Ah, summer. While we miss the snow, it’s good to take a break and pursue other passions. Like beer. So, over the 4th of July weekend, my sister and I thought what better time to explore one of Vermont’s other great industries, second only to snow sports?
Since we were going to be at our mom’s house at Sugarbush Resort for the Warren 4th of July parade, we took the opportunity to visit a holy grail of the craft beer industry. A place we needed to check off on our bucket list. It’s Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro VT, where some of the most sought after beers in the world are made. Ratebeer.com has named Hill Farmstead the best brewery in the world this year, and Beer Advocate readers have given Hill Farmstead a 100% rating, the highest possible.
Now, you can’t just waltz into any ABC store and buy Hill Farmstead beer. You have to drive to the middle of nowhere in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom. Brewer Shaun Hill and his brother inherited his grandfather’s beautiful dairy farm high atop a mountain in Greensboro, and he wanted to find a way to keep the land in the family while pursuing his lifelong passion for brewing beer. Hill sells only from the retail space at the brewery and to about 20 bars and restaurants in Vermont, because he believes beer is meant to be kept fresh, just like the lettuce and tomatoes grown at the farm down the road.
As we drove to Hill Farmstead from Sugarbush, we stopped first in Montpelier, where we’d found through our research that The Alchemist’s Heady Topper (Beer Advocate’s #1 rated beer on the Top 250 list) would be delivered to various locations throughout the morning. We joined the pack of thirsty locals who roamed from the Liquor Mart to the Hunger Mountain Co-op in pursuit of the delivery truck, knowing full well that if we didn’t arrive within a half hour of the delivery, the beer would be gone. This is a fun treasure-hunt activity for us any time we go to my mom’s house in Vermont (picture semi-dangerous commando driving, spotting the truck, pulling over to shouts of Go! Go! Go!), and this time we managed to load up with a few 4-packs each, which we considered a moderate success.
After the morning’s excitement, we made our way up the winding, deserted roads to Greensboro. It seemed impossible that the website’s warning of a 2-hour wait to fill growlers at the brewery could be true. Lo and behold, we drove up the steep dirt road, past cows and grassy meadows with gorgeous blue sky vistas and pulled into a jam packed parking lot, with cars sporting license plates from at least 15 different states.
We joined the line as Phil, one of the brewery workers, let us know that the wait from our spot would be at least an hour and a half. As we began our wait, we perused the rules and regulations on the walls, letting us know the limits on what we could purchase, and the extent they go to be sure the beer is fresh and unmolested between the brewery and your glass at home. No dirty growlers allowed. No clear glass growlers, no stainless steel. Five fills per customer, plus you can purchase whatever bottles they have for sale that day.
After we settled into the line, another very welcome brewery worker came to take our orders for tastings while we waited. $5 got us four tastes each and helped us figure out what we wanted to fill our five growlers with. Between the six people in our group we tried all nine beers they had on tap that day, including the light and refreshing Works of Love Blonde Ale, Everett, a smooth American Porter named after one of Hill’s relatives, Society and Solitude #4, a perfectly balanced, citrusy IPA, and the highly-rated, super hoppy and delicious Double Citra Double IPA.
As Phil, Kevin and Bob, our favorite new friends behind the counter, began the process of filling our growlers, we watched carefully to see how the best brewery in the world filled up so professionally that you could keep your growler closed for over a week and expect the beer to be just as fresh as the day it was poured. “The key,” said Kevin, “is a blast of CO2 into the empty growler to prep it, then just a very long, slow pour. Nothing fancy.”
Normally I see people fill growlers with tubes and other contraptions, through taps that are about as wide as a nickel, and often the beer is flat by the time I get home. Not so here. I noticed that the taps are about a third of the width of regular taps, and this is how the pour can be so slow and steady, all the way to the tippy top. We began to understand why the wait is so long - a good pour is not something to be rushed.
“It’s a lot of fun but it’s also a lot of work,” Phil said. “Even though the retail shop is only open Wednesday through Sunday from 12-5, we’re here five days a week, minimum 8-10 hours a day, and Shaun is here all the time, sometimes up to 18 hours a day. He lives right there in the farmhouse, and he lives and breathes this business.”
When we asked Phil whether they ever thought the brewery would attain this sort of cult status, he laughed. “Shaun always refers back to his original business plan, where he thought he would be selling one or two growlers a week out of the retail shop. Now on an average busy day we do about 200 transactions, each of which include at least five growlers and bottle sales as well, so that’s more than 1,000 a day. Pretty crazy!”
As we packed up our loot into coolers and boxes, we bid farewell to our new friends and had already started planning our next visit. With a parting wave, Bob left us with the thought of the day: “Always remember: Don’t Drink Bad Beer!”
Not a problem, Bob! In fact, there was really only one small problem- how were we going to drink all this beer within the next week? Clearly, we would need to buckle down and get busy. Cheers!