GREENSBORO, Vt. — Everyone expects Vermonters to wow the world with their maple syrup and cheeses. But lately the buzz has been about the brews.
Not that the craft beer movement is anything new to this tiny New England state, which sports the highest number of brewers per capita — roughly 25,030 people per brewery. But lately the attention those brewers have garnered is different. It’s not a hey-they-have-great-beers-in-Vermont. It’s a hey-they-have-the-best-beer-in-the-world.
No, really. Hill Farmstead Brewery recently was rated the world’s best brewer on the popular international consumer review website RateBeer.com.
And that has triggered a rush of beer enthusiasm — and enthusiasts — that has bordered on fanaticism. Since Hill Farmstead opened three years ago, beer tourists have been coming from around the world to visit the micro-brewery on a farm off a dirt road in Greensboro to buy growlers and bottles of brewer Shaun Hill’s creations.
“It’s like a cult following,” said Ben King, who with his wife Sarah flew up from North Carolina to sample Vermont’s beers. They even rented a car so they could stock it, then make the 13-hour drive home.
“As you can see it’s definitely growing and I’m part of that crowd,” said King, who was among the first in line at Hill Farmstead on a recent Saturday. “The beer’s so good.”
What’s so good about it is the attention to detail and the flavor, said Joe Tucker, executive director of RateBeer, which in February named Hill Farmstead the world’s best brewer — out of a pool of 13,000 — based on reviews of flavor, aroma, mouth feel and appearance.
“We’re sort of at a point where people have progressed beyond just prizing big strong beer and so what they’re looking for now is a more nuanced flavor,” he said.
And flavor is something that Hill Farmstead does well, he said. “They’ve got a barrel-aging program and they’re getting a lot of interesting flavors out of the barrels. They’ve used wine barrels before,” he said. They’ve also used zest and rind from citrus fruits. Hill is modest about how the beer is made — it’s hops, water, yeast — and agrees that it’s very good, but not the world’s best.
“We definitely put a lot of attention to detail. The process is very refined. It’s not like a fortunate mistake or something. It’s not like we don’t know what we’re doing and, ‘Ah, we found gold out in the hills.’ I’ve devoted my life to trying to make the best beer,” said the 33-year-old.
Just as the artisanal cheese movement created its own culture in Vermont during the past 20 or so years, the craft beer industry has begun to do the same.
“A lot of that plays out to how and why you’re starting to now see these little pockets of small breweries that are not trying to take over the world. They’re simply trying to make world-class craft beers in the type and fashion that they want to enjoy them and there’s many like-minded beer lovers out there that that’s resonating with,” said Julia Herz, a spokeswoman for the Brewers Association, a national nonprofit trade association.
And the Vermont Department of Tourism is tapping into that. The state already offers a “passport” encouraging beer lovers to visit lesser known brewers and collect stamps that can be traded in for prizes. They also are planning a contest in Washington, D.C., in which the prize will be meeting some of Vermont’s star brewers.
Along with Hill Farmstead, beer fans also have been seeking out brews by The Alchemist in Waterbury — known for its cult sensation Heady Topper, a double India pale ale sold in a can and rated Vermont’s best beer by RateBeer — as well as Lawson’s Finest Liquids of Warren.
The day before visiting Hill Farmstead, the Kings visited The Alchemist and bought six cases of Heady Topper. They hoped to get more, but found some stores limit sales, like the Hunger Mountain Food Coop, which has a limit of two four-packs a person to allow more customers to get it. But at a local pub, they did get a chance to sample Lawson’s Double Sunshine IPA.
“It was amazing,” he said of the beer, which sells out within hours of being delivered on Fridays at Hunger Mountain.
Hill shies away from his stardom, preferring to brew beer than to take pictures with beer lovers. He got his start brewing in Vermont as a teenager, then working at the Shed Brewery in Stowe before going to Denmark in 2008 to hone his craft. He never expected his efforts would trigger this sort of following. He just wanted to sell a few growlers a week.
“The beer is very good of course, but there’s also so much else that goes into someone’s understanding and perception of an object or of beauty, right? I mean it’s location and place and branding and the fact that everything about it is authentic,” he said of his beer made with water from the family’s well.
Visitors take in the beautiful views from the hill top farm and get to sample some of the beer — on a recent day served by Hill’s mother — as they wait in line, sometimes a couple of hours — to get growlers filled or to purchase bottles. Mike Klisc, 27, of Manchester, N.H., and three friends said the wait was worth it.
“It’s world class. I think there is a little bit of hype behind it. But it really is some of the tastiest beer I’ve ever had,” he said.