The quality of and commitment to the beer that comes out of The Alchemist in Stowe, Vermont, is never in question. Heady Topper is the hazy IPA of legend that we should drink from the can.
The brewer’s artwork is intricate and immediately recognizable, and the founders, Jen and John Kimmich, are rock stars in the beer world. On any given day when the brewery is open for business, a line of excited and eager customers wait for their cases. Pictures will be snapped of the fermentors and other brewing equipment, and then most will simply get in their cars for the next Vermont beer adventure.
Only a very few ever ask, or even want to see, a sealed-off back room at the brewery—one with an immediately identifiable unpleasant odor. It’s where the brewery houses its wastewater-treatment equipment, and it’s the room John Kimmich wants everyone to see.
CBB // When you opened your new brewery, a lot of folks had hops on the mind, and I’m sure you did as well, but you were also thinking about water and how brewers use it. What do you see as your responsibility when it comes to using great quantities of this natural resource?
JK // Jen and I are huge environmentalists, and our hope and dream from the start was to create a brewery that was as zero waste as possible. When we bumped up from a pub to a commercial brewery, we went through a steep learning curve in the world of state regulations. It was eye opening and difficult, and we learned a lot and realized that there was so much that was just “out of sight, out of mind” for people. People have blinders when it comes to properly disposing of waste, be it from flushing a toilet or washing dishes. People don’t think about it, but it all—to use the term—runs downhill until someone has to deal with it.
So, when we were building our new brewery, we got an intimate look at Vermont’s wastewater-handling facilities and saw that many of them are underfunded and at or over capacity. You hear people complaining about taxes and “Oh, what are they good for.” Well, here they should be going to this infrastructure because it’s vitally important.
CBB // In what ways, aside from the obvious, of course?
JK // We’re facing the reality that 90 percent of the municipal water-treatment plants in the state are understaffed and undersized, and you can’t have proper economic growth without the proper infrastructure. What we’re witnessing now is people resisting pitching in for that infrastructure. But if you want the economy to grow and people to move in, where do you think that waste is going to go? We see wastewater that the facilities can’t handle being dumped into Lake Champlain. When people think of Vermont tourism, they don’t think of red tide and the beaches being closed because of algae bloom or a proliferation of zebra mussels. It’s not just agriculture that contributes to all of this; it’s people.
CBB // So what did you install and why?
JK // It’s called an MBR (membrane bioreactor). It’s an aerobic digester—a living, breathing organism. We built the thing and added a special culture of bacteria that is designed for brewery wastewater. We baby it and treat it as well as we treat our beers. It’s basically just another part of our ecosystem. Because of it, we’re sending less than one pound per day of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD)—a measurement of the amount of dissolved oxygen (DO) that aerobic microorganisms use when decomposing organic matter in water—to the overall system. It does an amazing job and does exactly what it’s supposed to do. This was a business decision in a lot of ways, and installing this is good business. In 20 years, I don’t think you’ll be able to be a business like us and not have something like this. For us, this is it, this brewery is our final resting place, and we wanted to make sure that we did things early, rather than retroactively.
CBB // Where else is the brewery focused on sustainable practices or utilizing natural resources?
JK // We have a long way to go. We have all kinds of exciting ideas, but like so much else, it’s about time and money. We have the motivation; it’s just finding the time to do it all and manage the cash flow. Right now, we’re about to activate our new solar array, and it will provide 50 percent of the brewery’s electricity. It’s completely state-of-the-art and the first of its kind in Vermont.
When we built this brewery, we thought ahead. We are in an industry that creates organic waste, so down the line, we’ll connect our fermentors to outside greenhouses that will grow food for senior centers and people in need and even grow native species that have been threatened in recent years.
The plan is to pump the blow-off into specially formatted shipping containers that will house the greenhouses. We already built out the plumbing for that when the brewery went up. Inside we will also grow saplings and can plant them around waterways to prevent further erosion that’s happening in the area.
We’ll be able to make that an educational outlet as well and invite people in to see what we are doing and hopefully get them interested in doing the same. In a perfect, aggressive world, we could get our initiatives going in 2 or 3 years, but in a realistic world, it’s more like 3 to 5.
Jen and I have also started a foundation that gives scholarships and recently funded a course to help train high-school graduates who are not going to college to give them soft skills to help them find a job or advance in their jobs. You can’t just focus on one thing, such as beer. We have so many things we want to do. We have so many irons in the fire.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.