DEEP FAMILY ROOTS
Nourish Hill Farmstead
By Marian Burros | Photography by Brent Harrewyn
Glasses of Vera Mae, Elaborative One and Elaborative Two were sitting on a picnic table near the entrance to Hill Farmstead Brewery, right next to the taco stand. Shaun Hill, renowned brew master and owner of Greensboro’s world famous brewery, and his good friend and fellow brew master Jan Paul from Denmark were contemplating the fruits of Hill’s most sophisticated and complex brewing to date, using descriptives such as walnut, curry, pumpkin and spelt, vegetal and sour.
The highly regarded brewers allowed a reporter, unschooled in the ways of today’s craft beers, to observe and sample. The conversation was way over the head of the reporter, one whose tastes run to Edward, Hill Farmstead’s best known and best loved American pale ale. It was no different than listening to two vintners discuss the complexity of their wines.
So the reporter, leaving a review of the beer to the critics, was visiting to learn who the mysterious Shaun Hill is, where he comes from and what drove him to win the title of “best brewery in the world” in 2013. And, at the same time, to find out how a philosophy major, who graduated from the exclusive Haverford College in Pennsylvania, ended up brewing beer on his family’s farm in the Northeast Kingdom.
Hill, 35, is an eighth-generation member of the Hill family since it emigrated from Southampton Shire in England to settle first in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and then finally in Greensboro in the early 1780s.
“My ancestors were very industrious people and built some of the houses on Main Street in Greensboro,” Hill said. “My brother, Darren, a woodworker, personifies them,” the implication clear that he does not consider himself a hard worker. But like Shaun, who is not just a brew master, Darren is not just a woodworker. On a trip to Barcelona with his brother, Darren was so taken with the work of Antoni Gaudi, the famous architect, that Darren now makes furniture in the style of the great master. Some of the décor and furniture in the new brewery are done in the Gaudi style.
In his own way, Shaun Hill, a perfectionist, is very like his forebears, working countless hours in an effort to satisfy the long lines of people who, he said, wait up to four hours to buy his beer. But because he plans no more expansions—he does not want to become an industrial producer and have a deleterious effect on the environment—the total capacity of the newly enlarged brewery will be 150,000 to 200,000 gallons a year.
The brewery is built upon land that has been inhabited by the Hill family since the early 1800s. In every way Hill’s attachment to his ancestral home has dictated his choices.
“Everything flows from wanting to live here,” he said, and there aren’t many choices in rural Vermont. But for many young people agriculture, in one form or another, has become the choice, and artisanal is the byword for some of the most successful among them.
“I still have my grandfather’s roll-top desk,” Hill said. He experienced what he calls a “tingly coincidence” when he discovered tucked within that desk a piece of paper containing instructions on “How to Brew Beer.”
Long before he found that paper, Hill was already brewing, initially as a science project in high school. “In some ways,” he said, “I feel as if I am breathing life into my ancestors. There’s still something mysterious about fermentation—it’s an endless mystery.”
Hill’s deep attachment to his family also turns up in the names he gives many of his over 100 varieties of beers: Edward, Abner, Anna. Sometimes his interest in philosophy is reflected in a beer, like Beyond Good and Evil, named after the classic book by Nietzsche. His interest in social causes turns up in a beer called Civil Disobedience.
Hill’s route to brewing was not direct. One day, after he graduated from college, he was working with his brother painting houses. “I was on top of a ladder and my brother said to me: “What the f… are you doing here, man? Why did you waste your education?” Hill had been asking himself those same questions. So he took all his savings and traveled around the world, visiting temples in Thailand, hitchhiking around New Zealand. He realized that what he wanted to do was go home and brew beer.
After training in other breweries, he opened Hill Farmstead in 2010. Three years later it was named Best Brewery in the World by RateBeer.
Hill’s goal is to create “elegant and succinct beers that sing but are not aggressive or harsh on your palate.” With more than 100 beers in his repertoire, and a devoted customer base, Shaun Hill seems to have achieved his objective.
To taste more visit HillFarmstead.com
After sampling the new complex wine-like beers, Marian Burros is sticking with Edward.