John Kimmich was watching nine years of his life floating in the muck. From the first floor of The Alchemist Pub and Brewery in downtown Waterbury, Vt., he surveyed the basement cannery: Kegs and chunks of stairs bobbed in five feet of muddy river water. Huge, unmoored brewing tanks knocked against the basement ceiling. If he’d arrived an hour or two earlier, Kimmich ’93 Bus might have salvaged the hard drive, or the notebooks containing 70-plus beer recipes he’d spent years tweaking. He shut the basement door, walked over to the bar, and poured himself a pint of the house IPA.


two photos side by side of flood damage that Hurricane Irene brought to the original Alchemist pub, courtesy
A WATERY GRAVE: Hurricane Irene destroyed the original Alchemist pub, forcing Kimmich to rebuild his dream. Courtesy.


In August 2011, Hurricane Irene dumped up to a foot of rain on parts of Vermont. More than 200 homes and businesses in Waterbury suffered severe damage after the Winooski River swelled its banks and flooded the town where Kimmich and his wife operated the pub. A less stubborn man might have surrendered. Instead, three years after Irene, Kimmich is a cult hero among beer aficionados, the man responsible for Heady Topper, a double IPA at once so popular, and so hard to get, it has inspired its own black market. rates it as the world’s best beer.

black beer can tabPassionate, fiercely independent, and a bit obsessive, Kimmich has spent most of his life focused on brewing amazing beer. He had already followed his dream from small-town western Pennsylvania to New England and invested his second-to-last penny in the effort. He wasn’t about to let a little thing like a hurricane stop him.


It was another Penn Stater, his brother-in-law Todd Kaercher ’84 Eng, who introduced Kimmich to brewing. In 1992, when Kimmich was still an undergrad, their first porter snared a ribbon in a contest run by a Pittsburgh-area coalition known as TRASH: Three Rivers Alliance of Serious Homebrewers. “I had never really taken an interest in something before,” Kimmich admits. “At college, I did what I had to do in order to get by, but I didn’t do anything more.” In 1992, the American craft brewing industry was still in its relative infancy, but Kimmich sensed it was on the cusp. “I always wanted a job where I could build something tangible,” he says. “And I’m terrible at being told what to do. I majored in business so I could run my own someday.”

Kimmich in his brewery wearing a black Alchemist t-shirt, photo by Greta Rybus.  Kimmich and his team brew 9,000 barrels of Heady Topper each year.
WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS: Kimmich and his team brew 9,000 barrels of Heady Topper each year. Greta Rebus.


After graduation, Kimmich (pronounced KIM-ick) boomeranged to his hometown of Gibsonia, Pa., to work in a store that sold beer- and wine-making supplies until he stashed enough money to purchase a used car. In 1994, he drove 12 hours from Pittsburgh to Burlington, Vt., in a rusted ’88 Subaru, nosing for a job from Greg Noonan, an author, early brewpub founder, and legend among home brewers. “I didn’t even contact Greg first,” Kimmich says. “It never occurred to me that he might say no.” When Kimmich landed at Noonan’s Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington, Noonan’s wife pointed him to Seven Barrel, the couple’s new brewpub 90 miles away in New Hampshire. Kimmich found Greg there and made his pitch: “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.”

According to Steve Polewacyk, manager of Seven Barrel at the time, that bravado caught Noonan’s attention: “We were impressed that somebody would throw all this stuff in his car and just show up, determined to get a job.” For one year, Kimmich waited tables and apprenticed at the brewery until Noonan asked the 24-year-old to become his head brewer back in Vermont. The job proved fortuitous for another reason: Kimmich was smitten when he glimpsed waitress Jen Mailly. “I asked her out and she said no without blinking an eye,” he says with a laugh. Jen says she wasn’t looking for a relationship, but “then I started drinking his delicious beer.”

Kimmich and wife and business partner Jen standing with arms around each other in green grass field, courtesy
THE COUPLE THAT BREWS TOGETHER: If Kimmich is the creative genius behind Heady Topper, his wife and business partner, Jen, is the pragmatic businessperson. Greta Rebus.

“Watching John work,” she says, “he was so intense—I was drawn to him.” A few weeks later, she asked him out. They were secretly engaged after one month, publicly engaged six months in, and hitched within 18 months of their first date. That was 17 years ago; now, they credit their relationship for their business success. “John is more the artist and I’m more the businessperson,” says Jen. “You could say that he’s the talent and I’m the ambition.”

“If it was just me,” Kimmich adds, “I’d be known as the guy with that great pub that lasted about a year.”

In 2003, after securing a $150,000 bank loan, both John and Jen quit their jobs to renovate a 160-year-old building that became The Alchemist Pub and Brewery. “We had one penny in our account the day we opened, and Jen found out she was pregnant the next day,” says Kimmich. (Their son Charlie is now 10.) “We had to be busy or we were doomed.” Their original brewpub lasted eight years before Mother Nature intervened.

black beer can tabIt was Jen’s idea to launch a proper brewery, the Alchemist Cannery, which opened just before Irene hit in 2011 and proved to be a life raft after the storm. Their pub flooded days before they launched distribution of their only canned product: the double IPA Heady Topper. They intended to rebuild the pub, but their insurance company wouldn’t cover the basement damage, and they were unable to secure flood insurance, which meant no bank would extend a loan. Employees and regulars—many of whom helped to rip out soaked flooring and walls—were distraught; today, most of the Waterbury cannery’s 25 employees are former pub staff. Allegiance to Alchemist is based on taste and steeped in pride, Vermonters cheering for a homegrown operation to rise from the floodwaters. The world’s beer drinkers have been only too happy to climb aboard.


four photos illustration the process of brewing, courtesy
HOW DO THEY DO IT? Along with great ingredients and consistent production, Heady Topper is made with a unique process that remains one of the best-kept secrets in craft brewing. Greta Rebus.


Heady Topper beer can, Greta RybusAccording to more than 8,000 ratings on, the user forum of industry bible Beer Advocate magazine, Heady Topper has ranked as the best beer in the world for more than two years. (As of September, Heady’s rating stood at 4.73 out of 5.) At 8 percent alcohol by volume, Heady Topper is described in the official Beer Advocate review as tasting “raw, sweet, super bitter, semi-dry,” with flavors reminiscent of “… malt sweetness, hop oil, orange, mouthful of grass.”

“Hop insanity in a can!” Beer Advocate summed up. “The greatness forgives the sheer rawness it brings to the palate. In our opinion, this is what sets it apart from other highly hopped ales in the U.S.”

Legally, you can only buy Heady Topper in Vermont. The beer is not distributed beyond the state, so people scan the Alchemist website for release dates and locations and make pilgrimages, camping in their cars the night before it’s available. (Neil Patrick Harris allegedly requested it once an hour when he hosted the Emmys last year.) When Kimmich once blogged that Heady would be on tap at the Alchemist Pub the following day, a Florida man booked the next flight north. “He kept reading about the beer and said he just had to try it,” recalls Kimmich. “For eight hours he sat at the bar and drank nothing else.”

black beer can tabIt has also been illicitly sold in restaurants, bars, and liquor stores as far west as Los Angeles; last year, a criminal defense attorney in Burlington was cited for selling alcohol without a license after she sold five cases to undercover investigators for double the retail price. The black market led Alchemist to develop an authorized Heady Topper retailer sticker now plastered in the windows of Vermont pubs, restaurants, and grocery and liquor stores. And, after numerous complaints from neighbors about congestion and near-accidents caused by crowds, the cannery had to shutter its retail operation. By spring 2015, the couple hopes to have opened a retail shop and second brewery in Stowe, where they willl produce Focal Banger, an American IPA. Kimmich says the location is ideal: next to a graveyard, where the neighbors won’t put up a fuss.

Kimmich considers the cultic following to be flattering yet weird. Heady generally sells out within hours, but Kimmich is adamant that “we’re not trying to keep it rare. We’re making as much as we possibly can—9,000 barrels a year, which is six times the amount we produced when we started.” He compares its limited availability to a favorite restaurant in a distant zip code, something uniquely regional that stirs a haze of longing. “People complain that they can’t get Heady outside Vermont, but am I gonna [complain] that I can’t get the same mind-blowing sushi I once had in San Francisco?” he asks. “No. I’m going to look forward to getting it the next time I’m in San Francisco.”

Saying he would never raise prices to “elevate our beer to something elitist,” Kimmich adds, “We don’t want the brewing industry to become the wine industry. I’m from Pittsburgh, where you drink beer out of a can.” As for the offers of investors and distributors looking to expand Alchemist’s reach regionally or nationally, Kimmich responds with a scratch of his sandy-colored beard: “There’s no way in hell.”

A refusal to sell out or allow outside factors to compromise the purity of his craft seems fitting for Kimmich, who has described himself as a “borderline neurotic perfectionist.” Says Jen, “He seems so laid back—no one would hang out with him and think, ‘This guy’s OCD.’ But he is meticulous when it comes to technique and the brewing process. He’s like a great chef in terms of how he designs and develops a recipe.” The Alchemist’s operations manager, Lara Lonon, calls him “a visionary. John loves to experiment, so he’s always improving something, and that passion spreads to everyone here.” Polewacyk, the former Seven Barrel manager who now owns the Vermont Pub & Brewery, says Kimmich makes “this Herculean effort in terms of the ingredients he uses and techniques he’s developed. There’s something he does with Heady Topper that I’ve never heard of any other brewer doing.” (It’s a trade secret; don’t even ask.)

That obsessiveness goes beyond brewing: Kimmich has strong opinions on how you should drink his beer, as well. He refused to fill growlers at the pub, cringing at the image of someone stowing his beer in a car trunk and sampling the unfiltered and unpasteurized beer days or weeks later with his buddies. “Once you buy our beer, you can do whatever the hell you want with it,” he says about the black market. “But I do care if the beer is not treated right, then it’s sold to someone and that person’s experience isn’t what it should be. That’s not a fair representation of what we do.” That’s why he prefers people not even pour Heady into a glass—doing so risks sacrificing its hoppy aromas—but drink straight from its silver-and-black can, which bears a psychedelic swirly drawing of a bearded man with a frothing head of hop cones, below the bold, pleading letters: DRINK FROM THE CAN!


closeup of Kimmich bicep tattoo of hops, courtesy
HIS HOPS ON HIS SLEEVE: Kimmich’s body art includes an elaborate hop plant on his shoulder and a rendering of the alchemical symbol that is the brewery’s logo. Greta Rebus.

The cannery hums to a funk soundtrack on distribution day. The air is sweet with hops and a hint of apricot and cherries. Kimmich’s biceps tattoos snake beneath a black T-shirt; the brewery’s logo, the alchemical symbol for fermentation, is stamped on one arm, with a hops illustration on the other. Rubber-booted employees inspect gleaming stainless steel tanks, load canning belts, and ferry cases to delivery trucks for distribution. Mindful of keeping his workers happy and engaged—“How many jobs have I had where you lie in bed dreading work the next day?”—Kimmich makes sure the lunchroom fridge is stocked and there’s beer on draft.

The cannery also cooks small batches of seasonal ales that are hand-bottled for pop-up sales advertised on the website. Working off memory and re-imagination, Kimmich resuscitates pub favorites such as the cherry-infused ale Petit Mutant, or Beelzebub, a strong American imperial stout with hints of dark chocolate. Kimmich draws a Beelzebub sample from the tank, swirls the glass, and sips. “Mmmm,” he grins impishly, “that’s gonna be dangerous.”

Tell the reviewers to prep their palates. The alchemist is working on another batch of liquid gold.