If you're a beer aficionado on a quest to find the world's greatest beer, all you need to do is head to Vermont and take Exit 10 off Interstate 89 until you find Alchemist Brewing. The farmstead operation, founded by the husband-and-wife team of John and Jen Kimmich, brews an unfiltered double IPA known as Heady Topper that's been rated the number-one beer in the world by Beer Advocate readers for about six months running.
There's just one catch: Ever since The Alchemist closed its doors to the public in 2013, scoring a coveted 16-ounce can often means going on a wild brewski chase around the greater Burlington area. That's just one reason why Heady Topper has taken on a cult status among beer geeks, some of whom have traveled thousands of miles on a moment's notice to fly to Vermont when news of a delivery gets shared online. (Someone's even started a @HeadySpotter Twitter account, posting real-time updates of the beer's location.)
As the summer months tend to bring a critical mass of beer lovers to the Green Mountain State, we talked to Jen Kimmich about what it's like to achieve and (mostly) enjoy god-like status among a very rabid subculture of hops fans.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Jen. Can you explain how The Alchemist and Heady Topper began? Obviously, your intent when you started out wasn't necessarily to make the most lusted-after beer in the world. Jen Kimmich: John and I started a brewpub in 2003. John was doing all of the brewing; I pretty much ran the restaurant upstairs. I would say it was around 2007 when we really started to see the power of the internet as far as increasing tourist business, [but] it wasn't until 2011 that we decided to open up a small production brewery. It was right up the hill from the brewpub, about a mile away. Our initial plan was to begin making 1,500 barrels of beer a year, and we would can it in four-packs; we thought that would be enough beer for people visiting our pub from out-of-state. So they would come to the pub, then they'd go up to our little brewery, have a look around, pick up a four-pack to bring home. The day before our first can rolled off our canning line—this would have been August of 2011—Tropical Storm Irene hit and decimated our brewpub. It destroyed everything … so we switched gears quickly and we just focused on that production brewery.
People were actually buying pints in our restaurant, bottling it up by hand in the bathroom, capping it, and then making fake labels from art they downloaded from our website.
I hate to sound glib, but did the way that Irene affected your business almost help it in the long run? Did staying small create more of a cult effect around Heady Topper? I think it would have been the same, except we would have had a restaurant that was busier than we could ever manage because, you know, the tourist thing … and I'll say as soon as [the production brewery] opened, it was busy. But it just got busier and busier, and it just has this momentum that hasn't stopped. Now we're going on four years and it hasn't slowed down at all. We have, in less than four years, increased production by 600 percent.
You mentioned realizing how popular Heady Topper was becoming in 2007. Was there something specific that gave you a feeling like, whoa? It was right about 2007 that we started seeing it for sale, like, on the black market. People were actually buying pints in our restaurant, bottling it up by hand in the bathroom, capping it, and then making fake labels from art they downloaded from our website.
Whoa! And all of this was a big eye-opener for us, and all of this was because of the internet. Because we weren't doing anything except focusing on our little community pub. We would only brew Heady Topper a few times a year, we weren't advertising, but people were coming from far and wide. And that started right off the bat, but 2007 is when it just got crazy. User-based sites like BeerAdvocate, RateBeers, even Yelp and TripAdvisor … they were the ones increasing tourist business and beer tourism for us, because we weren't going after that market.
Have you ever taken steps to thwart your black-market online mules? There was one instance last year where our state liquor assessor arrested someone because they were trying to sell Heady Topper illegally on Craigslist. It was actually in the news, which—that was a little extreme to read about, so I don't know. At this point, we don't do so much at all. We'll contact people when they're selling it illegally to bars and restaurants, or call a restaurant or stores if they're selling it illegally, just [to] let them know it's illegal.
Saying "Is IPA a trend?" is like saying "Is pinot noir a trend?"
Do you ever get treated like a rock star among some of your clientele? Especially the ones who travel long distances to meet you and John and purchase your beer? Um … no. We have fans, you know—we have fans who love our beer. They love John, they love coming and having their picture taken with him—but no, I don't think there's a feeling of being a rock star. It's all local, it's all beer enthusiasts. We just try not to think too much of ourselves and focus on making the best beer that we can.
In your opinion, what's behind America's love affair with IPA these days? Well, so many people will say, "Do you think IPAs are trendy?" and all this stuff … John loves hops, and he makes delicious IPAs, and I love his IPAs. Saying "Is IPA a trend?" is like saying "Is pinot noir a trend?" Like, hops are delicious. It's a natural ingredient. It has so much flavor, so much aroma. The more you consume it, the more you want it and crave it. It's certainly not a trend. I don't think, in the past, we had real hops [in the US]. We had bitter beers, but we didn't have these delicious, flavorful IPAs.
With the IPA field becoming so crowded, how does one brand manage to stand out? There are so many people, so many breweries that make these double IPAs, and they release them a few times a year, or they're very limited. We're making a lot. We're making over 9,000 barrels a year—just Heady Topper—so it's not scarce. We don't price-gouge, either. Some of these specialty double IPAs are being sold in 22-ounce bottles for $8 or $9. [We're] wholesaling a four-pack of 16-ounce cans for $10, then selling them for $12, $14. I think it's a fair price. It's certainly premium, but we spend a lot on our ingredients.
There aren't too many companies who can claim they had to stop expanding because the response to their product was so popular that it became unmanageable. What are your philosophies or protocols for expanding The Alchemist in way that makes sense for you? We broke ground last week on a second brewery, and what we're doing is building a brewery that's meant to be a business center. It's meant to accommodate the crowds that we haven't been able to handle before. So we have a 100-space parking lot, gardens for people to walk around, for-here and to-go registers. With that said, it won't be oversized. We'll be able to accommodate the crowds, but we'll probably still run out of beer.
Thanks for speaking with me, Jen.