The new honey saison on Hill Farmstead’s roster of craft beers is the very model of genteel elegance: a gauzy-golden farmhouse ale redolent of local wildflower honey, citrus peel, and ripe banana, with a vaguely medicinal finish that imposes structure the way a cinch belt curbs a frilly frock. Or rather, it will be, once it grows up. Right now, the young brew gurgling away in its steel boiler is working Shaun Hill’s last nerve. Named for the brewmaster’s great-aunt, “Ann” is hacking up unladylike chunks of coagulated protein all over the boiler room’s concrete floor. “This is not going to be fun,” Hill sighs, eyeing a clogged drainage valve. “It’s the lower mash temperature … Leaves a lot more precipitate in the kettle. That’s an extra hour of cleanup, guaranteed.”
For Hill, above, a 33-year-old brewer in the hamlet of Greensboro Bend, Vermont, opting for a less-finicky malt, or bumping up the heat to make the process easier, simply isn’t in the cards. Only low temperatures will yield the cleaner, drier profile he’s striving for. Hill’s shortcut-averse approach has served him well, propelling him, during a two-year stint at a top Copenhagen brewery, to become one of the youngest people ever to win gold at the biennial World Beer Cup, the Olympics of craft brewing. The foodie world, too, has taken notice. When culinary superstar Matt
Jennings (chef/owner of Farmstead in Providence, Rhode Island) received a prestigious invitation to cook at New York’s James Beard House, he skipped the usual grand-cru Bordeaux, instead serving the meal with a Hill Farmstead beer custom-brewed for the occasion. “It was a natural fit,” Jennings recalls. “Both [Hill’s] beers and my menu are rustic, and both have a deep connection to local, small-batch ingredients.”
Such a laborious, hands-on process also makes for extremely limited production: Although some of Hill’s mainline beers are available on tap primarily at a handful of lucky watering holes in Vermont, the coveted bottles–sleek, 750-milliliter vessels that look, and drink, like fine bottles of wine–are sold only at the brewery. That certainly hasn’t hurt their cachet among beer geeks, who are more than happy to make the trek to the three-year-old brewery’s home, on a defunct (since 1978) dairy farm that’s been in Hill’s family for eight generations. In fact, the transformation from milk to malt has had important practical implications, as well, providing enough income that Hill has been able to avoid the prospect of selling off his ancestral homestead.
While Hill tends to his colicky charge in the brew room, the retail shop next door in the weathered barn is abuzz with a small coterie of suds enthusiasts, bandying obscure hop-flavor profiles about, as name-droppers do. Dan Suarez, Hill’s friend and right-hand man, humors them genially, before holding forth on the flavor profiles of the brewery’s Galaxy Imperial IPA (citrus, tropical fruit), Earl oatmeal stout (chocolate, raisin, coffee), and signature Edward pale ale, with its fragrant hops and potent blasts of coriander. All so different, yet all share a clean, refreshing, winelike elegance–a preference Hill honed at the Danish brewery, which tapped him to share his uncanny gift for coaxing flavor out of Pacific Northwest-style hops.
Outside the shop, Hill finds himself waylaid once again, this time by a pair of 60-something fans–concerned neighbors who’ve stopped by with a bit of friendly advice: “You know, we were thinking, you really oughta get the guys in the hiking community on this, to help you spread the word.” The implication, clear as day, is that Edward Hill’s grandkid might just have something big on his hands with this whole beermaking thing. Hill flashes a weary–yet genuine–smile, thanking the oldtimers for their support. They have no idea how big.