Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review: The Alchemist, Waterbury, VT

Skiers and Vermont locals alike know The Alchemist, a pub and brewery in Waterbury a short distance off Interstate 89 and VT Route 100 (which links Stowe, Waterbury and the Mad River Valley).  I personally experienced the Alchemist a few winters ago, when a few friends joined me for a day of backcountry skiing in Mount Mansfield on assignment.  On our way back to my buddy, Kirk's, place, we stopped in at the Alchemist, which was packed with the apres ski crowd.  Back then, I enjoyed a pint of hard cider.  But my, how things have changed.  In my strong opinion, the Alchemist now brews the best gluten-free beer in the country.  Period.

In 2009, the Alchemist took both Gold and Bronze at the annual Great American Beer Festival.  More recently, at the even more prestigious, biannual World Beer Cup earlier this month, the Alchemist also took Gold.  After years of seeing commercial GF beers like RedBridge take top honors, there's a new number one dog in town. When I was going to be in the Mad River Valley in March on assignment, I couldn't resist setting up a meeting with brewer John Kimmich to taste the beers and learn about the brewery.

The Alchemist is a 7-barrel brewery where every pint of beer - GF or otherwise - costs $4.  (The exception are a few of the high ABV specialty beers which cost more to make...) What's more, you won't find Alchemist beers in bottles or cans, or even on tap at area bars. The only place you can get an Alchemist beer is at the Alchemist (and you can only drink it there...no growlers to go).  Kimmich is a brewer who's passionate about beer, especially his beer, and he wants to create a unique community surrounding his beer at the pub, and also wants to ensure that nothing negatively impacts the quality of the beer you're drinking.

Historically, he "scoffed at gluten-free beer," and there seemed to be only occasional customer interest in it.  Then, Kimmich's wife, Jen, was diagnosed with Celiac Disease.  He brewed a GF beer, mostly for her, but as soon as he brewed it, "the response was huge," he told me.  That was in the summer of 2009, almost one year ago.  Now, he always keeps a gluten-free beer on tap, and "absolutely will continue."  To give you a sense for how in-demand his GF beers are, a 7 barrel batch of GF beer will last about 8-10 weeks, which equates to selling 150-200 pints per week!  "People have come out of the woodwork," he says.

Kimmich's first GF beer was an IPA, but the sorghum he used didn't pair well with the style.  He says that sorghum lends itself much more toward wild yeast and Belgian-style fermentations, which is exactly what he's done with his most recent, award-winning, exceptional brews.

One of his GF beers is the Celia Framboise, brewed with raspberries and pomegranate. It's sorghum-based, with no hops, and fermented with Brettanomyces yeast that imparts a distinctive horse/barnyard aroma that is a classic part of the flavor profile of fruity Belgian Lambics. It's a little sour, a little sweet, with a relatively stiff 7.8% ABV. Visually, the beer has beautiful warm red highlights.  It's clear why this beer won a Gold at GABF.  Even non-GF beer drinkers will order it at the pub.  They see the Framboise style, don't even notice the GF designation, and it's not until their 2nd or 3rd pour that they even realize they're drinking a GF beer.  "I wanted to make a beer that's scrumptious for everyone," Kimmich says.  "Even regular beer drinkers that scoff at GF beer." He's clearly succeeded with his Celia Framboise.

The other GF beer is the Celia Saison, also based on sorghum, which took Gold at the recent WBC. It's 5.4% ABV, lightly spiced, with a crisp hoppy finish.  The hops are amarillo hops, and the spices are primarily a bit of coriander and Curacao orange.  It has phenomenal head retention - I don't know how Kimmich gets the foam to be so lacy along the walls of the glass. The hoppy nose is slightly floral. When my buddy, Kirk, tried this beer one night when we all went out to dinner at the Alchemist, he couldn't tell it was a gluten-free beer.

The bottom line is that the gluten-free beers at the Alchemist are the undisputed best GF beers in the country, if not the world - as based not only on my opinion, but also his Gold medal wins at both GABF and WBC.  For me, the take away is that Kimmich has quite possibly ruined other GF beer for me.  His beer is so good, that suddenly RedBridge, New Grist and the rest of the lot just don't measure up.  The Alchemist has set a new bar for expectations in a GF beer.  I'm not one to have a tear come to my eye over an especially good GF food or beer, but at the Alchemist, I came close.  If you're a GF beer drinker, you owe it to yourself to visit the Alchemist.

Beyond the beer itself, the pub also has GF options on its dining menu, which "naturally followed the beer," Kimmich says.  The servers can guide you through the standard menu, helping to highlight what's safe to eat, and what substitutions can be made - for example, you can sub a GF bun on sandwiches and burgers for $1 extra, or use a GF rice tortilla for quesadillas. On my recent visit, I ordered the spicy andouille sandwich on a GF bun with no cheese and no sauce (which was thickened with flour). Instead, they subbed the brewery's signature spicy ketchup, and topped the andouille with tomato and fresh greens.  The bun was excellent, one of the better GF buns I've had at a restaurant.  The andouille was indeed spicy, and overall, the meal was highly satisfying.

So there you have it.  As the brewery's Alchemist name implies, brewer John Kimmich is indeed something of a magician with beers, including GF beer.  My only regret is that the Alchemist is in Vermont, and I currently live in Colorado.  "I need to be making beer," Kimmich told me of his chosen profession.  Thank goodness for the rest of us...we all need to be drinking his beer.

- Pete

Photo courtesy of The Alchemist.


bakingbarb said...

Dang, its almost worth the trip! I am jealous to say the least.

theMom said...

I second bakingbarb's comment. I would be so nice to go out somewhere and not have to worry quite so much. Thankfully, I only worry vicariously, since my husband's the one with CD.

But your description of the Celia Framboise cracked me up. When you said it used a "Brettanomyces yeast that imparts a distinctive horse/barnyard aroma that is a classic part of the flavor profile of fruity Belgian Lambic," a little bell went off in my head.

Here's a post I did on a Samuel Adams Cranberry Lambic a while ago.


I had a slightly different description.

Thanks for your great GF info. You inspire us to try new things and keep us dreaming of the day our little ones have left the nest and we can try new places.

peterbronski said...

Hi BakingBarb... In my opinion, it's definitely worth the trip. John Kimmich has set the new standard for GF beer.

Hi theMom... I'll check out your post about the cranberry lambic!

Cheers, Pete

Anonymous said...

I have never liked beer, so I am glad I do not feel like I am missing out now that I am gluten free. Your post about Alchemist's gluten free beer has made me want to try it! I feel so lucky that I am close enough to make a trip to try it out. I even forwarded the post to people who would be interested too.

peterbronski said...

Hi Anonymous... Enjoy your trip to the Alchemist! I believe the Celia Saison should be on tap right now...

Cheers, Pete

GFin VT said...

I just read your review to my partner who had to switch to a gluten-free diet less than 2 months ago ... she is literally whooping with joy! We live just over the mountain from the Alchemist and it is definitely a favorite every 2 or 3 months. She has been lamenting about not being able to enjoy an Alchemist brew. Lo and behold, the last time we were in there a few months ago, we both ordered - and thoroughly enjoyed - the Celia Framboise ... not even realizing it was GF! We've already decided that dinner at the Alchemist is in order when we head home from Maine in a couple of days. Thanks for the post!

peterbronski said...

Hi GF in VT... Enjoy the Alchemist! I'm jealous that you're so local! Have a brew for me...

Cheers, Pete

Anonymous said...

Took a beer trip to VT in 07 with the wife and a few friends. This place was definitely one of our favorite places.