WHEN JEN AND JOHN KIMMICH OPENED THE ALCHEMIST BREWPUB in Waterbury, Vermont, in 2003, patrons would empty their pint glasses into other containers and sneak their beer out. The quality and scarcity of the drink demanded such measures. “People used to hoard it,” says Jen Kimmich.
They still do. The Alchemist Brewery’s double IPA Heady Topper is the third highest-rated beer in the world, according to website and magazine BeerAdvocate. Beer pilgrims also come to Waterbury — a quiet town of just over 5,000 people — for its bars, which serve prized offerings from area breweries that often are difficult to find elsewhere. These pilgrims talk about Waterbury with the reverence of wine drinkers discussing Tuscany or the Loire Valley. “I don’t know how all these people are finding us,” says Chad Rich, owner of a pub in town called Prohibition Pig (802-244-4120, prohibitionpig.com). “There’s a lot of word of mouth. In the craft beer world, people talk.”
Located just northwest of Montpelier, Waterbury is about a 3½-hour drive from Boston and pops up off the highway on the same road as Stowe. Lodging is available within walking distance of the town’s beer attractions, making an overnight stay appealing.
The Alchemist brewpub closed after flood waters from Irene inundated the basement in 2011. The Kimmiches decided to rent out the space, making way for Prohibition Pig, which opened in March. Heady Topper is still brewed and sold in cans at the Alchemist cannery (802-244-7744, alchemistbeer.com) just up Route 100, which Jen Kimmich is trying to market as the “IPA Highway.”
It doesn’t take long to feel comfortable in Waterbury. At Prohibition Pig, local pickled vegetables and a pulled pork sandwich make for a satisfying lunch. The bar is one place where you can drink Heady Topper — a citrusy, aromatic beer loaded with hops — on tap. Across the street, Blackback Pub (802-505-5115, blackbackpub.com) functions like something of a beer geek’s rec room. There are about 30 seats, and owner Ricky Binet writes each customer’s tab down on the back of a coaster. When a friend calls on the phone, Binet puts him on the bar’s speaker system so everyone can say hello. On tap are rare creations from Vermont breweries such as Hill Farmstead Brewery (802-533-7450, hillfarmstead.com) of Greensboro Bend and Lawson’s Finest Liquids (802-272-8436, lawsonsfinest.com) of Warren. The establishments The Reservoir (802-244-7827, waterburyreservoir.com) and Arvad’s (802-244- 8973, arvads.com) also have extensive beer lists. “With these brewers, you’re splitting degrees of whose Jedi power is greater,” says Binet.
One brewer whose powers are unquestioned is Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead. Twice Prohibition Pig’s Rich uses the word “savant” to describe Hill. Binet compares Hill to Mozart and calls him a genius. Hill has about a dozen accounts; four are in Waterbury. Six of his beers make RateBeer.com’s top 25 double IPAs. “He’s the best brewer in America,” says Binet.
There’s folklore in beer, and Hill is the perfect protagonist. On a recent Saturday, empty kegs and a pallet of bottles wrapped in plastic sit under a lean-to at the brewery in Greensboro Bend, about 90 minutes north of Waterbury. The brewery occupies part of a barn next to Hill’s house. A dozen or so cars have driven a few miles up a dirt road to fill growlers and bottles, which you can return from a previous trip or purchase on-site. A trip to Hill Farmstead is the only way to take home the brewery’s beers. If Hill really is a genius, he’s a reluctant one. He gives short answers to customers who have questions about what he’s pouring, and you get the sense he’d much rather be brewing the beer than selling it.
Finding some beer to take home is part of the hunt. The Alchemist Brewery is open daily but can sell out during busy times. Seeing the crowd at 11 a.m., an employee predicts she’ll sell out her entire stock in two hours. Tip: Stop at the Hunger Mountain Coop (802-223-8000, hungermountain.coop) in Montpelier on your way to Waterbury; on Fridays the store receives deliveries from The Alchemist, as well as from Lawson’s Finest Liquids. (Lawson’s Double Sunshine earns a perfect rating of 100 on RateBeer.com and is produced just a half-hour from Waterbury.)
Both Hill and Jen Kimmich say they have plans to double production within the next year. They’re concerned about freshness, and even with doubled production you’re unlikely to see these beers too far afield. “If the beer is sent too far from the source, the quality and freshness begins to diminish,” explains Hill. “We like to know that our beer is served in its best state.”
Kimmich says answering e-mails from distributors asking to sell her beer has become a full-time job. After the flood, however, she is grateful to have a job at all. “We’ve been working hard to get people here, whether it’s for beer, ice cream [the Ben & Jerry’s factory is up the road], something else,” says Kimmich.
From one beer drinker to another: Skip the ice cream. You’ll need room for one more IPA.Gary Dzen, who covers the Celtics for Boston.com, also writes the 99 Bottles blog on craft beer for Boston.com.E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @globegarydzen.