Home News and Features Features In Waterbury, the Alchemy Continues

In Waterbury, the Alchemy Continues

Photo by Jess Graham
Photo by Jess Graham

By C.B. Hall-

The Alchemist, the Waterbury brewery that has given the world—or at least a small part of it—Heady Topper beer, will soon be expanding its operations to Stowe, but that won’t mean any reduction in its prospering operation in Waterbury. So says Jen Kimmich, who with her husband, John, owns the brewery. In an interview with The Bridge, she expressed the hope that ground will be broken on the Stowe brewpub in late October, although that timeline assumes an unusually swift Act 250 review by the District 5 Environmental Commission. A pre-winter start to construction would mean an opening by late next summer under the best scenario, she estimated.

The Stowe establishment, which will also sell beer for off-premises consumption, is to occupy a 16,000-square-foot building on an approximately 4.5-acre parcel just off the resort community’s Mountain Road. The Alchemist has signed a contract for the parcel’s purchase, contingent on the Act 250 approval. Kimmich said she was “very positive” that the venture would receive all the necessary permits; the town of Stowe has already issued all the requisite municipal imprimaturs.

The Alchemist will continue to brew all Heady Topper, its flagship product, at its Waterbury plant, just off Route 100. Some of the double India pale ale will be shipped up the highway to the Stowe pub, which will at the same time brew other varieties of beer, all of them for sale on the premises. The Stowe enterprise, which will also include a hop garden for educational purposes, “will be geared toward getting people to Vermont,” Kimmich said, in a nod to Stowe’s economic base of tourism.

The brewery will thus continue to expand the presence of wholesalers’ retail outlets in the Waterbury-Stowe corridor, where a year-round abundance of tourists with plenty of cash has bolstered business for the likes of Ben & Jerry’s, the Cabot Creamery Cooperative and recent arrival Pete’s Greens.

The Alchemist’s Waterbury plant, Kimmich said, will continue to operate “as a separate brewery. It’s a great place for us to do our distribution, because it’s so centrally located.”

And, for the local community, the Alchemist is more than a business that pays a tax bill. This year the brewer awarded $42,000 in scholarships to Harwood Union graduates, Kimmich reported. On Aug. 16 the beer makers joined with the Burlington-based creperie Skinny Pancake for a fundraising breakfast and sale of clothing accessories, with all proceeds earmarked for Rwanda’s Good Samaritan School, which Harwood Union High School helps to sponsor. The effort raised $2,400.

After the breakfast, however, it was back to business, as the Alchemist sold off 500 cases of special-release beers–in one hour and 10 minutes. That’s almost three cans every second.

These so-called pop-up sales have become a regular feature of the brewery’s marketing since Tropical Storm Irene swept through Waterbury three years ago. The floodwaters wiped out the Alchemist’s retail outlet—a brewpub on South Main Street—and the Kimmichs decided not to rebuild the tavern when they discovered the fine print in their insurance policy excluded reimbursement for damage to the building’s basement, where the brewery and office were located. The federal government meanwhile gave the neighborhood a special flood-zone designation, which sufficed to scare off any prospective lenders and insurers—and that nixed any thoughts of reopening.

As luck would have it, however, the brewery off Route 100 began producing beer the day after Irene did her dirty work, so the business survived, albeit in an abruptly changed format. For a time the new location’s tasting room served as a retail outlet—a venture extinguished by its own success. “The traffic got too busy, really,” Kimmich related. “We had room in our tasting room for about 60 people at a time. We ended up with 300 people waiting to get in on a Monday, cars backed up onto Route 100…”

Last November, then, the Alchemist shifted to an all-wholesale format. Today the brewery employs 24 people and is functioning at capacity—1,800 cases of beer weekly. Sales of Heady Topper, which right now account for virtually all the company’s activity, are limited, given the production constraints, to about 140 retailers, all within about 25 miles of Waterbury.

Any retailer selling the product farther away than that is breaking the law, Kimmich stated, since Vermont law prohibits retail sales of alcoholic beverages that do not go through the established distribution chain. But that doesn’t stop an abundance of beer merchants from offering the beer without authorization, and at stratospheric prices.

“Last year there was a lawyer trying to sell it out of a car trunk in Burlington,” she reported. She conceded a certain resignation to the abuses. “When we hear of a beverage store in L.A. selling it, we give them a call and tell them, ‘Hey, this is illegal.’” The interlocutors’ usual reaction, she said, is “‘Thanks for letting us know.’ They just kind of play stupid, usually. You do the best you can do and then just let it go, because you could spend all your time trying to police people.”

The Alchemist’s arcane names likewise conceal one of the headaches of success. One doesn’t run into names as inexplicable as Heady Topper or Focal Banger—an American IPA, Kimmich elaborated—in every aisle of the supermarket, and with good reason.

“A lot of brainstorming and trying to come up with names that aren’t already trademarked,” said Kimmich on how the Alchemist’s nomenclature enters the beer lexicon. “Names that are fun and stick into people’s heads.”

Whatever the fun, naming a new product is not a process the Kimmichs can take lightly. “There are lawsuits all the time,” she continued. “People think the name is too similar to their beers’. I think there are hundreds of beer names approved every day.”

Beer-lovers making their way to the Stowe establishment will be hoisting brews with names like Rapture and Beelzebub—monikers sure to arouse more curiosity than Pabst Blue Ribbon or Oktoberfest. Whether the offerings also excite the taste buds more is a question we leave to the patrons’ own discerning palates.