Jen & John Kimmich of Alchemist
Alchemist Brewing Jen & John Kimmich of Alchemist © Danielle Visco

Stories in Vermont

Forests are in the Mix for Alchemist Brewing

A Q&A with Alchemist's Jen and John Kimmich

Alchemist Brewing

nature.org: Jen and John, you have taken the craft beer world by storm with your Heady Topper brew over a decade ago but now you are doing a lot more than just brewing award winning beers, you’re brewing social change. What is at the root of your social responsibility ethic?

Jen and John Kimmich: Personally, we care about the health of our planet, first and foremost. We want future generations of Vermonters to be able to enjoy our lakes, our rivers and our snow covered trails just like we do. We want our grandchildren to enjoy all of the native species of plants and wildlife that we do. And, we want to continue to have healthy growing seasons for years to come. These are just a few things that we care about.

As a business, it is our responsibility to minimize our impact. As a brewery, we rely on our raw ingredients- malt, hops and clean water- to make beer.  All of these ingredients are threatened by climate change. The long term sustainability of our business relies on healthy growing seasons and good, clean water.

The Vermont brand also relies on our reputation as a clean and healthy state. Being responsible, active and committed to the environment is not only a part of The Alchemist brand, it is part of The Vermont brand.

nature.org: Among your many charitable and advocacy related efforts, your commitment to clean water is front and center. What inspires your commitment to a culture of clean water? 

Jen and John: Water is the main ingredient in our beer. Without access to clean water, we cannot make great beer. 

But, even more important, we are at a critical point. Our lakes are suffering, and in some cases, like Lake Carmi, our lakes are dying. We are at a tipping point and if we don’t take serious action now, Lake Champlain is not going to be able to recover. 

nature.org: Your new facility in Stowe, Vermont is impressive, welcoming, fanciful, and green! Can you tell us more about the clean water investments you made?

Jen and John: As the main ingredient in all beer, it is critical that breweries across the globe use smart and innovative processes to minimize water usage and waste. However, arguably, the most important step breweries can take is to minimize the strength of the wastewater that is created by making beer. Brewing is a high impact process insofar as the effluent that we create has high levels of BODs (biological oxygen demand) and phosphorous. Often times, this high strength effluent is sent to municipal wastewater facilities via a floor drain, or it is sent to a septic and later directly applied to land. Neither of these scenarios are good because many of the wastewater systems are either outdated or undersized, overflows occur and often times high strength effluent ends up in our rivers and lakes. Likewise, when we land apply wastewater (or any waste for that matter), it also ends up in our lakes, rivers and streams.

Sadly, high levels of BOD and phosphorous lead to unsafe, undrinkable, unfishable and unswimmable waters. This is especially true here in Vermont where we are faced with the difficult task of addressing the water quality crisis of Lake Champlain. In recent years, we have seen a large increase in municipal wastewater overflows and dangerous levels of bacteria that have lead to algae blooms and consequently, an increase in the number of beach closings throughout the summer months. Here at The Alchemist, we have committed ourselves to minimizing the strength of our wastewater. In 2011, at our Waterbury brewery, we initiated a vigorous side streaming program. We do not put any of our highest strength wastewater down our drains. Instead, we collect our tank wash as well as any water with hop and/or yeast residue. This effluent is collected in large cubes which are pumped out and picked up daily from Grow Compost. Some of this liquid is composted, but most of it ends up at Vermont Technical College where it used to help feed their bio-digester. Yes- our waste makes energy!

When we designed our new facility in Stowe, we decided to make a large investment in the innovation of wastewater treatment. We side stream much of our strong effluent here just like we do in Waterbury, but after that critical step, our wastewater is transferred to two 5,000 gallon tanks which are buried underground in front of our brewery. While in the settling tank, additional BODs and phosphorous settle to the bottom of the tank and are later removed for compost. After sufficient time has been allowed to “settle”, the water is moved inside to our biofilm reactor. Our biofilm reactor was built by World Waterworks. We employ a full-time wastewater manager who ensures that our system is working efficiently. Through his diligence, we put less than 1 pound of BOD down our drain each day- this is the equivalent of about 1 household.

nature.org: For people reading about your brewery for the first time in Washington or Tennessee, what would you like them to know about your beer and your business? 

Jen and John: The Alchemist is a family run brewery specializing in fresh, unfiltered IPA. We originally opened The Alchemist as a 60-seat brew pub in the village of Waterbury in 2003. After 8 years of success and growing popularity, we decided to open a small production brewery. Today, The Alchemist currently operates two brewers in Vermont and handles all local distribution.

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