top of page

An Alchemical Reaction

As the folks at The Alchemist Brewery celebrate the 20th anniversary of its super popular beer, Heady Topper, they can also celebrate the creation of a vibrant, community hub in Stowe that attracts visitors near and far with their love of art, music, sustainability, and downright delicious brews.


STORY BY MEGAN DEMAREST 

PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY THE ALCHEMIST BREWERY 

You might think this is simply a story about a fantastic Vermont brewery that defied all the odds to create and distribute one of the most well-known craft beers in the country, along with two production facilities and a beer café that brings visitors from all over. It could also be a story about their Olympian sustainability and community-building efforts. In truth, it is all that; it also happens to be a love story, for without that, none of the rest would ever have happened.


The Alchemist’s Apprentice 


Avid home-brewer John Kimmich headed to Burlington, VT from Pittsburgh, PA in early 1995 after graduating from Penn State in pursuit of a brewery job with his soon-to-be mentor, Greg Noonan, who founded and ran the Vermont Pub and Brewery (VPB). He ended up landing a gig as a server at Greg’s other business, the 7 Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon, NH. On weekends, he spent his free time working with the brewer at 7 Barrel to soak in all he could. After a year, Greg offered him a job as Head Brewer at VPB, and he was back in Burlington. But that wasn’t the only life-changing thing that happened to John in the spring of 1996. 


Brattleboro native, Jen Mailly, grew up mostly in Barre and graduated from the University of Vermont (UVM) with a business degree, but the next step after graduation wasn’t immediately clear. She backpacked all over the place and ultimately knew she had to embark on the next step in her life’s journey, so she trucked on back to Burlington and started working at the VPB, where she had worked during college. That was 2 months after Greg had hired young John to be Head Brewer. “The door to the kitchen swung open,” recalls John. “We locked eyes at the coffee station,” adds Jen, “and the rest is history.” 


“We had a date in April, we were engaged in May, and we were married the following September,” says John with a smile. 


“I fell in love with his beer…his beer was so good,” says Jen, laughing. “And he really liked my work ethic.” 


This makes John laugh, too, but all kidding aside, their collectively strong work ethic, combined with a shared love of beer and a love-at-first-sight passion for one another is what sets this tale in motion. 


Let’s Open a Brew Pub 


Jen and John also shared a dream of opening their own pub and restaurant someday. They worked hard over the next several years to save money, and while Jen drummed up a business plan and John concocted recipes, they both experimented with possible names for their would-be venture. “Greg and I were sitting at the bar one afternoon having a beer,” says John, recalling a night at the VPB. “It was one I was brewing for them, and on the logo, it has a pint glass in the middle. Really small next to that is this symbol. I remember distinctly asking him, ‘What is that?’ And he said, ‘That’s the alchemic symbol for fermentation.’ I thought that was the coolest thing. It really stuck in my brain.” 


“We brainstormed names for years while making our plans, driving around in the car. We would always circle back to the Alchemist,” remembers Jen. “We asked for permission to use that logo,” says John, “and Greg said ‘yes.’ So, there it is: the Alchemist.” 


Finally, in 2003, they opened the Alchemist Pub and Brewery in Waterbury, VT. “We love beer,” declares Jen, “and we love community. People coming together, talking, and having fun, in a place where they can belong. The day we opened the pub, we literally had $200 left. We were broke; we had 15 employees and no health insurance. The next day, we found out we were pregnant!” 


Thankfully, the pub was chock full of patrons for the next 8 years. “We were happy,” recalls Jen. “We were working our tails off, but we were full, we were busy. We were able to make our son the main priority.” When their son was about 8 years old, the idea to open a second, small production brewery just up the road started to take shape. “We were packed every day, from the moment we opened until the moment we closed,” remembers John. “We couldn’t carry any more customers through the door, and Jen and I talked about what was next. She said, ‘Is this it? Are we just going to run this pub forever?’” And that’s when Jen shared her idea to open the second production facility, so that patrons could have access to this wildly popular new beer, Heady Topper, in a can. Since 2004, it had only been available on draft at the pub. As she put together the numbers, John started to see the potential. He realized, “We have so much more to do. This is NOT it. We’re in.”


The Flood


Going back and forth between the pub and building the new brewery was chaotic, but they managed to get it up and running in 2011. And that’s just when Tropical Storm Irene hit the area and devastated parts of the Waterbury community and beyond.


“Irene hit on a Sunday night,” says John. “Tuesday morning was our first ever canning of Heady Topper. Less than 48 hours later, I was knee deep in fuel and muck in the basement of our pub. 


Jen came over, we went into the back alley, and she had the first can. She popped it open, we each chugged half, and then she had to get back to work. It was this big, anti-climactic thing.”


He continues: “When I finally got out of there…every time I get to this part, I get choked up…and got back to the brewery, there was a line of people out the door buying Heady right off the canning line. Everyone was a mess, muddy and shell-shocked. It was just so satisfying. We knew everyone was going to go home or wherever they were able to go, sit down, and enjoy a Heady.” Amid tragedy, sometimes the smaller things in life, like sipping a top-notch beer made by hard-working entrepreneurs in your own community, can provide a moment of delicious calm and a needed sense of stability.


Contact The Alchemist Brewery for a tour

Though the pub was ruined, they realized how lucky they were to have the brewery and canning facility operating. They poured all their money into it and focused solely on increasing production. Happily, they were able to hire back all the available employees they lost from the flood within a year. Without Jen’s bold idea and John’s full support to open this second brewery, the Alchemist might not exist today. Timing is everything. But would they open a second pub again someday?


The Beer Café at Stowe


The success of their canning and distribution operation ultimately led to the opening of the Stowe Brewery and Welcoming Center in 2016. This time, they opted out of the restaurant model and decided to focus on providing a beer café for their customers. “It’s about great beer,” says John, “but it’s also about the place, the experience. That’s what our goal is here with the beer café that Jen put so much effort and thought into. We get that awesome interaction with our customers, sharing a beer together and just talking, without the grind of a restaurant. We close at 6pm so our employees don’t get burned out and everyone has fun.”


If you visit the Beer Café in Stowe and happen to be hungry, fret not, because stationed just outside the main entrance is Warren’s Kitchen, a Jamaican food truck offering delectable Caribbean fare that goes very well with the brews on offer inside. The café also provides wine and non-alcoholic options for those who don’t drink beer or alcohol.


“It’s a safe, welcoming space,” beams Jen. “We’ve been so proud of the reputation that we’ve been building. When we look out at the people that fill our beer garden in the summer, it’s really diverse. It’s so nice, and it’s because people really do know that we’re welcoming.”


The Beer Café and Welcome Center at Stowe

“We boldly proclaim that every chance we get, and we don’t back down,” declares John. “We’re not shy about our values,” adds Jen. Several of the beers they’ve brewed have demonstrated their openness and commitment to welcoming everyone, like the Just Say Gay IPA and a barrel aged Imperial Stout called People Power with a label designed by artist Crystal Stokes. A percentage of the profits of these beers went to the Pride Center of Vermont and the American Civil Liberties Union, respectively. Check out the Beer Archives on their website to see all the delightful creations they’ve brewed over the years, many of which have served as fundraising opportunities for organizations Jen and John support. There are also fun names like Skadoosh (American IPA) and Shut the Hell Up (American Light Lager) that will make you laugh your way right up to the bar.


Speaking of fun, part of the joy of visiting the beer café at Stowe is the killer artwork you see everywhere you look, from the silo out front (designed by Juniper Creative), to the super-high ceilings and walls inside (by Jason Botkin), and the cans themselves, designed by various artists. Most notable are their signature brews, Heady Topper, of course, and Focal Banger, both with can art illustrated by Dan Blakeslee, who also designed their logo and other can varieties. Even a visit to the bathroom will yield a feast for the eyes. “We want incredible, thought-provoking eye-catching art everywhere you see, and we’re just getting started with this space,” reveals John. “We have a lot of cool things coming up.” And don’t forget to grab some memorabilia, cans-to-go, or some of the edible retail on hand, like Cheddy Topper cheese and spicy hot sauces while you’re visiting.


Sustainability and Community


The Kimmichs are not messing around when it comes to sustainability and community outreach. They have a combined solar power, byproduct and waste management system, and a wastewater treatment program. The Waterbury brewery is run 100% on solar power, while the Stowe brewery is now at 40%. They compost wastewater or treat it before it heads back to the water treatment plant. They also boast a carbon dioxide reclamation system that includes a biodigester called CiCi. CiCi is a carbon dioxide recapture machine that catches the carbon dioxide created in the brewing process so that it can be used again to carbonate and can the beer. Even the empty malt bags are repurposed and sold in the retail shop as all-purpose totes. And perhaps sweetest of all, they donate their excess solar power from the Waterbury location to the Waterbury Senior Center. The goal is to continue partnering with AllEarth Renewables and SunCommon to operate both locations entirely on solar energy.



In addition to being a Certified B Corp, a distinction afforded to businesses that have demonstrated meeting high standards in employee benefits, charitable giving, and environmental performance, they have also created The Alchemist Foundation. The Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to helping young people in Vermont succeed in their communities, in whatever field they are pursuing. “It was the spring after the flood,” recalls Jen. “We decided we wanted to provide scholarships to kids and families in homes that were flooded in Waterbury. We awarded a few that year, and it’s grown over the years. We now have an executive director named Liz Schlegel, and a full board. We award between 12 and 15 scholarships each worth $6,000 every year.” Scholarships are awarded to people going off to college, entering trade school, or those who have a solid plan in a non-traditional pathway. “We’re interested in workforce development, partnering with local schools on soft-skills training, mentoring kids with physical and intellectual disabilities, and implementing anti-racism plans,” shares Jen.


They also donate their property, advertising, and other resources to the Stowe Jazz Festival every year, an event organized by local musician and international record producer George Petit. The festival is free for all attendees, so of course, such a big undertaking wouldn’t be possible without underwriters like The Alchemist and donations from local businesses and jazz enthusiasts everywhere.


Silo designed by Juniper Creative

“We love beer,” reiterates John, “but what really excites us is what we’re able to do with the power that our business gives us. A force for change and good. People ask, ‘What is it about our beer?’ First, our beer is unpasteurized and unfiltered, it’s alive. The yeast cell is a single celled organism that’s alive. Every living organism in the universe reacts positively and negatively to its environment. That beer is being influenced by the swirls of energy that are around it constantly. The way we treat our employees— with the respect, salaries, and the benefits that they deserve. When you walk into the place, it’s palpable, and it is very intentional. It makes happy beer, good beer. That is the indescribable quality that exists here.”


Or—in other words—it’s made with love. 


71 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment


davenport kim
davenport kim
a day ago

The story of a great Vermont brewery that defied the odds to create and distribute one of the country's most popular craft beers, along with two production facilities and a fall beer cafe. attracts tourists from all over. It is a story about sustainability at the Olympics and their community-building efforts. flappy bird

Like
bottom of page