Friday, November 8, 2013

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

I came across an AP article yesterday about The Alchemist having to shutter its retail space in Vermont next week.

The beer-making biz has been good to the Waterbury, Vermont husband and wife team of John and Jen Kimmich, the owners of The Alchemist. Output at the brewery has jumped 500% in the two years since they opened their commercial operation (their original brewpub was destroyed by flooding during Hurricane Irene), and as I most likely don't need to tell you, Heady Topper—The Alchemist's one-and-only brew—is quite popular.

Maybe a little too popular, and that's what disturbs me.

You see, The Alchemist isn't closing the retail end of its business because sales have slumped or because of supply issues. It's closing because people coming into Waterbury to buy the Double IPA have become so disruptive to the tiny hamlet, that the threat of legal action against the brewery—by its neighbors—became a such real possibility, that the Kimmichs decided to shut down their retail store.

That's too bad. Heady Topper is a great beer and I'm sure the Kimmichs are great folks. But, as anyone who has ever spoken to a beer geek—let alone read any of the reviews on Beer Advocate or Rate Beer—can tell you, sometimes (and by sometimes I mean all the time) can take "beer" a little to far—like this bit from the article about the constant traffic in the driveway of one of the brewery's neighbors:
The driveway at the Kimmichs' business is easy to miss, and Kinsell said there was one half-hour period last summer when 26 people turned around in her driveway. When she parked a vehicle across the entrance to her driveway to slow that traffic down, people turned around on her grass.
I love beer, and I'm enthusiastic about it, but sometimes I find my fellow beer comrades are a little too enthusiastic—like at about a ten, when they should probably be closer to a six or a seven. The thing is, this enthusiasm isn't just about "beer", or even "craft beer", for that matter. It's the apotheosizing of a only a few besainted brews. Fanaticism for beers like Founder's KBS and Westvleteren 12 seems to have reached a fever pitch with Heady Topper.

I've got to be honest I find the whole idolatrizing of beer to be bizarre—and truthfully a bit hive-minded. I don't like anything that much. Is Bell's Two-Hearted really that good, or is it more important to say that Bell's Two Hearted is really that good. The beer rating sites love that mentality, as do the breweries. But who are we fooling? Is Westvleteren great because it's great, or is it "great" because Rate Beer has it at number one on its list? 

I don't want to sound all anti-establishment here, but we praise the independence of craft brewers—those plucky beer makers doing it their way and getting out from under the shadow of big beer—but then we mindlessly follow, lemming-like over the cliff when it comes to "The Top Ten IPAs" or whatever other invented ranking of beers are out there. 

Stop and think about what happened in Vermont. The Kimmichs opened their business with the best intention. Make a little beer, make a little money—and it worked. Heady Topper worked. Then people started acting like fucking morons and ruined it for everybody. That doesn't just affect you and I and our chances of getting a great beer. It affects, the Kimmichs, their family and the families of the 25 people they employ. Those are the people who make the beer! Messing with the system screws it up for everybody. How many people made the trek to Vermont, turned around in that woman's drive way and "just had to try Heady Topper" because they read about it on Beer Advocate. Converging on a tiny town in Vermont like the Visigoths sacking Rome—in hindsight—probably wasn't the best move. I guess the old adage is true, a person is smart, but people are stupid. 

In the end, I'm saying drink beer, but don't be a douche about it.


  1. Very sad. In all fairness, The Alchemist does sit in a rather awkward location in that tiny little town. If it were in my backyard I could easily see the annoyance, unless of course, they gave me free beer. All it takes is a few bad apples to ruin it for everyone.

  2. Craig, I think you've missed the mark on this one. I would put the majority of the blame on John and Jen. If people continually drive past your business, I would conclude that you do not have adequate signage. If your parking lot is constantly overflowing, I would conclude that you (obviously) do not have enough spaces to meet your needs. If you're constantly overcrowded, then I might think to reevaluate your beer-release schedule. Sure, the folks doing u-turns on people's lawns is very wrong, but if they would have seen the brewery the first time going past none of that would have happened.

    Intentions are all well and good, but if you're not executing sound business sense then it all goes to hell. You could create a restaurant with amazing food, but if you have poor signage, not enough parking and continually run out of food... then who is really at fault here? The patrons of your restaurant? I think not.

    I also wanted to comment on the hype/top-rated beer. For me, trying new beer is a joy, an adventure and an exciting experience. It's like trying new restaurants on vacation or going to see a new movie. Traveling-to or tracking down these beers is just as much a part of the experience of enjoying the beer as the ambiance is at a restaurant. "Ohhh... Hill Farmstead? Their beer is FANTASTIC!" In reality, their beer is very good, but to the person who loaded a car up with friends and took a trip to rural Vermont and had a great weekend centered around enjoying their beer probably had a wonderfully fulfilling experience. Does that make them hive-minded and douchey?

    In conclusion, I would encourage you to stop and re-think about what happened in Vermont. A few people jumped in a car and made the trek to Vermont, missed the brewery b/c there was poor signage and had to turn around in the neighbor's driveway. They then parked awkwardly on the side of the road b/c who knew the parking lot was that undersized for the amount of visitors the brewery receives on a weekend? They then stood in line for an hour, which they had no idea they would have to do, b/c the brewery has yet to come up with a good strategy to address the demand + distribution for their product (despite increasing in size and compounding the problem!). However, they got their beer and went on to enjoy a fabulous weekend in VT. Those douchebags... ruining it for all of us.

    1. You can't miss the Brewery, thats the thing. There is a 15 foot tall sign thet says BREWERY right on the road at the entrance of the driveway.

    2. Sean it is you that have missed the mark. The cannery was started just prior to Irene devastating the town when John and Jen still operated the brew pub. They were able to to start the cannery at this location because it was an affordable property that they could manage while simultaneously operating the pub. This property has worked for over two years but because of the numbers of out of state beer enthusiasts arriving and buying the max number of cases, it no longer works. It has nothing to do with improper planning of a business but everything to do with the enormous popularity of their product which no one could have predicted. Truth is while Heady is a great beer, John brewed equally if not better brews when they operated the Alchemist brew pub. While an extremely popular restaurant and brew pub, it was in the downtown portion of the village so it didn't have the same impact on neighbors as they were all commercial businesses. I think its more than a little unfair to expect John and Jen to predict a tropical storm that would wipe out this business which graciously hosted a lot of out of state visitors to try John's full range of brews.

      When you own a business, you exist to sell your product to customers. As the business owner you get to decide how big you want your business to be, how you grow and how you want to sell your product. It will cost a lot of money to either move this business or purchase adjacent properties, money the business owners may not have or may not want to invest in this location. So this is a natural business decision, eliminate the problem and continue to sell your product to customers. If they decide that this is as big as they want their business to be, that they will sell their beers strictly through retail and restaurants, it's their business and if you as a customer don't like it, don't by their product. While as a local I appreciated the ability to go to the cannery and pick up a couple of four packs whenever I wanted, their current location doesn't support the growing brewery tourism phenomenon and was never intended to. In VT, we try to be good neighbors, its just what we do, so I understand why they made this decision.

    3. Hi Anonymous. Despite their intentions, their execution to-date is still lacking. It neither supported what you're saying was their original/current intention, nor did it address the reality of the business. They just kind of straddled the fence, even deciding to expand, instead of addressing the issue full-on. It's just a shame b/c they accentuated their own "problem", changed course and now the only folks who suffer are the consumers who don't live close enough to drop by a local grocery store on a Wednesday evening.

  3. I think Westvleteren can be pretty great.

    But yeah, this obsession with specific beers for no particular reasion, often, than that they're rare. But not unique.

    I've had my share of rare beers, but I've rarely gone out of my way to find them. The hunfreed-odd year old Arctic Ale. I flew to London just to try that. Then again, it was a unique chance for me to taste a beer I've read and written about. Not just another IPA.

  4. While I do appreciate and to some extent agree with your point about the inflationary hype over certain beers, I'd say at the end of the day this is a matter of more complex circumstances: they're simply way more popular than their infrastructure supports- hard to know that's gonna happen ahead of time! Typically considered a "good" problem, but always still a problem nonetheless. And harder still to deal w/ in a fairly small town in the middle of VT- land is at a premium, I am sure. Brewery expansion is no small task.

    I'd just chalk it down as "sucks," but mostly for those who travel for beer and enjoy that experience of visiting breweries, or need to buy Heady by the case. The Alchemist will be, I am sure... just fine. I very much doubt they'll loose too much revenue with all that extra beer to sell to retailers. Not quite the same margin--believe me, I know-but still. This isn't an existential threat or anything.

  5. I think it's largely an age-generational thing. When you are young, as most deranged by beer are, you have to try everything. It becomes a mania, I remember being a bit like this myself (like hopelessly driving to Dunkirk, NY to find Fred Koch's beer in the local shops - I did find it but it was brewed in Rochester by then). But then after a while you have tasted quite a bit and you realize too that a lot of what you seek is just something, it's not that great or different from what you can get elsewhere. I agree with Ron Westy can be great but I just had a duff bottle in Toronto, tasting weird, like a chest of old clothes preserved with those white balls (can't remember what they are called). It went off somehow, and the money was spent regardless. In truth nothing I've tasted is that unique or great to warrant a rabid following, and the au contraire is certainly more true. It's best to choose from what you have reasonably available and you will have a great experience often right on your doorstep.


  6. The douchefication of the craft beer "community" continues unabated.

  7. Beerspotter scavenger hunts. Oh dear.

  8. This is made funnier by the fact that I had seen The Alchemist on RateBeer and looked up how far it would be to visit the brewery. While I agree that craft beer enthusiasts can be snooty, zealous, and exclusive, I also think that beer tastes best in the area where it was brewed. Beer tourism is a marvelous side benefit of the craft brew resurgence. I will continue to look for the best local beer when I vacation and often I will choose vacation spots based on what beer is brewed in the area. RateBeer is an effective tool for research and I will continue to use it and try not to turn into a lemming.

    1. I was going to sit back and let folks comment without much back and forth from me. I've made my point in the post. However, since, you brought up RateBeer , and there just happen to be a bit of a shit storm yesterday on Facebook about beer rating sites in regards to this post. I will say, my issue is not with RateBeer or Beer Advocate or for that matter beer tourism.

      If you want to travel and explore beer, great, more power to you. My issue is with those folks who become nearly obsessed with the beers that read about on rating sites, and then act as if getting those beers is their inalienable right, given to them by God and country. Really for what appears as no other reason as to be able to tell their buddies at the pub, or on a blog, or at a rating site.

      To add insult to injury, and obviously in the case of the Alchemist, these folks have also become disruptive to an entire community.

      So, again I say drink beer, but don't be a douche about it.

    2. I agree with you there Craig. However, it's unfortunate that the majority has to suffer b/c of the actions of the minority. And I think it's clear from my post above that doesn't need to be the case.