Two miles down a dirt road in Greensboro, Vermont, we arrive at Hill Farmstead Brewery to find Shaun Hill, the owner and operator of one of the world's most heavily-hyped breweries, mopping the floor. There's a batch of Edward, a pale ale, in the mash-tun and it fills the room with the smell of fresh baked bread. Contractors mill about the grounds outside. Hill Farmstead is installing a newer, more automated brewhouse in an adjacent building on the expansive family farmland, but Hill is sweating more minute details, "Do you see these marks on the wall? I understand why people lean on a wall, but do they have to put one foot back and rest it on the wall while they do that?"
Hill is on edge because he just checked his inbox which is full of feedback from the weekends visitors. "There are three positive ones to every bad one, but the bad ones… 'I was on line for 80 minutes and it didn't move. You ruined my weekend. You're bad at business.'" He takes it to heart.
"I know the lines get long, but they're moving. We're averaging three minutes a customer which isn't bad when you're filling growlers and case orders," he says. "I need to update my blog to set more realistic expectations, but it's tough to do without sounding too aggressive."
The accolades have piled up so fast and furiously for this tiny operation that there was never any hope of keeping up with demand. Scores on the beer rating websites are through the roof and mainstream publications have caught on as well.
"We're the only craft brewery in this position in the world right now where there's this level of hype and we're not packaging most of our beer," says Hill. "Everyone else has moved to packaging and they grow and grow, but what's the point? To send your beer further and further away? It's a waste of resources and not just fuel. We know beer tastes best when it's fresh. Maybe you're making beer that's meant to age, and that's fine. But if you're not? All you're doing is wasting water and hops to ship someone sub-optimal beer."
He makes it clear that he's not in sub-optimal beer business. He doesn't even like the term craft beer when we bring it up. "What's craft beer? Everyone, but Miller/Coors and InBev right? Everyone else is craft. What do I have in common with these big [craft] breweries shipping their beer across the country?" His expression makes it clear, not much. "Michel Foucault said a subculture defines itself by what it most opposes. It was true in punk rock and it's true brewing. Everyone in craft is supposedly united to take down those two big guys, but when you define craft beer as everyone the language just loses all its meaning."
Hill flips valves open and closed while he talks, purging this one with hot water. Connecting a hose to the boil kettle he begins his lautering process of draining malt sugars from the barley mash. The motions have the ease of someone carrying on a conversation while they drive.
"There's an element of mindlessness to it, but inside that mindlessness is enlightenment," says Hill. "Practice doesn't make perfect, but perfecting your practice will lead to results that approach perfection."
"I don't think my beer is perfect. I just figured out how to make it taste the way I want it to taste. The fact that so many other people like it the way I want it to taste is just luck," he says. "I get lots of homebrewers coming up to me looking for advice when they want to start a craft brewery and I tell them to go work in a professional brewery, but no one wants to take the time to do that anymore. I get criticized for not being open enough, but there are no secrets here. There's no secret sauce. "
Hill began homebrewing at 15, but his professional career didn't begin until after he earning an undergraduate in philosophy and taking time out to travel. He began brewing in at the brewpub The Shed in Vermont in 2005 and while the beers were well received he struggled to get the results he wanted on the brew system there, "I couldn't make it taste the way I wanted it to taste." He later decamped for Denmark to brew at Fanø Bryghus and Nørrebro Bryghus. He began to get the results he was looking for and sought to open his own brewery. After a deal on a more commercial space in Vermont fell through Hill found the financing to open a small brewery on his family's farm.
The brewery is just steps from the Hill family home and the family's history on the land stretches back over 220 years. History and family inform nearly everything the brewery does. Shaun Hill's brother works alongside him as they brew. He designed most of the ornate woodwork that decorates the space and his father also works at the brewery as well. The company's chalice inside an hourglass logo is inspired by a sign that hung in a tavern owned by his great-great-great-grandfather and many of the Hill Farmstead beers are named after departed grandparents, aunts and uncles. "It's home. There was never any question that I would live here, only how I would make a living here," he says. "There's a sense of place."
In this place Hill turns out world-class beers from wide-ranging styles. The majority of the beer is served on draft in both the tasting room and at bars and restaurants throughout Vermont — on rare occasions you might find a keg pop up in Philadelphia or New York. Draft offering encompass a variety of hoppy pale ales and IPAs but the porter and brown ale are just as good. Hill also sells bottle-conditioned saisons and a small but growing number of barrel aged beers. In fact, it was the Everett porter and Arthur saison that made our Best 100 Beers list. But no matter what Hill Farmstead beer you come across, you can be assured of tasting Shaun Hill's enlightenment.
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