"Microbrews and bluebird skies." It could almost be a Vermont tourism campaign — but in this instance, it describes an emerging trend in the region: solar-powered local beer production. And one central Vermont brewery's raising the bar even higher by throwing philanthropy into the mix.
Three days a week, a production line at The Alchemist's Waterbury brewery is in operation, filling pint-sized cans with Heady Topper.
And each week, when it's delivered to stores, beer drinkers are lined-up waiting for it to hit the shelves.
The sought-after double IPA is all they brew at the Waterbury cannery and distribution center. And for the past couple years, the entire operation has been solar-powered through net-metering from a solar farm in Bristol.
But Jen Kimmich says that changed recently when they put up a new building. She and her husband John own The Alchemist, which has breweries in Waterbury and Stowe.
"In the last year or so, we built a storage unit at our Waterbury facility," says Kimmich, "and when we did that we installed a freezer and a cooler. This new building received its own address, and we started receiving new electricity bills for this building."
Kimmich says those bills caught the attention of The Alchemist's office manager:
"One day I came into work and our brilliant office manager, Ashli, said to me, ‘You know, I’m still getting small electricity bills for our storage unit – between $500 and $600 a month. Have you considered adding solar panels to that building?'"
So they called up another Waterbury company, solar installer SunCommon, which said the storage building roof was well-situated for solar.
"And when they ran the numbers, we found out that we could actually produce about twice as much power as we needed for that building," Kimmich explains. "So we decided right away that we would put it back on the grid, and then we had to make a decision what we were going to do with it."
That’s when they thought of the Waterbury Area Senior Center.
"It was a total surprise. It was a nice surprise," says Karol Smith, the senior center's executive director.
She acknowledges, they "do have a big electric bill. We have a large walk-in freezer and coolers and ovens and dishwasher."
The solar credits will average about $255 a month off the senior center’s bill, which is about what it costs the center per-day to feed area seniors.
"Every day, we serve about 55 Meals on Wheels, to four communities – Waterbury, Duxbury, Moretown and Middlesex," Smith explains. "We also have a daily community meal here, served at noon, Monday through Friday."
And those homemade meals attract people like 88-year-old Debby Spooner, of Duxbury. She says she comes to the center for a hot meal "practically every day."
Waterbury widower David Besette is another regular.
"They cook so well," Besette says. "Everything is like a home-cooked meal, right on. And that’s what makes it."
Spooner adds, "Well we’ve been lucky. We’ve had some darn good cooks here."
Spooner should know. Before she started taking meals at the senior center, she was delivering them as a Meals on Wheels volunteer.
Smith says the senior center couldn’t operate without those volunteers, as well as the community’s generosity.
"Every little bit helps," she says, "and it’s tremendous that The Alchemist thought of us."
The Alchemist isn't the only solar-powered brewery in Vermont.
And just last week, a project was announced that will cover the roof of the von Trapp Brewing Bierhall with solar panels, in order to power that brewery and also put power on the Stowe Electric Department’s grid.
This won’t be The Alchemist’s last solar project, either.
Kimmich says they're in the permitting process to put solar panels up at their other brewery and visitor’s center, in Stowe.
Disclosure: The Alchemist is a VPR underwriter.