600,000 people have chosen to call it home.

Yet Vermont’s spirit binds its people and makes life less of a burden and more of an adventure. Similarly, faced with a market dominated by multinational corporations, craft brewers also face steep odds, but with a collaborative, supportive spirit, they’ve painstakingly carved out a place for themselves.

Vermont’s state motto is “Freedom and Unity,” and though it may seem elementary, it’s honestly put into practice on a regular basis, whether in everyday neighborly kindness, or in the cooperative efforts of four craft brewers, making the best of things in the aftermath of a tragic natural disaster.

The Fruits of Their Labor

Now, with the two surviving beers salvaged, The Alchemist will host a gathering at their pub in Waterbury on October 8, 11:00-5:00 pm, to share the special collaboration beers as a benefit to support the reconstruction. The hope is that visitors will gain an appreciation for the scale of the disaster before the Alchemist is reborn and that the proceeds from sales of the beer will help offset rebuilding expenses.

Sources: The Burlington Free Press, CNN.com
Photos © John Kimmich and Lars Gange & Mansfield Heliflight

Spencer PowlisonSpencer Powlison is the Brewers Association’s Marketing Coordinator. Although he’s lived in Boulder, CO for over six years, he still considers himself a Vermonter at heart, having grown up in Underhill and Shelburne, and graduated from Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, VT. He lives with his wife, Kate, who introduced him to craft beer, and their dog, Churro, who usually prefers wine. To balance his love of beer, he spends much of his free time training and competing as an elite cyclist.