John Kimmich was Bitten by the Brewing Bug
It wasn’t until my senior year at Penn State University that I brewed my first batch of beer. I came upon an old dog-eared copy of The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, a discussion ensued, and it was quickly decided that my brother-in-law and I would brew a batch of beer the following weekend. We had recently shared a bottle of Catamount Porter from the Beer of the Month Club, and that was our inspiration. The beer went on to win a ribbon in a local competition and I was officially bitten by the bug.
My course studies for my last two semesters were immediately focused on the brewing industry, and my final senior paper for my Logistics degree was on the post-prohibition evolution of the brewing industry. When I finally graduated, I went back to my hometown and got a job at a beer and wine making shop called Country Wines. In my nine months there, I was able to devour my boss’s very extensive collection of brewing texts and magazines. I could buy all of my ingredients at cost and I got to brew at work. It was there that I first read Greg Noonan’s work. After having devoured his book, I took a trip to Vermont with some friends to see a concert at Sugarbush, and thus began my love affair with the Green Mountain State. When my next odd-job was complete, I took the $4,000 I cleared, bought a used Subaru, packed my shit, and moved to Vermont.
In Search of Greg Noonan
I had every intention of working for Greg Noonan. I first went to the Vermont Pub and Brewery (VPB), and asked Nancy Noonan for a job. She told me that she didn’t have anything, but that I should check with their new brewery in West Lebanon. So I got back in my car and drove two hours to the Seven Barrel Brewery. I walked in, ordered some beers and asked if Greg was available. When he came up and introduced himself, I said, “I’ve got everything I own out in my car and I moved here to work for you. I’ll do any job you have if you’ll help me learn about brewing”. He agreed, gave me a job waiting tables, and allowed me to work with the newly hired Paul White. I would go in on my days off and work with Paul, for free. Picture from left to right: John Kimmich, Teri Fahrendorf and Greg Noonan.
The Vermont Pub & Brewery
After doing this for a year, I started to get a little antsy and I think Greg could sense it. Upon returning to the pub from a vacation out west, Greg asked me outside to get our heads straight. This is when he asked me if I wanted to be his Head Brewer at the Vermont Pub and Brewery. In what is one of my proudest moments, I told him, “I’ll think about it.” Of course, I just wanted to hoot and holler and say, “YES!”, but I waited to call him until the next day to give him my acceptance.
Meeting Mrs. Alchemist
One day, I was standing at the top of the brewery stairs right by the kitchen doors. As the door swung open, I noticed an amazingly beautiful woman standing just inside by the coffee machines. The door swung closed, I turned to the person I was talking to and said, “Who was that?” When I got up the courage to ask her out, she said no. A month later she asked me out, and a month after that, we were engaged. I have been married to my wife, Jen, for 13 years now. After a short stent in Jackson, Wyoming and moving back to the east coast to Boston, we decided our hearts were in Vermont.
Building The Alchemist on a Budget
When we found the location for The Alchemist, we were just out taking a drive. I tracked down the name of the property owner, gave him a call, and pitched our idea. When I finally got into the space to look at it, I knew immediately that this was the spot. The combination of the high ceilings, hardwood floors, and a centuries old history made this it perfect place for The Alchemist.
We found the spot in May of 2003, went in front of the local committees in June, and I started demolition in early July. Long days were spent tearing out all that was in the way, emptying a decade’s worth of accumulated junk from the basement, and unbelievable amounts of cleaning just to get the space ready for the rest of the project. On September 1st, Jen quit her job, and came to work full time on the restaurant. We now had zero money coming in and only money going out. It was about then that my diet was reduced to pretty much chicken salad sandwiches and ramen noodles. I lost 20 pounds in the next few months. My stomach was always rolling, and my mind raced as I lay in bed at night.
We started the business with a loan of $150,000. Greg taught me not to spend money on “bells and whistles” when first starting a brewery and to learn how to do a lot of the work myself. I got my kettle and mash tun for free from a guy in San Antonio who had gone out of business. I bought three fermenters from Troy Pub and Brewery. I bought two Grundies from Paper City Brewery. I bought eight serving tanks from a brewery in Kansas City that had closed. We designed and built our own cooler. I built my own ice bank to chill my beers. All of these things were absolutely crucial to open on our budget, and over the years we have replaced and upgraded what was necessary.
Opening The Alchemist
We finally set November 29th, 2003 as our opening date. The day we opened, we were out of money. It was either, be busy and survive, or, be slow and close in a week. We were packed from the moment we opened our doors, and we knew that we were going to be all right. That was good, because the next afternoon before opening, we found out that Jen was pregnant. We have just been chugging along ever since and are about to celebrate out 7th anniversary.
Our reputation for quality has spread like crazy around the area. We do not sell any of our beer to go for the simple reason that I do not feel that a growler does justice to what we offer here. I fill growlers for myself with the utmost care, take them home and drink them 30 minutes later, and I can definitely taste a difference. The idea of a tourist getting a growler of double IPA, putting it in his trunk for a few days, putting it in his fridge for a few weeks, getting all his buddies together to drink it, and then thinking its not that good. That would kill me.
Heady Topper to be Released in 22-Ounce Bottles
We are about to do a release of our most sought after beer, Heady Topper, in 22-ounce bottles the first week of December. This is in response to instances of people ordering beers at the bar, taking them into the bathroom, pouring them into a bottle, and capping and labeling them as if they were produced by us. The beers are then traded and reviewed online. I guess it is flattering that people would go through such shenanigans, but it puts my liquor license at risk, which puts my family’s livelihood at risk, which is definitely not cool. Hopefully a release of 600 bottles will get that need out of peoples systems.
A Sorghum Success
I started making sorghum beers in response to my wife’s gluten allergy. When she transitioned to a gluten-free diet, we were confronted with the real possibility that she would never get to drink another one of my beers ever again. After having been a one-time sorghum beer basher, I now promised her that I would make her a delicious substitute. I started with an IPA and then made her an all-Brettanomyces Wild Ale made with red raspberries. Both of these beers medaled at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival (GABF). We were again awarded with gold for a Saison at the 2010 World Beer Cup, and another gold at the 2010 GABF. The response to these beers has been surprising to say the least. I am amazed at how much we sell just on draft. Our email is constantly full of request for where they can buy it.
The Alchemist’s Future
Sometime in the very near future, we will be building a canning brewery and producing our Heady Topper double IPA in 16-ounce cans. We will also be producing a sorghum beer in cans as well, I just haven’t decided what it will be. The main focus of this new brewery will be to produce the one beer perfectly. All steps will be taken to ensure the most consistently delicious and drinkable double IPA around, and the can will play a big part in that. Our goal is to keep it small and perfect, self distributing here in Vermont to make sure that your beer is at its best. It will be difficult for me to give up so much control and release it out into the wild, but I just really want to be able to take some Heady Topper on a long hike in the woods.
The hardest part about all of this was definitely sticking to my dreams and always working toward a goal. No job was too shitty, and if it was, I quit and got another job. The daily grind of being the only brewer in a very busy pub can get to be a bit much at times, but even the worst day brewing is better than the best day of carrying bags for rich people. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else—for now.