The Napa Valley of Beer

Mj 618_348_the napa valley of beer
Monica Donovan

In the eyes of many beer drinkers, the best brewery in the world can be found in tiny Greensboro, Vermont, population 760, past an unmarked intersection and an old farm field. And if you want to visit, be prepared to wait – because Hill Farmstead Brewery doesn't generate customers so much as converts, pilgrims who travel great distances and line up for hours, waiting for a chance to fill their growlers with the latest of brewmaster Shaun Hill's creations.

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"The first time we came here, my phone died, but I still had the image of the map kind of frozen on the screen, so I found it," says Brendan Attlebury, who often treks four hours from his home in suburban Boston to fill up his growler. "It was the dead of winter, and we had to wait two and a half hours in the cold. But we got our Twilight of the Idols on tap."

If you want to get technical, Hill Farmstead is now only the second-best of the roughly 16,000 breweries in the world; it fell one spot in this year's RateBeer ranking. The number one spot is occupied by AleSmith, in San Diego. But another top brewery, Lawson's Finest Liquids, is in Warren, just 60 miles south. And the Alchemist, the maker of one of the world's single top-rated beers – a bewitching double IPA called Heady Topper – is located in between, in Waterbury.

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That all of these are in a corner of Vermont is no coincidence. The state has become the beer capital of the U.S., perhaps of the world. What Silicon Valley is to technology, Vermont is to beer. And it makes Napa look tame by comparison: You don't hear about people lining up for hours to get the latest cabernet.

It all began more than a decade ago when the Alchemist, the precursor to Prohibition Pig, opened as a small pub in downtown Waterbury. "I came here the first time in 2007, with my wife," says brewer Nate Johnson. "We were the only ones here, and I ordered the Heady Topper – if it's blowing people's minds now, think about what it was like to drink it in 2007."

Before long, the Alchemist was crowded all the time, and the owners began canning their signature brew. But in 2011, Hurricane Irene hit, creating one of Vermont's worst natural disasters ever. The pub, along with much of Waterbury, flooded disastrously.

Rather than rebuild, the owners sold it, and the new proprietor changed the name to Prohibition Pig and kept on brewing. More craft brewers have followed suit. Today, Vermont has 38 breweries, a 30 percent jump from last year. Hops-crazed Asheville, North Carolina, by comparison, has just 20. Portland, Oregon, that bastion of beer nerds, has 63, but with a population that's nearly four times as large. What's more, so many of Vermont's breweries are truly amazing: Fiddlehead. Zero Gravity. Lost Nation.

"Every time I think Vermont beer is going to slow down, it doesn't," says Johnson. "It just accelerates."

Why Vermont? Part of it has to do with the inexpensive real estate. Combine that with a new generation of artisan craftsmen – cheesemakers, beekeepers, woodworkers – relocating to their utopian ideal, and you start to see the pattern. One great brewer begets another great brewer, and their beers keep raising the bar.

The state's old-guard craft brewers – Long Trail, Magic Hat, Otter Creek – once contented themselves with brewing pretty good beer in the mold of Samuel Adams. Now they're raising their game, and fast. Long Trail released Limbo, a new IPA with hops from Australia, and Otter Creek's new double IPA was brewed in partnership with Lawson's Finest Liquids.

Back outside Hill Farmstead, the license plates come from as far away as Florida. "I'm on a first-name basis with guys from, like, Chicago," says Phil Young, who's filling growlers from a tap. "They drive here, fill up, drive back. They call it the Cannonball Run."

In line are a pair of young brothers from Enosburg, in a rural area of Vermont that somehow doesn't have a brewery.

But maybe soon. Ryan and Steve Salminen say they've already brewed about 100 gallons, and they're making repeat visits to Hill Farmstead to dissect how the master does it.

"If the market's not too flooded, we'd love to join in," says Ryan. "Either that, or we've got a great plan for a designated-driver service," says Steve.

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