King of the Hill

A pilgrimage to visit Shaun Hill, elusive guru of the beer geeks.

shaun hill

Meet Shaun Hill: notorious perfectionist, philosopher, and producer of the most-sought-after beer in the country. / Photograph by Pat Piasecki

To get to Vermont’s Hill Farmstead brewery, the best brewery in New England and arguably in the country, you have to follow meandering back roads, each marked with gnarled street signs that are either falling down or pointing into overgrown pastures. Hill Farmstead is located in Greensboro, just 40 miles from the Canadian border, and the town’s dirt roads look as if they were freshly carved out of the earth with a backhoe. GPS won’t help you here—coverage is spotty, when you can get it at all, and Google hasn’t bothered to map large swaths of the geography. As you traverse unmarked paths, stretching in front of you as craggy and pocked as the surface of the moon, you’ll feel your resolve being challenged with every wrong turn.

Once you crest the hill and come upon the blond siding of the brewery, you may find yourself awash with emotion, not only because you’re that much closer to procuring some of the world’s most-sought-after beers—but also because your sense of equilibrium has returned. You’re back on terra firma.

When I visited in October, snow had already blanketed much of the stark landscape, and Brian Hill was directing visitors into impromptu parking spots to the right of the barn. After recovering from a logging accident, Brian accepted a part-time job at the brewery washing kegs, pumping wastewater, and acting as the site’s unofficial parking-lot liaison. People don’t come here for Brian, though. They come here because of his son, Shaun Hill, a single-minded, ambitious brewmaster who, at 35, has helped make Greensboro one of the can’t-miss destinations for beer pilgrims around the globe.

Even at 10 a.m., two hours before Hill Farmstead opened its doors, there were more than 100 people in line, mostly men outfitted in logoed beer hoodies and mesh trucker hats embroidered with some of their favorite haunts: Allagash, Maine Beer Company, and the Prohibition Pig. I took my place next to a trellised overhang sheltering a mountain of stainless steel kegs. The early-morning congregation was making small talk and shuffling from foot to foot, the clinking of their growler-filled canvas beer coolers echoing across the frigid late-autumn air like wind chimes.

“You here for Art?” asked the guy behind me. Art, a barrel-aged farmhouse saison, scored 100 out of a possible 100 points on RateBeer, a leading review site. “Because if you don’t want yours,” my neighbor continued, “I’ll buy it off you. I’m serious. We’re only allowed to buy one bottle, and I want to get as many as I can before heading back to Jersey.”

hill farmstead sign

the rustic sign serves as a beacon for beer nerds who have traveled from around the globe. / Photograph by Pat Piasecki

For most of the smaller craft breweries, attaining a perfect score with even one beer can prove difficult, but Hill Farmstead seems to dash them off by the dozens. This feat is even more impressive considering Hill Farmstead’s minuscule annual production of around 3,000 barrels a year. To put that in perspective, Delaware’s Dogfish Head brewery produced 200,000 barrels in 2013. Craft-beer pioneer Ken Grossman and his company, Sierra Nevada, reached as many as a million barrels in 2014.

But even among Shaun’s secluded fun house filled with wild yeasts and hundreds of used wine and bourbon barrels, Art is a true anomaly. Whereas most Hill Farmstead beers—much like popular IPAs from Sierra Nevada and Harpoon—ferment over several weeks, Art takes years. Shaun’s manic drive to reach transcendence, even if it means pushing a beer to its absolute breaking point, is one of the things that separate his beers from the rest of the pack. But that’s no guarantee that the Art you drink will always be perfect. “Oh man, did you try the last batch?” a guy in front of me interjects. “Something was definitely off. It was corked or something. I wanted to return it.”

It’s a common complaint among Shaun’s many devotees, who trek to Vermont knowing that his unorthodox methods sometimes produce the world’s greatest beer—and, other times, less than perfection. Like wine, which lives and mutates inside its bottle, Shaun’s beer can be unpredictable, and has become part of the brand’s mystique.

As we wait in 40-degree temperatures, the conversation in line turns to Shaun’s rumored upcoming releases—“I heard he’s working on a batch of Earl”—which kegs are running low—Double Citra is supposed to kick before noon—and whether the truly ambitious among us have time to drive up to Newcastle, Maine, for an event at Oxbow Brewing Company. There’s even some conjecture about Shaun’s love life. The guy behind me—the one angling for my supply of Art—is speculating about rumors that Shaun has dated a cheese maker at Jasper Hill Farm. “They were like Vermont royalty,” he says. “The king and queen of all things craft.”