I don’t have an editorial staff that restricts that I write and since I think Hill Farmstead, winner of best craft brewery in Vermont according to Seven Days readers deserves fair coverage, here’s my take on
“2015: The Year in Beer” (Hill Farmstead Edition)
I didn’t think that Hill Farmstead could top their huge banner 2014. It was the year that we all received a new retail shop and suddenly credit cards were accepted from the previous cash-only system. Gift cards were added to the lot and while the lines were still long, at least we were all inside away from the cold. Changes were made to ensure everyone got their beer as quickly as possible. 2014 was a great year to be a Hill Farmstead drinker.
Hill Farmstead in 2014 was this time of joy for those of us who are huge fans of the beer and the people who have their hand in making it. One of my favorite beers of 2014 isn’t just one, it’s the plethora of well crafted IPAs and Shaun did something in 2014…I can’t put my finger on it but the IPAs got better. The mouthfeel went leaps and bounds ahead of his previous beers and they became refreshing in a way most IPAs are overly resinous, too sweet, too bitter or too malty. His beers just found this upper level of refreshment taste that has remained ever since. It’s really hard to explain but the single hop pale ales were next level amazing in 2014 and continued to be in 2015.
A final aspect of 2014 that has continued into 2015 is the case-limit saison. Shaun’s acquisition of large oak foundres, a larger fermentation space and an automatic bottling line (seriously, they were bottling by hand on a 4-bottle system before) meant that it wasn’t out of the ordinary for 2 thousand bottles of Arthur to become available and at a 1 or 2 case limit to anyone that comes in. The limit sometimes raises to no-limit and you can fill your trunk with saisons that RateBeer has in its top 50 in the world in style. This was a huge deal in 2014 and remains the best value in beer as we enter 2016. Buying a beer that saw some time in oak and was bottle conditioned with flowers, juice or other all natural ingredients added with a touch of wild yeast for $10 a 750ML bottle is completely impossible. If it is possible, you wait in line for it and here we are being able to buy a case of Convivial Suarez, Brother Soigné, Arthur, Anna, Flora, Dorothy, Florence, Edith and more whenever we want. Locals take this for granted now but there was a time when Arthur was brewed 4 times a year and you’d get 2-4 bottles and make them last for 3-4 months until the next batch was out. I do not miss those days.
Views like below were impossible back int he day. Seven Hill Farmstead bottled beers available at the same time? Wow.
The photo below was taken at Zwanze 2014. The brewery as we see it today looks identical to how it looked over a year ago but that building behind the beautiful pour of 2014 Zwanze was empty and Hill Farmstead was just starting to put finishing touches on their brew-house that had shipped from Germany and with new hires and refinements, they were ready to take on 2015.
Hill Farmstead began the year by winning RateBeer’s top Brewery in the world (again). Of course, this means they’re the #1 Brewery in Vermont and in North America. It’s a huge honor and one that locals take an immense pride in. Sure, the Belgians have Westvleteren 12 (the #1 rated beer in the world) but Vermont has the #1 brewery….not jus a single beer but a culmination of 150 unique beers brewed since 2011 that are excellent examples of their style while setting the bar higher for other breweries around the world. Very few active breweries have 150 unique beers in their recipe book. Hill Farmstead has achieved that number in just 5 years.
This is Ann, batch 2 of what is the #1 Saison on RateBeer and was released in early 2015. There were no lines around the block for it. Only a lottery. Anyone in the world could apply and everyone had a fair shot at winning a single bottle. I did not win but luckily my girlfriend shared her bottle with me. compared to batch 1, this was leaps and bounds a better beer. Delicious.
As we rolled into Spring, so did the fermentation tanks as Hill Farmstead expanded not only their brewing capacity but their ability to brew more beer overall. The biggest limit on the old system wasn’t just the size of the boiling tank…that increased with the expansion but the overall batch size of Shaun’s beers barely changed. What did increase is the amount of beers that could be fermenting at once which allows Hill Farmstead to have what we see today in their brand new tasting room which is over a dozen pale ales on tap at the same time. I heard from a little birdie that a big issue on the old setup was loss of beer during fermentation. Many thousands of gallons of beer have been lost over the years from fermentation loss due to a lack of head space in the old tanks. Today’s gigantic tanks (compared to those in use in 2011-2013) have a much larger head space so beer loss is essentially gone. This means more beers going into kegs and into our bellies.
As the snow melted, Biere de Norma was released and soon, the die-hard Hill Farmstead beer fans came up on a Monday to pick Dandelions with Shaun for this year’s Vera Mae. It’s an annual event with a small group of a dozen people but one I never miss. We picked flowers with the new brewery behind us atop the Hill which is a huge stark contrast to how that hill looked only a year earlier: (2014)
…and a year earlier than that: (2013)
Before we continue, I thought it would be interesting to go through a year of news about Hill Farmstead and find some choice articles covering the immense changes taking place in the Northeast Kingdom. No surprise that Seven Days didn’t show up in any of my News.Google.com searches:
- ‘Another day at the office’ for Hill Farmstead – Burlington Free Press
- Hill Farmstead honor system to limit bottle sales – Burlington Free Press
- Friendly rivals team up in a wild ale facility – Boston Globe
- Why D.C.’s ‘gray market’ is a good thing for beer lovers – Washington Post
- How a Small Vermont Town Birthed the ‘World’s Best Beer’ – Cone Nast Traveler
- Sitting Down with Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead
Let’s discuss briefly the limit of bottle sales at Hill Farmstead. Prior to this year, locals could visit Hill Farmstead every day (Wednesday – Saturday) and buy the daily allocation of any limited release beer. Back in the day. Anna and Arthur were limit 1-2 bottles a person and Art was limit 1 bottle a person and if you were close enough to visit every day that week, you’d get four times the bottles are a non-local or person who worked for a living. This wasn’t a bad system until people who profit off special beers started coming up every day and getting allocations just to sell or trade them. As linked above, a change came in April that if you wanted more than the allocation of Biere de Norma, you were out of luck. The new point of sale system logged your name in the system and you couldn’t come back up for more.
At first, I was saddened by the change. I couldn’t get 12 bottles of Biere de Norma anymore but then I thought about this logically and now, I don’t max out on Shaun’s rare beers like I used to. Not because they are worse-quality or not rare enough but because I don’t trade his beer and I don’t sell his beer and yes, I do age some of it but I drink what I buy and that means access to 4 bottles of a $30 beer is $120+Tax and do I really want 4 bottles and will I really drink all 4? The answer is mostly no and I think other locals feel the same way. Shaun’s limits are very generous for normal people. It’s the opportunistic beer resellers that want as much as Shaun will sell them and for them, there’s no-limit saisons but limit 2 or 4 on beers allows everyone to get a beer to drink now and a bottle to age and cherish and share with friends and enjoy. I don’t think Shaun’s limits are too low. I think they’re perfect and limiting people from coming back multiple days would only upset me when Art comes out again because having a few bottles of that has been great. I’ve had the 2014 blend 3 times and have still 2 more left to drink. It was $30 but is my favorite beer of all time. For every other beer, I have no issues with the current limits.
Speaking of limits, this was also the year of the no-limit growler fill. Sure some people have abused it but in speaking to the retail staff, the wait is greatly reduced for everyone who walks through the door and getting 30 growlers filled doesn’t cause the staff to even break a sweat.
Let’s talk about the new retail space that opened in September of 2015 wth a few photos: This is Hill Farmstead as we know it today.
And here is what Hill Farmstead’s retail shop was like in 2012:
You enter the building that used to house the brewery that now houses a small pilot brewing system previously owned by Pizza Boy, you pick up your bottles and you’re out in under 5 minutes. Or, you waltz over to the tasting room, grab a deli-counter number and drop off growlers to be filled. In the mean-time, you order a full glass of an IPA or a bottle of a special cellar aged beer that’s for on-site consumption only (aka not for take-away) and you wait for your growlers to be filled. Once you polish off the bottle, growlers are ready and you’re out the door. A visit to Hill Farmstead for Growlers & bottles is still a 45-minute affair but it’s far shorter than 2-3 hours of previous years and having a full glass of Fruited-Flora while you wait makes the time go by much faster.
Like previous years, Cantillon chose Hill Farmstead as an American host of their annual Zwanze festival. I don’t have much to say other than I hope this happens again every year. It’s a wonderful festival.
As for the beers released by Hill Farmstead in 2015, there were plenty of new beers brewed. Everything below was added to RateBeer as a new unique entry in 2015. Obviously, a lot of beer was brewed but Hill Farmstead added 34 new beers to their catalogue during this year: (Ordered by oldest to most recent)
- Hill Farmstead Flora – Blue/Black
- Hill Farmstead Dorothy (2015)
- Hill Farmstead Mosaic Single Hop Pale Ale
- Hill Farmstead Civil Disobedience (Release 11)
- Hill Farmstead Civil Disobedience (Release 12)
- Hill Farmstead Cascade Single Hop Pale Ale
- Hill Farmstead Conduct of Life
- Hill Farmstead Excursions #3
- Hill Farmstead Flora – Plum
- Hill Farmstead Flora – Cherry
- Hill Farmstead Excursions #4
- Hill Farmstead Civil Disobedience (Release 13)
- Hill Farmstead Civil Disobedience (Release 14)
- Hill Farmstead Arthur – Styrian Golding
- Hill Farmstead Being & Time
- Hill Farmstead Works of Love (Sante Adairius-2013)
- Hill Farmstead Works of Love (De Molen-2013)
- Hill Farmstead Song of Joy
- Hill Farmstead Florence (Stainless)
- Hill Farmstead Flora Cuvée
- Hill Farmstead Works of Love (Lady Grey Tea)
- Hill Farmstead Table Dorothy
- Hill Farmstead / Alpine Mutual Admiration
- Hill Farmstead Leaves of Grass – July 4th, 2015
- Hill Farmstead Leaves of Grass – July 16th, 2015
- Hill Farmstead / Jackie O’s / Crooked Stave / Side Project Elaborative #4
- Hill Farmstead Civil Disobedience (Release 15)
- Hill Farmstead Gin Clara
- Hill Farmstead Genealogy (2015)
- Hill Farmstead Madness & Solitude
- Hill Farmstead / Jackie O’s Elaborative #3
- Hill Farmstead Excursions #5
- Hill Farmstead Flora – Blueberry/Black Currant/Raspberry
- Hill Farmstead Leaves of Grass – November 22nd, 2015
What’s in store for 2016 at our favorite brewery in the world? Only Shaun and company know. There’s much more I could cover like staffing changes, more of my personal opinions and discussion around more bars (accounts) getting more kegs, adding new accounts and Shaun sending a lot of beer outside of VT which is a good thing. I’ll save all of that for another entry.
In closing, every brewery in Vermont had a lot of good and some bad this year. Every brewery deserved to have their story told and Hill Farmstead was shunned by a local newspaper despite what I’d consider to be a HUGE eventful year that was their greatest ever in terms of staffing, beer releases, brewery expansion and just overall fantastic improvements in every way.
The fact that Seven Days chose not to tell this story is frustrating to beer-geeks. I’m glad that I have this blog to share this with you and I hope this inspires others to force the media to give a fair and honest reporting and tell the whole story. I’m adding Seven Days to my home router’s DNS block-list so I won’t be tempted to give them any more page-views. I suggest you do the same. They’ve lost my trust as a news agency.