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northeast kingdom

October 5, 2012

Over the past several months, Katie (my girlfriend) and I have both expressed interest in taking a trip to Vermont.  For me, the draw is the outstanding breweries that have been established there.  For her, it was the landscape, food and Vermont spirit, which I can attest is indeed something special and unlike anywhere else.  And yes.. beer.

Last weekend, we finally made the trip.  It was her birthday on Saturday, and I plotted out an itinerary that would take us to some of the most renowned breweries in America (and that’s saying something these days), as well as through some beautiful, rustic landscapes and to accommodations that forced us to ‘go off the radar’.

Full write-up after the jump  

Friday night, we left Buffalo with our dog, Oliver, for Syracuse.  Syracuse is due east and cuts two hours off the eventual eight hour drive.  One of Katie’s closest friends also lives there, so it was a no brainer.  We ate, drank, conversed and joked before finally crashing late at night.

Saturday, we were up and out the door before 8 am.  We cut a swath across NY State on I-90, before trickling across country roads and finally passing into Vermont in the late morning.  We passed through Rutland, cut across the lower part of the state, where we saw signs of the significant flooding that devastated Vermont last August, and up to I-89.  This took us to Montpelier, where we officially set course for Greensboro.

This final leg was about 40 miles of ever dwindling shoulders and increasingly windy roads.  Pavement eventually gave way to a trio of dirt roads.  Around 2 pm, we came through a natural arch of faded leaves to reveal a partially finished barn on a hilly pasture.  This is what I had come for.

Hill Farmstead Brewery is one of the most buzzed about microbreweries right now.  While I can admittedly fall victim to reading into hype, I had a sense that there was something truly interesting going on here.  Reviewers of Hill Farmstead beers don’t just give accolades, they gush, wax philosophical (get ready for some of that, btw) and use terms like ‘best ever’ and ‘best in the world’.  Shaun Hill, the owner/brewer, has been referred to as ‘a savant’ and a variety of ‘bests’.

His marketing evokes the namesakes of eight generations of dairy farmers that lived on this very property.  His simple beer descriptions include a brief list of ingredients which always ends with “and water from our well”.  Personally, I think both of these things are quite simply, cool as shit, and definitely speak to me.  Why didn’t I think of that?  (Also, why can’t I have a family homestead where I convert a barn into a brewery and conjure spirits of my ancestry into beers that ultimately draw rave reviews?).

Needless to say, I walked in with high expectations and and a sense that Shaun might really be onto something groundbreaking.  This was actually more of a fear.  While I am constantly learning and improving, and well aware that I’m by no means a finished product as a brewer, I do think I make some pretty damn good beers.  Particularly in the realm of hoppy beers.  What the hell is this guy doing that I haven’t considered?  Is his beer going to be anything like mine, or does he inhabit another plane of brewing existence.  Is this normal beer, perfectly executed by a visionary, or is he truly doing something.. supernatural?


For being around an hour from the nearest town of note (probably Montpelier), this place was packed.  Granted, the tasting area is about the size of my living room, but there were about 30 people here on a rainy, chilly fall afternoon.  Katie and I were able to try samples of Pale Ales: Edward, Riwaka and Simcoe, as well as Double IPA’s: Society & Solitude #5 and Ephraim.  Later in the trip, I was also able to sample Abner, another DIPA and put back a fair number of Edward drafts.

Each of these beers were, indeed, perfectly executed.  Rich and flavorful, bursting with hoppy aroma and flavors, yet in Shaun’s own words, succinct.  Just enough malt, balanced mouthfeel, appropriate carbonation and bitterness.  Enough variance between each beer that they stand on their own.  Outstanding, but in each example there was.. something else.  There’s another character to his beer that I’ve never experienced elsewhere – I don’t think it’s hop extraction, special malt, yeast or another additive.  I’ll admit, I don’t know what it is, but I have some theories, and they start with his hint about the importance of his well water.

So here’s my analysis of Hill Farmstead as a whole:

  • Shaun Hill is a really, really, really damn good brewer.  But he is a human being, and his beers are not of supernatural origin.  Best in America/the world/universe?  It’s possible, but I don’t have nearly enough knowledge to stake a claim.  Best beers I’ve drank?  Yes, probably.
  • His ingredients are top notch.
  • He does a lot of late hop additions, probably mostly in the whirlpool.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he doesn’t do a standard bittering addition of 60/75/90 minutes, and rather gets bitterness from FWH or 20+ additions.
  • At least in respect to his hoppy beers, freshness might as well be an ingredient.  I’d be surprised if Shaun sells a hoppy beer that was brewed more than 6 weeks prior to serving.  The beers are all incredibly cloudy, naturally carbonated and have a certain amount of “muddle” to their flavors.  I’ve experienced this before in my own beers, but I usually chill them until it has settled out.  He’s embraced this youthfulness in his beer and I’ll admit, I want to try it now, too.  There are some changes one would need to make in recipe formulation, primarily a reduction or removal of the aforementioned bittering addition.
  • The water is perfect, but I don’t think it comes out of the well that way.  Shaun definitely treats his water.  Wells in that region are known to produce waters that are high in alkalinity (hard), have unpredictable mineral content and often enough sulfurics that filtering is a must for safe drinking.  I have some impressions as to the water profile he uses, which I won’t get into right now (because I’m not an expert), but I’d be interested to know if he uses an RO filter.

Unfortunately, Shaun wasn’t around during our visit, so I didn’t get to ask him these questions, or compliment him on his outstanding products.  I did bring home a 2L growler of S&S #5 (which, btw, won a head to head with Pliny and Heady Topper), a 750ml of Riwaka and bottles of Everett (porter) and Arthur (rustic Saison, which I believe has brett) and some kick ass glassware.  Regrettably, I ran out of cash and was not able to bring home any Ephraim, which still haunts me.

Knowing that I may never make it back to Hill Rd saddens me, but I’m glad to have made the trip and look forward to watching the brewery’s progress.  I feel as if the visit was a rite of passage for me, and I came away with a considerable amount of inspiration, which will not be lost on me.

An empty (yes, I checked) bottle of Arthur sitting on a rusted out barrel

From the Farmstead, we made our way to Waterbury, where we’d spend the next two nights.  We checked into our “room”, which was a cabin attached (not physically, but in a business sense) to a Bed & Breakfast.  The cabin sat in the woods about 6 miles from town and contained a bed, small bathroom, two rocking chairs, a wood stove and little else.  The owners were kind and attentive – almost too much at first, but it wound up being great.  The breakfasts were thoughtful, well prepared and worthy of noting on my blog (noted.).

Saturday night, we ate at Waterbury’s Prohibition Pig.  The barbecue meats were perfectly cooked/smoked, the sauces were tasty, creative and accessible and the beer list was off the charts.  I started with a Heady Topper draft and finished with a Lawson’s Session in the Rye Saison and a half pour of Hill Farmstead Abner.  Katie started with a cocktail (very good) and finished with an Allagash.  All great stuff.  Interestingly, the space that Prohibition Pig inhabits once housed the Alchemist Brewpub, which was destroyed by flooding just over a year ago.  Fortunately, their cannery was nearly open and has continued to make Heady Topper with only the slightest of interruption.

Draft Heady.  It doesn’t get much better.

Lawson’s Session in the Rye

On Sunday, after breakfast, we made our way back into Waterbury.  Here, we visited the Ben & Jerry’s factory as well as their neighbors, the Alchemist Cannery.  Not much to do or experience here, but I did snap a cool photo and got to ask a few questions.  Not surprisingly, they were sold out of Heady Topper, but i was advised to visit on Monday morning, when a fresh batch would be canned and ready for sale.  I bought 10 4-packs, 3 of which were for myself (the rest for friends, family and coworkers).

We also took the dog to Stowe for a nice walk through town and spend Sunday evening in Burlington doing some shopping, and dining at Farmstead (the restaurant, not the brewery), who conveniently did have some excellent local beers on tap.

We returned Monday, after picking up our Heady Topper and some artisan cheeses.  We had a great, relaxing time and enjoyed the Vermont landscape and people.  Both of us remarked that we could see ourselves living there, however I don’t envision that happening.  We both appreciate the proximity to our families, and that would significantly change the dynamic.  Quite simply, it’s too far.

I do expect to return to VT, however the circumstances and plans will likely be different.  I’d love to make it to one of HIll Farmstead’s festivals, but it is far and it gets costly quick. One can hope.

If anyone reading this has made it this far and is interested in going to Vermont.  Go.  It’s a great place with great people.  I casually alluded to the floods they’ve experienced there, but that was no joke.  Entire communities were wiped off the map.  The state relies heavily on tourism dollars, and they have a lot to offer in return.


From → brewery visit

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