Sunday, June 10, 2012

Beercation Part 5 – Hill Farmstead Brewery

Our northern Vermont “beercation” nears its climactic end. On a leg of the tour that proved to be both trying and rewarding, we visited a very small brewery that many hardcore beer fans would not only declare tops in New England, but also rank as one of our country’s elite. The brewery’s called Hill Farmstead and DBNE was more than a little anxious to finally see it.

To be honest I was not aware of Hill Farmstead during the first few years that I became passionate about craft beer, because it’s not a name one sees casually in stores or at their neighborhood watering hole. Why? Because outside of a few bottles occasional showing up in a store in Montpelier VT, the only place to buy their beer is at the brewery. And trust me when I tell you this – you do not live near Hill Farmstead. Its locale defines the phrase “out of the way.”

Already deep in northern Vermont, DBNE left its temporary base in Waterbury to trek even deeper into Vermont’s “northeast kingdom”. Ninety minutes deeper in fact, up to Greensboro VT. We saw little else in Greensboro other than trees, and I don’t remember more than two cars passing by. As we motored down the highway in the middle of nowhere, there was a small dirt road off to the side that was hardly marked. I'd heard this was the sign that we were two miles from the brewery and that from here on we had to travel on dirt roads that were, at times, mud pits. They were. And our car still hasn’t forgiven us.

We arrived at the brewery only a few minutes after their scheduled opening time, and meandered confusingly around the almost abandoned-looking property searching for an entrance to their tasting room. After accidentally opening the door to the brewery’s back room, we eventually found our way to the correct door around the side of the building. Head brewer, Shaun Hill, was right inside the door, on Facebook. Who knew Facebook was known this far up in Vermont?

Shaun’s a humble-looking young guy. He’s just thirty-two years old, but has worked a number of years in breweries, both domestically and abroad at Nørrebro Bryghus in Denmark. His beer is praised and he has begun to acquire  minor celebrity status among hardcore beer geek circles. His personality conveys that he’s aware of how highly he’s spoken about. Yet, it seems he’s uncomfortable with it. We easily got the sense that he’s tired of media calling him for redundant profile stories, and would let out a big sigh if he had to explain the history of Hill Farmstead again. Instead, he motions to an article about his story posted on the wall that you can read. 

His initial timidness seems to be a natural reaction he has towards anyone who he meets for the first time. You can tell he wondered if we’re going to be one of the annoyingly chatty visitors who loiter for too long, one of the jerks who resell his beer for astronomical prices on eBay, or a genuine visitor simply interested in tasting his beers.

I guess we won his approval because in the end he became friendlier. To Shaun’s defense, he mentioned when we arrived that he had to handle the tasting room in addition to brewing today; as if the guy who typically handles tastings and bottle purchases called in sick. So in between pouring something for us to taste, he would run back and forth between kettles and tanks to add hops, move hoses, tweak equipment settings, etc. He was definitely busy, but encouraged us to shout out questions as he worked. And at one point, on top of a short ladder across the room, he had a bucket of Columbus hops in his hand and asked us in pure giddiness, “have you ever smelled raw Columbus hops before!?” We said no and he came down from his ladder and eagerly brought the bucket over to us so we sink our faces into it.

Many of Shaun’s beers are named after family members, and when I pointed to an old black and white photo of what looked like relatives, he smiled, stopped what he was doing, and happily explain who the people were in the picture.

Speaking of the beers, we tasted six. And they all live up to the hype.

First was “Edward,” which I had once before, and is easily the best pale ale I’ve ever had. Arguably, it has one leg in IPA land and blurs the lines between the two styles like no other. Its rustic full body and amazing hop profile trick you into thinking you’re drinking something bigger than just a 5.2% ABV pale ale.

Next was “Harlan.” Shaun’s most common IPA. Out of all of Shaun’s beers we’ve had, this is my least favorite, but it’s still very good and I would never turn it down. Looking almost like a Belgian Wit, it offers a pleasant, yet somewhat subdued, tropical aroma and flavor. This is an easy-drinking IPA at 6.0%ABV.

Not named after a relative, the next beer, called “Columbus,” is named for the one hop type it uses (typically beer is brewed with multiple hop varieties.) This was another pleasant IPA, though unlike Harlan, its flavor and aroma offer more earthy, spicy, and resiny notes.

Back to family-named homages, we then tasted “Abner,” a double IPA. One of my favorite styles, this version is a knockout. Big tropical notes dance over a dank hop undertone. And its earthy malt profile comes across a bit chewy. This one is beyond satisfying.

One of my other favorite styles is a Porter, and Shaun’s version, called “Everett,” is a homerun. It’s a robust Porter sitting at 7.5%, which is just shy of imperial level. So it’s most similar to something like Smuttynose’s Robust Porter. Everett could not be any smoother. It’s very full bodied. Thick even. But it drinks like silk. The flavor brings to mind Nutella, oats, nuts, and dark chocolate, but with a touch of acidic hop in the front of it all. Its alcohol is more hidden than Smuttynose’s version.

Lastly we tasted a wonderfully decadent black IPA called “Society and Solitude 2.” It blends pine and a little orange with heavily roasted coffee and charred unsweetened chocolate. Because of its full flavor and the 9.5% ABV, it’s more of a sipper.

We purchased a few bottles to take home. We wanted a bottle of everything, but Hill Farmstead is a cash-only establishment, and we only had $41 on us. We wound up with 750ml bottles of Edward and Abner, a smaller bottle of Everett, and pre-bottled, honey-infused saison called Anna that we didn’t get to try during our visit as it wasn’t on tap.

Just as we started to make our purchases and head out, other people started to pour into the room that, until that point, we had all to ourselves. I could see Shaun beginning to get mildly irritated from a couple of the questions a new visitor was asking, as if he was thinking to himself, “what do you mean what's the difference between the two beers...the answer’s right on the board in front of you!”

Just minutes after looking annoyed in the tasting room, Shaun gave us a cheerful wave as we drove away. And that perfectly sums up our interaction with him. He’s a genuinely nice guy who at times maybe feels victimized by the hype his skillful craft brings him, and annoyed at the same silly questions he always gets. At one moment he conveys a child-like friendliness, then another moment he struggles socially, or looks aggravated. But we don’t fault him for it. When he claims that he enjoyed the craft beer scene more a few years ago, I assume he’s indirectly referring in to the hype his beers have gained since that time, and wishes he didn’t have to always deal with it.

Normally, I wouldn’t talk so much of the brewer and inadvertently raise the pedestal that others put them on. I prefer to let the beers speak for themselves. But Shaun was just too interesting of a character during our visit to not talk about him here. 

Ultimately, while Hill Farmstead is a chore to get to, it’s absolutely worth visiting at least once to taste tremendous beers straight from the source. Heck, you have to visit it if you want to actually buy their beer. If you go, bring cash and a four-wheel drive vehicle. 

Side Note – there is one other business we were aware of in Greensboro before driving through “town”. Do you like cheese? Then familiarize yourself with Cellars at Jasper Hill. These skillful people produce the most delicious and complex cheese I’ve ever tasted. Named “Winnemere,” this cheese is washed in Hill Farmstead beer, wrapped in tree bark, and looks like the pasty glue you smeared all over your hands in 3rd grade art class. It is divine. 

Jasper Hill also takes a pedestrian cheddar from Cabot, wraps it in muslin, brushes it with lard, lovingly ages it for fourteen months, then hands it back to the folks at Cabot with  as I like to envision it  an unprompted “you’re welcome,” because it’s a million times better than its original state. I swear they use a magic wand somewhere in that process. Although we discovered that the Jasper Hill farm was very close to Hill Farmstead, we didn't see it. Turns out they don’t have a visitor’s center, anyway. I was upset at first but realized it was best to let Jasper Hill exist only as it does in my imagination – a Willy Wonka-like wonderland of cheese wheels and whistling elves who never stop smiling and often break into song.

Hill Farmstead Brewery
403 Hill Rd
Greensboro Bend, Vermont, 05842-8813
Ph: (802) 533-7450