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How The Alchemist Goes Above And Beyond To Give You Sustainable Beer

2020-01-09

The Alchemist co-founder Jen Kimmich is on the VCRD board of directors.

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By Kenny Gould, as seen in Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kennygould/2020/01/09/how-the-alchemist-goe...

By any metric, The Alchemist Brewery is a successful business. Currently, the brewery has two locations: a production facility in Waterbury, where they make their flagship Heady Topper IPA, and a visitor’s center in Stowe where they make all of their other offerings. Combined, the two breweries produce about 18,000 barrels of beer per year, with Heady Topper comprising about half their production. The brewery has won awards, accolades, and press from both consumers and critics, and is commonly regarded as one of the best in the world. 

And yet, founders John and Jen Kimmich track success not by dollars in the bank, but by the impact they have on their community. Since their first pub and brewery opened in 2003, they’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to improve the environment and better the lives of those around them. While the craft brewing industry is known for its charitable contributions, the Kimmich’s present a unique and inspiring model for using private business to make the world a better place. 

Kenny Gould: What does sustainability mean to The Alchemist?

John Kimmich: That word can be applied to so many of the different efforts that we make. It doesn’t just refer to environmental sustainability, but sustainability within our community and with our employees. It’s a many faceted thing. If you’re talking strictly environmental, that started at the pub with trying to conserve water and composting our food scraps. This was 15 or 20 years before it would become Vermont law. We did these things because it was important to us to be responsible. We’ve always been aware of the waste we produce. The question then became, What would we do about it? 

KG: Where do you think that drive toward sustainability comes from?

John Kimmich: It’s just what Jen and I prioritize as business owners. You could say it’s our upbringing, or maybe it’s from other factors that happened to us in our lives. Where that comes from… I don’t know. That’s like asking why anyone does anything. When we met, we were both very much outdoor-oriented people. The older you get and the more you learn, the more you think about stuff like that. It tends not to happen so much when you’re young, but as your brain grows, you start to think about something other than yourself. You start to realize that everything you do has an impact on the environment and on other people.

KG: How has that focus played into your new facility in Stowe? 

John Kimmich: When we built the building, our focus was on efficiency, less energy use, less energy waste. We wanted to reduce our water waste. Wastewater was big. That was something that became very clear in running a pub and then in running a production facility. We saw what we were producing and also what we were paying to take care of what we were producing. So we built our own wastewater treatment facility. We weren’t required to do that, but we saw our impact and wanted to reduce it.

KG: Can you tell me the story behind the decision to put in the wastewater treatment facility? 

John Kimmich: Sure. The idea is that we produce the same amount of beer at the two facilities. That’s 9,000 barrels each. Because of that, we have very similar waste streams. Through our years of working in Waterbury and not having a wastewater treatment option, we knew what kind of solid waste we put down the drain. We keep track of that and report that to the state. And that’s part of our direct discharge permit because we’re putting that directly into the town wastewater system. The number that the state came up with that we could put down the drain was 65 pounds of biological oxygen demand per day. That’s essentially organic waste in solution that’s food for the bacteria and bugs at the wastewater treatment facility. We can’t exceed that. But we’re generally between 20 and 30 pounds per day at Waterbury. 

That’s when we started to look at options for putting in our own wastewater facility. When we started planning the Stowe location, we said, “We’re going to clean that up even more before we put it down the drain.” We began working with a local engineer and ran a pilot program in the front yard in Waterbury. Through the results we got, it was encouraging enough that it was worthy of the investment to put in a larger facility in Stowe. We gave the town our numbers for the permit we had in Waterbury; we assumed we’d get a similar direct discharge permit here, because we’re producing the same amount of beer. But somewhere along the way, someone got it in their brain that we should be set at 11.1 pounds of biological oxygen demand per day. We certainly couldn’t fight that number because it would add to our construction timeline. A delay of even a month has a huge impact on a project of this size. So we said, “Okay, fine.” We knew what our pilot test batch numbers were. It was a challenge, but we were up for it. We built the place and began brewing. Our permit didn’t allow us to put a drop of waste into the town system until we could prove it was less than 11.1 pounds per day. Like anything that relies on natural organisms, it takes time to build up a culture in our waste treatment facility. So for 10 to 12 weeks, we had to pay a local waste company to come pump our tank out front. We were paying something like $1,600 or $1,800 per pump and were doing that four or five times per week. It was a tough pill to swallow for sure. We were still so far below Waterbury. But until we got to 11.1, we had to eat that cost.

I just had a conversation with Steve Miller, our wastewater manager. On our last report for Stowe, we were putting out .2 pounds per day. That’s two tenths of a pound. So we’re way, way below. Of course, it’s very satisfying now. Last year we were actually recognized by the State of Vermont… I don’t remember the exact title of the award… oh! It was the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence. That’s two years in a row. So now we put thousands of gallons of dilution into the town of Stowe’s wastewater system. We actually make their job easier at the town’s wastewater treatment facility because we’re diluting their waste. 

KG: When I visited, one thing I noticed was your pricing — it’s far below the cost of the average four pack, and you’re packaging primarily in cans. Is that part of your ethos of sustainability? 

John Kimmich: Yes, that’s a deliberate action on our part. That’s down to our basic philosophy again, and our goal from the start. We wanted to put an absolutely world class beer into what is considered a very common container. When we started with cans, the idea of putting beer into them was really frowned upon. But it was cool to us that you could have something that would be considered a world class product and have it in such a container. And it was important to keep an affordable price point. We’re aware of what a lot of breweries charge for their beer. That’s just not how we roll. I’d like to think that both Jen and I are both adept business people. We’re in tune with what our business needs. We’re always looking long term — how are we going to ensure that our business is around a long, long time? A lot of these new breweries have never understood what it’s like to go through a hop crisis. That happened in 07, 08. Hop prices doubled, there were shortages. You really had to scramble. Now there are breweries that think hops are an infinite resource. Well, you don’t have troubles until you do. We keep an eye on all of those things. We will never get caught like we kind of did back in the day. Like a lot of people did. We keep things in check, we keep production at a level we find sustainable where we can maintain quality and control. And then it’s important to us to give people something that’s fairly priced. Quite often, the high prices you see in today’s market are far from worth it. There’s no quicker way to turn off customers than charging a premium price for sub-standard beer. But no one wants to talk about stuff like that within craft beer. Everyone thinks everyone is just a benign, wonderful person in this great industry, but there are some greedy people just raking it in. That’s not the way we do things. We want to take care of our community and our employees and we want to do it for a long time.

KG: Exactly how much is a four pack of Heady Topper?

John Kimmich: $12.50 before tax.

KG: Jen, I know you were the driving force behind The Alchemist’s decision to become certified as a B Corporation. Can you tell me more about the thought process behind moving forward with that?

Jen Kimmich: When we first took notice of B Corps — and there are a lot of them here in Vermont — we were already doing a lot of things required. The environmental work, the social work, and the work we do here with our employees. We hit all three categories. I talked to people who had worked for companies that were B Corps and I followed through and did the assessment. There was a long questionnaire and interviews. The process took four to six months. But the work we had to do to become a B Corps took 14 years. A lot of times, I’ll get phone calls or emails from new businesses who want to get certified, but you can’t really start there. You have to focus on your business and building your business the right way. You have to take the environment into account. That being said, when you’re starting a business, it’s great to be aware of what a B Corps Certification requires because I think those are great goals for any business.

KG: Aside from the obvious benefits of contributing to your community, what advantages do you get from being a B Corp?

Jen Kimmich: There are a lot of advantages. I think the first is the community of businesses. It’s great to be connected to like minded businesses. It’s good to share practices and ideas, and to get education from other B Corps. And it’s good marketing. Consumers — and younger consumers especially — want to know where something comes from and how it’s made. That matters to people. How does this company treat their employees? How are they minimizing their environmental footprint? It’s great to be able to get this information to our consumers. It’s a great business tool for us so we can constantly self-assess. You don’t just become certified — you have to maintain your certification. You have to get re-certified every couple years. Our re-certification is actually coming up this year, but I know we’re going to see improved grades. We’ve been doing more work with the community and we’ve made a lot of investments in the environment. 

-Interview edited for clarity and brevity.