King of the Hill
A pilgrimage to visit Shaun Hill, elusive guru of the beer geeks.
I can’t help but stare at the weathered exterior of Shaun’s childhood home, its second-story window peaking just above the corrugated roof of the keg shed. In the intervening years, Shaun’s parents moved into a different house across the street, but Shaun remained. Today, its gray façade appears lifeless, the windows black and still. But I feel eyes watching me, like Shaun is up there in the shadows, surveying the chaos below—a bemused demigod, like Kurtz in his Congo kingdom.
An abrupt silence falls over the lot as an employee charges outside and announces that they’ll be opening early to accommodate the growing throng. As we crowd inside the taproom to fill our strict five-growler limit, the conversation inevitably turns to the architect behind this shrine to hops and barley. The bready aromas of yeast and caramelized malt hang heavy in the air, but nothing is more palpable than the omnipresent Shaun Hill, the auteur who has been lauded by everyone from Vanity Fair to the New York Times, the wunderkind who built the world’s best brewery two years ago, at just 33 years old.
With about 40 breweries in the state, three of which repeatedly make RateBeer’s list of the best in the world, it’s no wonder that Men’s Journal has declared Vermont the Napa Valley of the beer world. In measuring breweries per capita, Vermont rivals the country’s craft-beer strongholds: It’s in a dead heat with Oregon, and easily eclipses Colorado. This meteoric growth, however, is a new phenomenon.
Shaun can remember with clarity when Magic Hat #9 showed up on the shelves at the Willey’s Store in Greensboro, where he worked when he was 15. The appeal of its offbeat, psychedelic label inspired Shaun to become a home brewer and craft-beer convert well before the legal drinking age. But that desire to own and operate a brewery? That didn’t take hold until much later in life.
After graduating from Haverford College, outside of Philadelphia, with a degree in philosophy, he returned to his hometown and settled into a life of odd jobs: painting houses in the summer, tutoring, and washing tanks at night at the Shed, a local brewpub.
In a moment of serendipity, the head brewer there left his position while Shaun was on vacation in Europe tasting the world’s best beers, his passion for the craft reaching fevered new heights. When he returned home, the Shed let him take over. Shaun, however, was immediately bored by the mundane canon of browns and ambers that dominated the draft lines—not just the Shed’s, but most brewpubs’ in the early aughts.
That’s when he found salvation in the pages of Yankee Brew News, and its profile of John Kimmich’s upcoming seven-barrel brewpub in downtown Waterbury, 40 miles away. Kimmich had created Heady Topper—once the top-rated beer in the world—and Shaun was eager to pick his brain. “Yeah, he was around a lot, to put it bluntly,” Kimmich says. “When he first got that job at the Shed, he started coming in all the time. He would come down into the brewery and ask questions and show interest. I don’t really talk nuts and bolts with just anybody, but I could see he was way into it.”
Another break came when he discovered that Anders Kissmeyer, a standout Scandinavian brewer who had broken off from Carlsberg to found Nørrebro Bryghus, was specifically looking for an American to head up his Copenhagen brewery. Shaun left his life behind in Vermont to work and train overseas, an opportunity he didn’t take lightly. Kissmeyer says he came in with a bullish, uncompromising attitude. The two brewers became fast friends, a rapport that was no doubt strengthened by Shaun’s dogged work ethic and what Kissmeyer calls his “impeccable skills” in the brewhouse. Within six months Shaun took over Nørrebro Bryghus’s barrel-aging program, and in 2010, he won two gold medals and a silver at the World Beer Cup, a global contest often referred to as the “Olympics of beer competitions.”
But the pull of home overtook Shaun. So he found a group of investors, who raised $80,000 to turn his family’s farm in Greensboro—a town his ancestors helped found in the 1780s—into the type of farmhouse brewery he’d long admired. Within the year, RateBeer anointed Hill Farmstead 2010’s Best New Brewery in the World, the national media began taking note, and Vermont suddenly became a tourist destination for beer fans as far away as Australia and Japan.
“When he went off to Europe, that’s when he really began expanding his horizons,” Kimmich says. “He obviously made a good decision, because when he did get back he was ready to get rolling.”
Despite the fan-boy craziness out front, making beer at Hill Farmstead is not glamorous work. On the morning of December 9, there are already a swelling number of crises.
A water-heating unit on one of the tanks is busted, and the lug nut holding it in place is calcified with old beer. Shaun is grunting and pulling on a heavy-duty pipe wrench, but the thing isn’t budging. Chalky white deposits are now spewing into Shaun’s newest batch of Edward pale ale, and he’s yelling at me to twist nozzles and push buttons on a control panel above my head. “Hey, there you go, you just had your first professional brewing assignment,” he says, panting and dripping with sweat after having finally released the rusted coil.
A local farmer has arrived with a truck full of frozen plums for Shaun’s latest iteration of Flora, a wild farmhouse saison aged on various organic fruits; a walkie-talkie at his hip keeps erupting with questions from his cellar man; and several of the new tanks that arrive are the wrong size and won’t fit into the snug dimensions of the loading bay.
Due to his brewery’s breakneck growth, Shaun is expanding his operations for the second time in as many years. Given the limitations of the rough-hewn roads surrounding Hill Farmstead, Shaun insists it’ll be the last, at least above ground. Not only will the additional square footage make space for a sleek new taproom in early summer, it will also allow the business to double its capacity and distribute its beers outside of Vermont for the first time ever. Even today, bartenders selling Shaun’s beer in other states, which happens all too often, have been doing so illegally.
“It worries me to think what would happen if we didn’t have limits on the amount of beer you could buy,” says Shaun, who has launched a social media campaign to publicly shame retailers and bar owners who unlawfully sell his beer. “We’ve had people buying growlers and going back to Washington, DC, and serving our beer from their bars out of growlers [which have a short shelf life]. I feel like there’s this unsaid, unwritten understanding between publicans and brewers: ‘Don’t be a douche.’ There are certain things that you just don’t do. Selling from a growler? But the almighty dollar, man, that’s all that matters to some people.”
Eternally in a semi-permanent state of dishevelment, as if he hasn’t slept in days, Shaun’s guise doesn’t exactly scream perfectionist. The errant wrappers and foodstuff surrounding his laptop speak to a steady diet of wild-boar jerky, roasted peanuts, and Cuties clementines. His clothes emanate a pungent musk that seems to even give him pause, as he leans in at one point during our conversation and sniffs one of his armpits. But Shaun is striving for perfection in his beer, and it pains him to see it mishandled and compromised by illegal vendors.
Before kegs of Abner, Edward, and Everett Porter, for instance, can make their way into Massachusetts and New York, Shaun is drafting a quality-control manual for businesses interested in pouring his beers. Examples of his edicts include the type of non-chlorinated soap to use when washing glassware, the temperature at which to store kegs and bottles, and how often to flush draft lines.
This type of control and stewardship is the natural next step in Shaun’s development as a brewer. He wants to take his beer into uncharted territory, shifting into something closer to wine, with the “elegance” and “palatability” more comparable to white burgundy than the high-alcohol hop bombs that dominate craft beer today. He’s even become a regular at Moët Hennessy in Champagne, where he’s learning cellaring tricks from heralded Dom Pérignon chef de cave Richard Geoffroy.
In his quest to follow in the footsteps of the wine business, Shaun sees his future underground, like the cellars of France. He might never add another fermentation tank or encroach upon the pastoral landscape of his farm again, but he does plan to dig below the surface, where he can build a 5,000-square-foot cave dedicated to cherished barrel-aged projects such as Art, Civil Disobedience, and Genealogy of Morals. And like the wine world’s grand cru burgundies, or its most storied champagne houses, Shaun says beer—at least his beer—should approach something close to the sublime.
“One of the most interesting things anyone has said to me was Richard [Geoffroy] from Dom Pérignon, who said, ‘In the end, luxury is emotion,’ which I think is amazing,” Shaun says. “How does it make you feel? If it makes you feel good, then it’s luxurious. What makes chocolate or our beer a luxury? It’s the emotion that it evokes. If it does nothing for you, well, then I pity you. You have to enjoy things in this world. Pushing yourself to grow and pushing yourself to be transformative, well, that’s what brings me joy.”
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