Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking with The Alchemist's John Kimmich

To write about beer is to write about people. Which means that, going in, you have to be ready to discover things that are more interesting—and in some cases more important—than the story you thought you were going to write. 

This summer, I sat down with John Kimmich of The Alchemist to dig into the story of Heady Topper, the famous Vermont Double IPA that helped sprout an entirely new branch on the evolutionary tree of American craft beer. We spent about 90 minutes talking, but almost instantly the conversation went in a different direction that I anticipated. John started to talk about the way he and his wife Jennifer built the business, how they hire their brewers, and what it means to them to provide jobs that are both satisfying and economically viable—even at the expense of faster growth. 

Eventually we would talk about Heady Topper in earnest. But the story behind the story is this one. And I’m thankful that Kimmich launched into what interested him first, and ignored my stated intent long enough to share it.

The current instantiation of The Alchemist didn’t come quickly. There are literally thousands of breweries that have opened since you began working on this new project after the flood. And they’re getting after it with a variety of funding sources, concepts, they have unprecedented momentum. Why is your growth so different, some might say cautious, by comparison?

What we were doing was reinvesting every dime we made back into the business and getting it up to where we needed to be and figuring out distribution and the myriad challenges that you’re faced with when doing something like that.

It’s certainly made things simpler for us to be able to focus on what we needed to focus on: quality. There’s a laundry list of breweries that grow and suck. There’s no two ways about it. They were great when they were little and as soon as they grew, they sucked.

What do you think is at the heart of that problem?

Lack of focus. Thinking that everything’s just going to click along the way it does. But it doesn’t work that way. The moment you take your eye off the prize, things are going to slip—in any business. The way it is now, Jen and I work six days a week. I know everything that’s going on in both breweries, and I wouldn't have it any other way. If I ever opened up a can of my beer and wasn’t happy with it, the only person to blame is me. Not the guys working in the brewery.  It’s me. They’re only doing what I’m asking them to do and requiring them to do. If I take my focus away from that and they start to slack, which is a natural human instinct, unfortunately, it’s my fault. I'm the one that lays up at night worrying. They all go home and have a lovely weekend, and that’s the way we want it. That’s what we’re all about, is creating a great working lifestyle for our employees, so they don’t get burned out, so they have passion about what they do and get the reward of doing something as satisfying as making great beer. Everything else falls to me.

On the business side of things, it’s Jen. She’s the final word on everything. If I didn’t have her, we’d have been screwed years ago. There have been many times when I’ve had an instinct to make one decision, and she’s like, “Well, think about it from this point...” And you quickly realize, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely what we should do.” 

What’s an example of that?

Oh, there are so many examples. Starting to can beer. I couldn’t even wrap my head around it. When I was in that pub in the basement constantly making beer, just trying to keep beer flowing at the pub, and she was talking about building a canning brewery, I thought she was insane. I fought her on that for at least a year or more. Until she finally convinced me: “Look, we need to do this. This is our next step.”

How did she present the case to you? What were some of the winning arguments?

The idea of stagnation, of moving forward with this. As successful as the pub was, is this it? Is a 60-seat restaurant and 7-barrel brewery our pinnacle of achievements? We did so well at this, what’s to say we aren’t going to do so well at something else? Why wouldn’t we try to move forward? So we did, and thank god we did.

Is she the more ambitious of the two of you in that way? Do you tend to like to keep it the way things are?

Oh, sure. I love a good routine. That’s for sure. [laughs] That’s why we work so well together. She sees the potential that I have that I might let go untapped just because I'm happy the way things are. She sees what’s possible and drives us forward, and it’s always a good thing. 

I have to imagine that hiring brewers for a brewery that makes one beer, or that’s the perception, anyway, that you have to hire a very different brewer than other folks are hiring.

Absolutely. We look for a very different type of brewer. I’ve had a young, ambitious brewer that told me what I wanted to hear but then did the opposite. I learned my lesson. Those are not the kind of brewers we’re looking for. I’m not looking for somebody that thinks they know better than what we know. Because they don’t. Maybe they’re going to go on and do great things, but they’re going to do it their way. Not our way.

For us, first and foremost when we’re hiring a brewer, we look for a person that’s smart and hard-working. Creative and maybe they don’t even realize they’re creative. Somebody that deserves the kind of job we’re going to offer them. Because we’re not just giving them some shitty salary to be a shift brewer. We give them a real livable wage and all the benefits that you could ever dream of having with a job, and we give them a future and a real retirement. Something they can take pride in at the end of the day and feel a part of something bigger than themselves.

We’re not looking for some dude that wants to take all the knowledge and move on. They’re a dime a dozen. I get emails all the time from guys like that. It’s just not who we look for. If they want that, go get it. It’s there for you. Just like it was there for us. The information, the opportunity, go get it yourself. But when I see someone that’s just working some shitty-ass job that deserves to have a great job and wants to stay in Vermont, which is a difficult thing... We have several brewers that have never brewed beer in their lives, and they’re fantastic. Their main focus is doing exactly what I need them to do. So you couldn’t ask for a better situation, really.

Is part of that process challenging for people? Does it usually push people in a particular way, or is there part of it that they struggle with?

I think you’d have to ask someone that works for me. I think we’re extremely good bosses, and I think you’d hear that from all of our employees. I think sometimes they’re hard on themselves if they make mistakes. They don’t understand that whatever mistake they just made, I’m quite certain I’ve made the same one in my years of brewing. That’s just kind of what it is to be a brewer. That’s how you learn—by making mistakes. I think it can be hard for them because they realize the pressure of the hand they have in what we do here, but we try to mitigate that with the way we run and staff the place. We don’t drag people into overtime, we don’t overwork them. I’d rather have a fourth brewer than rely on just three. I’d rather create another job and make, collectively, all four of their jobs simpler and more chill and more rewarding and satisfying.

It strikes me that your emphasis on quality of the work environment probably comes from some rough experiences you’ve personally had.

Absolutely. Shitty bosses. Totally shitty bosses from money-grabbing jackasses to passive-aggressive idiots to great bosses. Examples of that taught us so much, and then there are flip sides of that where examples taught us so much in a bad way. "This is not how you run a business!" People don’t understand just how much we sacrifice to achieve what we’ve achieved. This is all built off of Jen and I. We’ve never had investors. We’ve taken the money we were able to save by working two, three jobs at a time. Horrible jobs: cleaning condos, scrubbing pots, carrying bags at hotels. You name it, we had some shitty-ass jobs. But that’s the way you get something like this. If you don’t get it by those means, it’s kinda, I don’t know. I don’t think it bodes well for a business. I think that from the hardships we’ve gone through and the hard work we’ve put in, it makes us appreciate where we are so much. It makes our employees the priority. Really, everybody's gotta work. No way around it, unless you’re some trustafarian jackass. You gotta work. Nobody wants to have a crappy job or dread those 40 hours a week. How do you make a job cool and fun and still everyone is working their asses off and they’re focused and they’re thrilled to be doing it?

A lot of people, though, when they have a bad experience or a shitty boss, that makes them a shitty boss. Why did you not become a shitty boss?

Because I didn’t want to be a shitty boss.

But that self-reflection isn’t easy for most folks.

Yeah, but I don’t want to be an asshole. I know enough assholes in the world. There doesn’t need to be another one. That just gets down to basic—what kind of person do you want to be? I decided a long time ago what kinda person I want to be. You gotta make it happen.

How old were you when you decided what kinda person you wanted to be? What stage of life were you in?

Probably the first time I dropped acid when I was 18. [laughs] There was a little red airplane on a piece of white paper, and it was amazing. The old John walked into that house that night and the new John walked out the front door the next day. It was transformative. 

It’s funny to me that you used the word “clarity” to describe your beer.

Absolutely. I love hazy IPAs. It has been an uphill battle since we opened that pub—shit, since I was making them in the mid-’90s with Greg Noonan. People used to hassle us about hazy IPAs. We just fucking laughed. Whatever. Drink that. See if you’re still criticizing that. Then they’d drink and be like, “Oh my god, this is amazing!” So shut up and drink it.

It sounds like even within the realm of hazy, there’s a certain clarity that you appreciate.

Oh yeah, it’s outta control these days. People are selling downright milky beers. When I’ve read interviews and other brewers take jabs at what we do, and say haziness is a fault in brewing, it’s like, “Well, sorry. I'd put my beers up against those any day.” I don’t give a shit, because I beg to differ. A lot of those times I’ll taste the beers that they create and it has all the things I don’t particularly care for in an IPA. Barley selection, water treatment, all those things that are the subtleties of an IPA. We make it the way we like to drink it. It’s been an uphill battle trying to educate the customer base in general that it’s okay for an IPA to be hazy. If you look back at our BeerAdvocate reviews, from the start, I swear to god, who knows what that beer would be rated at if you dropped the appearance out of those ratings. How many people would say it’s an amazing beer, but it’s ugly, it’s hazy, there’s chunks floating in it. You gotta ignore it because you know. You can have your opinion. We respectfully disagree.

Should the people that are making the milkshake IPAs ignore your opinion?

I don’t give a shit what they make. I really don’t. That’s why we make what we do. 

It almost sounds like we’re talking about a step change in the opinion of what’s acceptable in terms of haziness.

Sure. That said, some of these beers drink like a milkshake to a fault. If there’s a layer of yeast a ¼” thick at the bottom of the bottle… Our haze is not yeast-driven, it’s barley-driven and technique-driven. I hear all kinds of people with crazy techniques to try and make a hazy beer. There’s no trick to it. It’s just four ingredients. It’s just the way we make it.

What are some of the techniques you’re referring to?

There’s a lot of proprietary shit we don’t really talk about, but it’s timing of hops. We don’t go over the top with quantities. I hear about breweries with some of these pounds per barrel that are twice what Heady Topper is. Is that beer twice as good? No. Are they wasting an exorbitant amount of hops? Absolutely. So there’s that. A lot of guys really do throw a shit-ton of hops in and, to me, it loses drinkability. I’ve brewed beers like that. You really go crazy, and it’s fine and delicious, but it loses drinkability. It becomes a one-time kind of thing. “Yeah, I’ve had that beer. Eh.” My beer needs to grab you and want you to want another. That’s what a great beer is. You’re not going to move on to something else. “I’m going to have another one of those, thanks.” That’s the highest compliment you could get as a brewer, I think.

A lot of people at that end of the hazy IPA evolutionary tree would credit Heady Topper as the sort of origin of that branch. Does that make sense to you? Do you see some of those things as mutating far away from the inspiration? 

I think it’s kinda crazy and funny the way that the hazy IPA is becoming the norm now. It’s great, but it seemed to kinda tip overnight. That’s a good thing. That’s all we’ve ever wanted, and people say, “What do you think about these other beers? They’re getting all this notoriety, and it’s just like your beer.” It’s a different beer that I might be able to get with regularity and enjoy. Anybody that's really into craft beer knows it’s hard to find consistently great beers, and when you do, it’s a joy to get them. That’s what we want to be: that consistently great beer. I swear, most of these milky beers—I wonder what yeast they’re using? I suspect it’s a bastardized version of our yeast that’s being sold by any number of small yeast labs.

The business is adjusting again. You’ve got two locations. You’re canning multiple beers now. Did Jen have to sell you on this piece of the business too?

Oh, yeah, absolutely! Things just lead you in certain directions. We quickly hit a stride in Waterbury and again it was like, “Wow, see. Look what we just created in such a short time. In three years, we created 25 kick-ass jobs, and this whole thing—this all just popped out of our brains and hard work.” Let’s make more jobs. So we did. Now here we are. 

How do you balance your desire for repetition and quality and control, which is important to you, with multiple locations and beers going out? Is there a certain threshold that you’re willing to extend to the business before you stop it again?

I cannot imagine we would ever build another brewery. There would certainly be no need to ever do that with what we’ve created now. I’ve got total creative freedom to make whatever the hell I want. We’re very aware of the challenges in doing that because we’re aware of the sometimes-rabid enthusiasm of our fans. How do you start making beers [of which there] might only be 150 cases and not be perceived as creating something just for the sake of creating something that’s hard to get? That’s the antithesis of what we’ve built this business around. 

How do you control that fervor without looking like a jerk?

It’s one of the reasons we stick to the price point we have. We will not gouge people. People are always like, “You know how you deal with too much demand? Increase your prices.” And it’s like, bullshit. Start screwing people because our beer is popular? We’d never do that. Our goal from the start was to create something world-class that’s very accessible and affordable.

So now I have the freedom to make whatever I want. If I want to make 15 barrels of it, we make it in Waterbury, can it, and, boom, 150 cases are outta here by the four-pack. We’ll only sell you one four-pack of that beer, but in two days it’s gone. One of the goals is to make those beers again without creating a mad dash for it. We don’t tell anybody if we’re making different beers or when it’s coming out. It just shows up and hopefully by the time you hear about it it’s already gone, so just don’t worry about it. It’s like lucky plate day in elementary school, when you pick up your lunch tray and you have a sticker on the bottom and you get a free ice cream sandwich. You were there on lucky plate day!

Q+A + Photos
by Michael Kiser

Michael Kiser

Michael is the founder of Good Beer Hunting. He travels the globe — writing, shooting, and collaborating with breweries of all shapes and sizes. This site is his chronicle of a life in beer as he witnesses the cultural explosion first-hand and finds the people, places, and products with amazing stories.

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