I made a much-anticipated pilgrimage to visit the world’s best brewery in deep rustic Vermont, and was rewarded with a glass of Foster by Hill Farmstead, a remarkable Black Wheat IPA.
Style: Black IPA
Numbers: 6.5% ABV, IBUs unknown (estimate 50-60)
Brewer: Hill Farmstead Brewery, Greensboro VT
According to RateBeer, Hill Farmstead Brewery near Greensboro in Vermont is the best brewery in the world. It’s no surprise that plenty of people have a visit to the brewery on their bucket list, which has been my case for several years.
Why is it so good? Because its founder and brewmaster, Shaun Hill, is a driven man on a singular mission: to create extraordinary beers from a place. And that place happens to be his family’s home, where eight generations of Hills have lived for over 220 years. The iconic logo Hill Farmstead uses may look like the work of a niftily simplistic graphic designer, but it’s actually taken from the sign that hung on his great-great-great-grandfather’s tavern in the early 19th century, just a couple hundred yards from the location of the brewery Shaun began in 2010. (The brewery is on the site of his grandfather’s dairy farm, and is a short walk from the house in which Hill grew up.)
Hill first brewed at school aged 15, as part of a science project. At that early age he decided he wanted to brew for a living, but he first gave himself a grounding in philosophy at university. (Hill Farmstead’s beers tend to be named after family members – if they are the beers Hill wants to keep making; his way of honoring his ancestors – or after philosophical works or quotes.) Instead of leaping from homebrewer to brewery owner, Hill sought extensive professional training, working at Vermont’s The Shed before voyaging to Denmark (perhaps chasing the roots of Kirkegaard’s work) where he brewed at Fanø Bryghus and Nørrebro Bryghus. He must have been doing something right, as three beers he designed at Nørrebro Bryghus won medals (two gold, one silver) at 2010’s World Beer Cup.
Known in the beer world as a laser-focused perfectionist, Hill has spent the last five years creating an unlikely success story deep in rural Vermont. So deep it took my wife and me a two hour detour from our drive from Acadia, Maine to Burlington, Vermont to find the brewery. We were there at the peak of fall, which added to the sense of wonderment we experienced as we trundled up the dirt track off the Taylor Road (said track being called Hill Road of course) that leads to the rugged barns and buildings that house the brewery.
We had spent a week vacationing amid the auburn, flaxen, copper and crimson leaves carpeting Acadia National Park, but even so the brewery’s picturesque surroundings stunned us. Not just with their rural beauty, but also the incredible sense of place and family history that permeates the area. The brewery is – and fundamentally feels – raw and unfinished. We were fortunate to visit on a peaceful and chilly October Friday afternoon, when few others had made the lengthy journey to visit. We were not exposed to the famous crowds who queue for hours, growlers in hand, on Saturday afternoons. Our fellow beer pilgrims bore the reverential countenance one sees on serious tourists at a holy shrine or ancient cathedral.
Only two buildings make up the brewery. Until recently there was but one, handling both sales of packaged beer and merchandise as well as the industrial-scale dispense of draft beer for growlers. These days one hall holds the retail stand and a separate building houses a draft beer bar, at which one station fills growlers and another sells beer to drink on site. To avoid turning the brewery into a rowdy pub, and to be as compliant as possible with Vermont’s alcohol licensing laws, a person may only buy and drink one glass of beer in the bar. This is actually pretty cool, as you are forced to choose carefully (from a list of 12 rotating beers on draft) and be extra appreciative of your beer.
My wife, Katya, had tried Hill Farmstead’s single hop APA Citra not long before we visited, and decided she could do with another taste. After lengthy deliberation I opted for Foster, a black IPA made with significant amounts of malted wheat in the mash. (I can’t find out online after whom in the Hill lineage the beer is named.) I had never tried it before (hell, I had only tried three Hill Farmstead beers before), and wanted a beer that would best represent the balanced and nuanced yet brave and inventive creativity for which the brewery is renowned.
We took our drinks and wandered outside the tasting room to a small veranda overlooking the bucolic Vermont country around the brewery. I took a few deep inhalations of the mahogany liquid in my glass. The nose of the beer was a stroll through a Danish bakery and into a pine forest: rich pumpernickel and caraway seed malt aromas mingled playfully with light, breezy fresh pine resin and dried grass hop notes. There were also gentle floral notes, such as heather and honeysuckle, as well as some lemon peel, toasted whole wheat and licorice. Every sniff revealed another layer of carefully interwoven fragrance.
The flavor of the beer perfectly matched its aroma. Rich and malty, but somehow also light and delicate. The intensely dry-hopped aroma of the beer doesn’t let you go as you sip, and the flavors of the beer in your mouth help unveil its complexity. The finish is of course long and dry, as the mix of wheat and – I guess? – roasted barley in the beer create a gentle acridity that counters the sweeter floral and malty aromas.
We spent the next 40 minutes or so slowly enjoying our beers and taking in the tranquil ambience of the brewery. It is simple and airy, and one suspects Shaun Hill took a few cues from the Danish method of interior decoration as the place feels not unlike the marvelous Danish bar, Tørst (arguably the world’s best beer bar, located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn). We sauntered into the brewery’s shop and of course dropped over a hundred dollars on T shirts, a hoodie, a set of glasses (nothing says Beer Show Off like serving your house-guests in branded glassware from the world’s best brewery) and several bottles of beer.
We stayed the night of our visit in a wonderful cabin on the shore of nearby Crystal Lake, near Barton. (Check them out, fantastic place to relax after a Hill Farmstead trip: Lakeview Cabins.) Sitting watching the sun die behind the Vermont mountains, sipping a selection of truly artisanal beers made a few miles away by a passionate perfectionist who brews on the site of his ancestral home, felt pretty damned special. I consider a bucket list item checked off.