STOWE, Vt. — Last year, after Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, forbidding elementary schools from teaching or talking about LGBTQ+ people, Jen and John Kimmich were so incensed they decided to speak out against it by doing what they do best. They brewed a new beer.
A few months ago, the husband-and-wife team that owns The Alchemist craft brewery introduced “Just Say Gay,” an IPA in a rainbow-festooned can with a statement on that can: “When people in power make laws to specifically dehumanize other people, we need to stand up.” The brewery’s website links to resources supporting the LGBTQ+ community.
Using one’s business as a platform to stake claims on contentious social issues is risky business. Earlier this year, after Bud Light used a transgender influencer to market their beer, a conservative-led boycott cost the brewing giant’s parent company nearly $400 million in lost sales.
The prospect of losing customers by staking out a position in one of the nation’s most high-profile cultural battles never crossed the Kimmichs’ minds. After 20 years in business, they know their customers. And they don’t have to answer to investors or stockholders because they have none.
“Nobody has a say except us, and the people who work for us,” John Kimmich said. “Our customer base, people know who we are and what we stand for. If they don’t like it, there are over 9,000 other breweries in this country to choose from.”
With a production-only brewery in neighboring Waterbury, and a state-of-the art, solar-powered brewery and taproom in Stowe, the Alchemist has the capacity to brew a lot more beer and make a lot more money. But the Kimmichs have purposely kept their production stagnant, choosing environmental and human resources sustainability over profits, a business model they say allows them to stay truly independent and true to their values.
One of those values is to value employees. The 48 people who work for them are salaried, get paid time off, paid family leave, fully covered health insurance, and a 401K plan in which the company matches employee contributions up to 10 percent of their salary. There’s a robust wellness program. During an interview in their office, an acupuncturist worked on employees in an adjoining room. Other employees attended a yoga class.
“It’s good for our team, our workplace, our bottom line,” Jen Kimmich said. “We have little to no turnover. Our employees are healthy. Our employees are happy.”
Doing well by your employees, they say, is just good business. And having a successful business, without investors or stockholders to answer to, allows the Kimmichs to do and brew things like “Just Say Gay” while other businesses worry about alienating market share. Jen Kimmich hates the term “market share.”
“Our values drive us,” she said. “Our values are about building a more equitable and welcoming community, even within the craft beer industry, which has a long way to go.”
Creating a diverse and inclusive workforce is especially challenging in Vermont, where 94 percent of the population is white.
“The first thing is, don’t get stuck on thinking about only skin color, because that’s really hard in rural Vermont,” Jen Kimmich said.
So they pay attention to diversifying the ages, education levels, and life experiences of their employees. Some of their employees have college degrees. Some never graduated high school. The youngest is 18. The oldest is 72.
More than 12 percent of their workforce has physical or intellectual disabilities. Two years ago, the state of Vermont recognized The Alchemist for its efforts to hire people with disabilities.
“When I give a 30-minute tour, I talk about beer for one minute,” John Kimmich said. “The rest is about what we do besides making beer.”
John Kimmich grew up in Pittsburgh. Jen Kimmich grew up in Barre, in central Vermont. They met while both were working at the Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington, where John’s mentor Greg Noonan taught him the art of brewing. John became head brewer, and Jen, a University of Vermont grad, was a waitress. They got engaged a month after their first date and got married in 1997.
They had four jobs between them. Jen scrubbed toilets in a hotel in the morning, then waited tables and tended bar at night. Their goal was to open a brewpub and, more importantly, be their own bosses. They moved to Boston and worked at other breweries. But after 9/11, they hankered for a slower lifestyle and moved back to Vermont in 2002.
The following year, they opened The Alchemist, a 60-seat pub and brewery in Waterbury. A few months later, they brewed the first batch of Heady Topper, an iconic unfiltered IPA. Heady Topper’s reputation spread by word of mouth and online, especially on beer sites. Beer aficionados made pilgrimages to Waterbury, as it was the only place to get Heady Topper. Long lines of cars and people stretched far beyond the brewpub.
In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene flooded The Alchemist and much of downtown Waterbury. Instead of rebuilding the pub, they opened a small production-only brewery in Waterbury, where Heady Topper is still brewed. In 2016, they opened a second brewery and visitor’s center taproom in bucolic Stowe.
They haven’t increased production at their Waterbury brewery since 2012. They haven’t increased production at the Stowe brewery since it opened in 2016.
“How much is enough?” John Kimmich asks. “Are we supposed to die on a mountain of money? Life is short. We’re still constructing the world we want to live in.”
After floods again devastated parts of Vermont last month, including the business that took over the old Alchemist pub in Waterbury, the Kimmichs and Shaun Hill, founder of Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro Bend, collaborated to brew something called Flood Relief IPA. They sold out 600 cases in two days, raising $65,000 for flood relief efforts. They’re going to brew more.
For the last decade, bigger companies and corporations have come knocking, offering to buy The Alchemist. The Kimmichs always say no thank you.
For decades, other craft brewers have crowed about their small-batch independence, but later sold out to Big Beer. The Kimmichs insist they won’t follow that well-worn path.
“We’ve built this life for ourselves,” Jen Kimmich said. “We do what we want. We can help our community and run a successful business. We’re surrounded by like-minded people. Why would we sell? Where would we go?”
Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at email@example.com.