The Wonderbrewer of Nowheresville
I'm a bit nervous when I finally turn down the long dirt road to the brewery after a two-hour drive. The road doesn't seem to lead anywhere. I'm in the middle of nowhere and there is no brewery in sight. It certainly doesn't seem like the most logical place for one. There is no major city nearby. The town is small, at best. There are no college kids or young professionals in the area and the roads to the brewery aren't paved—they're packed dirt and gravel. There is one store in town— it's a grocery store, department store and hardware store all in one, with a lone gas pump outside. But Greensboro, Vermont is home to Shaun Hill, the master-brewer and philosopher behind The Hill Farmstead Brewery, where he produces some of the world’s most sought after beers on family land that has been passed down through the centuries.
I turn down Hill Road, its apt name reassuring me that my iPhone knows where we are despite dodgy service, and hope for the best. Eventually I see a large black banner with Hill Farmstead's logo. As soon as I pull into the small parking lot I realize this isn't any normal brewery. It’s two buildings, both the size of a two-car garage, and I hear none of the industrial uproar associated with a large suds operation. The only noises at nine a.m. are the chirping of crickets, music coming from the main building, and a tractor that is moving pallets of glassware.
Not only is Hill, 34, brewing great beer here—RateBeer.com named this the best brewery in the World for 2013—but he's setting himself apart with what he wants his brewery to be, a place driven more by idealism than profits. Yes, Hill wants to live comfortably and be able to pay his employees enough so that they can do the same. But what makes him stand out is that despite the line that forms at 11:30 a.m. every Wednesday morning, a half-hour before the retail store opens, his brewery can't meet customers' growing demands and frankly, he's not all that interested in trying to meet them.
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Shaun Hill's family helped found Greensboro, Vermont with sixty or so other families in the 1780s. They originally lived in what was downtown Greensboro, until, as Hill jokes, the town became too crowded.
"I always joke the town was overpopulated at that point—there were probably like 200 people there—and we're all misanthropes and stoics in the hills, so we're not really people-people. I guess he [Hill’s great-great-great grandfather] was like, 'fuck this, I'm getting out of here, there are too many people around.'"
His great-great-great grandfather, Aaron, founded the family’s original farmstead on Hillcrest Road, only a few hundred feet from where the brewery now sits.
Hill now lives on part of that farmstead, in a white farmhouse next to the brewery. His parents live across the street, just a couple hundred feet away, and other family is sprinkled around the area—his cousin lives on nearby Hillcrest Road and feeds the spent grains from the brewery to his cows.
Aside from all the family around, Hill is largely isolated from society, and seems to have inherited a bit of his ancestor’s stoicism. He has no time for people, not because he doesn't like people, but because he is constantly busy working. He has no patience for chitchat, ignoring the customers in line to buy his beer as he brusquely moves from one task to the next. He looks tired: his hair, thinning through the middle, is the definition of bed-head, and his round face is marked by a perpetual five o’clock shadow. He looks like someone who has stayed up late plotting the future.
He has little time to rest because his operation is tiny: the seven employees are a mix of old friends, family and experienced brewers. Hill's father helps with odd jobs at the brewery, while his mother helps organize the tasting sessions during the summer, serving beer and explaining the nuances of each draught on tap. His brother is the master woodworker who built the original brewhouse, as well as the new larger brewery.
It's a small-scale operation that forces Hill to wear many hats. Brew days start at 6:30 in the morning and end at seven in the evening, after two batches of beer have been brewed. It's a long day with a lot of work and not much time to sit, talk or even think for more than a few minutes.
"Part of being an efficient brewer without hiring someone is you have to do realistically twelve things at once," says Hill.
"It's all because of neurotic, psychotic issues, need for perfection, low self-esteem, overcompensating," says Hill. "The greatest misconception people have is that I'm some sort of arrogant asshole, where it's the opposite of that. I just take what I do extremely serious because that's the kind of person that I am.
“People my whole life have mistaken intensity and directness for ego and, like, arrogance basically, which is totally unfair. If people just come down to earth and talk to you they realize, but instead they don't. I know lots of people that are the same way. "There are people who are very laid back and sort of 'whatever' and let shit go wrong and not be right. It's just a different way of living."
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Hill wanted to be a doctor when he went off to college, but quickly decided philosophy was a better fit.
"I took general chemistry, but, you know, it was at fucking eight o'clock in the morning, one hundred kids in auditorium, lots of cute girls, and whatnot," says Hill. "So, I also took a philosophy class, and I had already been interested in Buddhism and meditation and all of that from a young age, so sitting outside with eight other students reading Plato was far more interesting for me at that point."
The other thing that appealed to him at the time was brewing beer, which he had first done in high school for a science fair project requiring research on yeast, aeration and fermentation. While he was still too young to legally drink, the "hybrid of malt and fruit fermentation" that came out of his experiment set the stage for the home-brewing club that Hill started at Haverford, with permission from the student council to use stoves on campus to brew. Hill brewed imitations of popular beers using copycat recipes that he modified and improvised. He loved exploring how to make beer better, whether working with different types of yeast or improving on steadfast recipes.
Hill's first brewery job came when he was given a chance to wash kegs at The Shed Restaurant and Brewery in Stowe, Vermont. He eventually worked his way up to main brewer and began developing his process and routine. Honing that process while working with different brewers around the world, he discovered that making beer was the prefect meld of personal philosophy and scientific experimentation.
"I started to realize what separates an OK, mediocre brewer, an enthusiastic brewer [from a great one], is process and science," says Hill. "[Hill Farmstead] is not the most scientific brewery in the world, but there is a lot to be said about routine and process and process variables.
“It took six or seven years, but I started realizing what the most critical control checkpoints are to make a really great beer,” Hill continues. “And, fortunately, I haven't met many other brewers who have the same checkpoints. They're focused on things that don't really impact beer at all."
While Hill refuses to reveal much about his actual process, which he safeguards as a trade secret, the best way he can explain it is by relating brewing to cooking.
"All I'm doing is making a big fucking batch of soup every day," he says. "I'm making a big stock."
Cooking soup, or any food, requires a logical procedure. Brewing beer is the same. If brewers don’t follow the basic rules they can’t expand on what they’re making. They’re just messing around with a recipe. Hill messes around with recipes, but in a systematic fashion. He breaks them down, following the correct procedures, but expanding them to create something new and refreshing. "
It's like, 'oh man I always overcook chicken.' Well, it's because you're not using a meat thermometer, you're not setting a timer," says Hill. "There are simple things you can do to be a great cook, but there are people that make good-tasting food and then there are those people that expand on the canon of what good food can be."
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Hill's timer seems to never stop beeping, interrupting almost every activity. Each time he gets to his computer to email someone or begins cleaning up one mess the timer goes off and he has to check on his beer, take a sample, check some level or add another ingredient. The only time he sits is when I first arrive and we begin talking, but it's just for a minute. I follow him around the brewery, trying to decipher our conversation over the blaring alt-rock music and the whirring of brewing equipment.
Leveraging connections he made while traveling and working in Denmark after leaving the Shed, Hill was able to scrounge up the initial $100,000 investment needed to open a brewery on the Hill Farmstead. With the help of local brewers like The Alchemist, which donated a 10-barrel Mash Tun to help get the operation off the ground, he was able to start brewing on March 29, 2010.
Hill says he has nothing to fall back on. There is no trust fund and there are no guarantees in the brewing world. Breweries come and go. Without the deep pockets and assembly line techniques of a mammoth brewery, making beer is a risky proposition. It's an expensive, labor-intensive product that requires patience. One bad batch can cripple a brewery like Hill's because he doesn't have the output of a major brewery. He is making limited quantities of unique, artisanal beer. And while he does it well, possibly better than anyone else, there is still room for failure.
For now, though, everything is working and Hill needs more space. So, he has decided it's time to expand the operation by putting up several new buildings. At the moment, the Hill Farmstead can brew 1,800 to 2,100 barrels of beer a year. After the build out and expansion, Hill says the number will double. But he says the end point of production will probably be around only 5,000 barrels of beer a year. To put that in perspective, that’s less than four percent of what Long Trail, a Vermont-based craft brewer, produces in a year.
Hill doesn’t dream of selling his brewery or recipes to major corporations. In fact, he has pulled back distribution lately. Kegs are no longer shipped to bars and restaurants outside of Vermont and customers looking to taste his latest brews have only one option: driving to the farm to buy growlers and 750ml bottles of freshly poured beer.
"Our philosophy isn't infinite like every other company in the world," says Hill. "Clearly I don't want an industrial park on my front yard. So the goal would be to have a brewery where it is easy to make the beer. Keep everything the same, but just add some new equipment to make things a little bit easier and far more efficient.
“Then, hopefully, being able to continue to offer the best that we possibly can to all the people that work here so they can think about vacation and retirement and actually enjoy life as well."
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Alec Lopez has chased beer all over the world. Lopez owns The Dive Bar, one of the few craft beer bars in Worcester, Massachusetts, and one of the city's first farm-to-table restaurants, Armsby Abbey, which also puts a focus on quality beer.
A Hill Farmstead devotee, Lopez has known about Hill since he was brewing at The Shed, and has followed his career since then.
"I truly believe, and it is hard to say someone is the best on the planet, but Shaun is one of top two [brewers] all-time," Lopez said in a phone interview.
Lopez says Hill redefined beer by changing how people view and make IPAs and American ales. Ten years ago, Lopez explains, everyone was trying to get IPAs from the West Coast: resinous, powerful beers bursting with hops. But Hill has drawn attention back East by brewing IPAs that are cleaner and dryer than their West Coast cousins without losing that aggressive hop taste.
IPAs don't have a long shelf life once they're bottled. Lopez says you won’t find an IPA bottle in his fridge because it only takes a week for them to go bad, so they'll never taste the way they should. That’s exactly why Hill never bottles his IPAs. It's another little part of his beer philosophy, like not wanting to ship outside of Vermont or grow too large.
Lopez used to bring Hill's beer to his restaurant and bar in small batches, but because he respected Hill's dismay at shipping the beer outside of Vermont, he has since stopped. " It was a violation of the ethos," says Lopez.
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I wait in line for over an hour to buy some of Hill Farmstead's beers. I buy three: two American pale ales and one IPA. I decide I’ll drink one beer alone, one beer with a friend and then the final one with my father, who likes beer but still prefers Miller Lite and Miller High Life, which he drank in college. I figured the most telling and interesting moment would come with my father as we drank Susan, an IPA named after Hill's grandfather's sister.
So, I brought one of Hill Farmstead's 750ml bottles to my parents' house for a tasting. I popped open the top as we sat down in the living room, the Red Sox in the background, and shared the beer with my father, mother and two younger brothers. Susan was magical. The beer poured light with a soft head, and was crisp, clean going down with no bitter bite. It smelled floral and had a nice hoppy kick at the end that didn't linger. I regretted not buying a growler of it. There wasn't enough.
While drinking Susan, we got to discussing why I prefer craft beers, and one main reason is because I drink fewer of them than if I were to sit down with my father and a case of Miller Lite. With a good beer, I don't just open the next bottle or pop the next can automatically. I love a crisp, hoppy beer, but I have patience with it. I can stop when I need too. And I just enjoy that beer washes away any anxiety or stress. It calms me down.
As we dwindled down to the bottom of the bottle, one-and-a-half glasses each, my father smacked his lips like he does when he drinks a nice dry wine, and said, "one more glass would be perfect."
He swirled around the beer and took a final sip. And I agreed.
I wanted just one more.
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Kevin Koczwara is a freelance journalist from Worcester, Mass. He's written for The Classical, Humanities: The Magazine for the National Endowment of the Humanities and other places.
Bear Cieri is a freelance photojournalist currently living in Vermont.