Hill Farmstead, Proper Correspondence, and Why You Always Bring Something to a Dinner Party
A few years ago I was introduced to the beers of Hill Farmstead. A close friend of mine went to work with the brewer, Shaun Hill, to pick his brain about planning a brewery In Oregon that barrel aged all its beer and Hill Farmstead was setting the bar for this type of brewing. He returned with an excellent beer, stories about Shaun’s techniques and how far ahead he was of the rest of the brewers in the country. Shaun Hill paid his dues with some of the best brewers in Europe and came back to his family farmland in northeast Vermont to establish a brewery steeped in sound but constantly evolving technique, turning out incredible beers marked by unique flavors and freshness, and establishing a link to the pedigree of the land he wanted to brew on that had been in his family for 8 generations. This guy was doing something that sang to me, and the beer my friend brought was unbelievable.
I wrote a letter to Shaun when a friend from Boston told me he was going up to the brewery, the only place you can get their beer, asking if we could buy a keg from him for a special night at the restaurant. He responded politely, but firmly, that their limited production made that impossible but my friend could bring me some growler bottles that they fill at the brewery. He also requested that we not sell the beer that we received. Fair, I get it, Heard.
The beer we received was life changing. Fresh hop flavors, hints of sour, full flavored amber that had 4-5 layers of flavor, a rich American porter where the layers of cocoa malt kept unrolling through my mouth. These were some of the best beers I had ever had and I shared them with regulars, family, friends, and drank it all up as requested to savor the freshness that the Hill Farm works so hard to preserve. I waited for more to come my way but was only able to score a single glass of pale ale in a year. It was time to make my own pilgrimage to the Hill Farm.
Maybe it is a love of classics, or just good upbringing, but I see no reason to arrive to someone’s home un-announced. Not only is it fucking rude but if I’m going to visit someone or something I want to make sure they are there and ready to greet guests. I love the casual stop in of my neighbors and friends but they don’t have to drive 4 hours to get to me. I was planning to pack up three kids and a skeptical wife to go to northern Vermont to drink some beer.
“Where is this place, again?” My wife asked.
“In the middle of nowhere. Isn’t that cool?!”
“Do we HAVE to go to another beer farm, Papa?” said my 6 year old daughter Olive.
“Yes, dear. I promise it will change your life.”
“Do they have Legos there?” asked my 4 year old son Will.
“Yes.” I lied to him. He’s sensitive.
“I love beer farms!” stated Will’s twin sister Viola. My current favorite.
So like any well raised American, especially Southern American, I penned a letter to Shaun at the brewery. It read:
I hit you up through my friend Christian for a keg of beer for my restaurant a few years ago after tasting the Harlan he brought back from his visit there. Had I known more about your limited production I would have seen the folly in my request! I hope I didn't offend, being from MA and all.
I am finally making the journey to your part of Vermont with my family early next week and am excited to see your family's farm first hand. I have to return to Boston to run the restaurant on Wednesday and was wondering if there was any way to come Monday or Tuesday? I know you are overwealmed with production, experimentation, business management, and whatever you can possibly fit in on top during these precious days without customers. I wish I could have a day in the shop without customers! I have complete flexibility on time and would love to bring food for you and your staff so we can share the fruits of our labors together in the surroundings of your Vermont heritage, if you can fit it in.
Check us out at www.reddsinrozzie.com and I hope to be able to visit this week. Keep up the exciting work.
I am away on a much needed respite and will not be around on Monday or Tuesday. I have copied my staff here and I am sure that they would love to share food with you (ie. have you feed them! =) Feel free to reply all and let them know when on Tuesday is best. Sorry to have missed you!
After more friendly correspondence we arrived on a rainy afternoon to find the team churning away on the final duties of the day. The brewery is only open 4 days a week but the amount of people that make the trip for this fine elixir is tremendous. They work all week just to keep up with the demand and when I say all week I mean 6 days, 10-14 hours a day. Not pussy hours, real hours. Work of passion demands nothing less. These tell-tale signs made me feel even better about where we were and why. The hill top where the brewery and farmhouse lay was green and alive from the long winter. Mud covered everything and the brown and green screamed Vermont. As the wind blew through the trees you could almost feel the importance of the place, at least to the people there.
As we walked up past the glares of overworked brewers who are regularly forced to deal with nosy patrons trying to get a glimpse of the brewery without waiting 2-3 hours in line we finally found our host, Jim, and were greeted with a smile and a beer. That’s living. He kindly showed us around the brewery, politely refused to let us take pictures, and explained all the fantastic things going on: barrel aging, wild yeasts, funk versus not funk, growing pains, new brewery, shipment of supplies, his nervous wife who was set to move to upper Vermont from Boston next week, the full gamut. We hung out, talked beer, made more friends, set the kids up with a couple rings and sticks, and then got down to the business of eating and drinking.
To those who know these beers it was all of them. Edward, Abner, Society and Solitude #5, and more. The beers carry the name of an ancestor or a play towards philosophy, another delicious twist giving the beers greater meaning. Who wouldn’t take seriously a pale ale named Edward, the owners Grandfather? We also explored some barrel aged beers which led to the best beer I’ve ever had in my life.
As I shucked oysters Jim decanted a beer they had just bottled named E. It was a barrel aged wild yeasted beer that had blends of wine aged, orange liquer aged, and who knows what aged beer and refreshed with fresh beer combined with brettonamyces, a wild yeast which imparts unique flavors unobtainable elsewhere. These beers are enjoyed only by someone who has a true love affair with beer and it’s possibilities. I have developed a love for the taste of wild yeast and blended aged beers but it took time. My brother recently compared the flavor of a wild yeast sour that I shared with him after a fantastic Bruins win as “the flavor of a dry wisdom tooth socket.” Oh, family. How I love sharing with you.
As we sipped from wine glasses the layers of flavor built and built until 7-8 levels were apparent. The yeast gave way to maltiness touched by oak, then smoothness of orange zest and sour of red wine. The final trajectory of bready yeast, tartness, and the fantastic finish that was clearly pineapple left me speechless. This may seem like a bunch of horseshit at this point and you may be thinking of Hill Farmstead more of a Johnstown then a brewery but I tell you this Kool Aid was special. I had not had such a good meal in years.
We cleaned up, shook hands, filled some growlers, and headed out. I hold two bottles of this great beer E. but wonder if it will have the same magic when I open it. I hope so. As my wife and I drove back to the incredible house we were staying in for the weekend, gifted to us by friends, we reflected how lucky we were in life to have such experiences. It also helps that we know how to write a proper letter and when to bring a gift. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for the proper upbringing.