Saturday, December 11, 2021

A Return to Hill Farmstead

After visiting Hill Farmstead in 2018, I thought I had reached the proverbial mountaintop. I had kept in touch with owner Shaun Hill since, and petitioned for a monthlong internship this past July, which I was lucky enough to land. As you could probably imagine, it was a holy grail, once in a lifetime moment for me, and was meant to be a respite as well from the burnout I had experienced through the pandemic. Hill Farmstead has been voted best brewery in the world eight times. Ostensibly, I was there to learn the craft and possibly start a brewery when I returned, or simply get more deep into homebrewing. What I came away with was much more.

Once I arrived in Greensboro (VT), I’m in there on the brew cellar floor where the magic happens and the first four or five days I’m just furtively asking questions like I might be able to take something away immediately, and by the fifth day or so I realize, oh my gd, how little I know.  In my diary, it literally reads, "I've learned just enough to learn how little I know." You could study beermaking for years and still feel like an amateur, a poser, upon landing at Hill Farmstead.

In breadmaking, I would say there are twenty-five critical control (process) points, whereby if you screw something up at any of those points, your resulting loaf will be suboptimal. For beer, I would say it's closer to one hundred. Shaun and his team are brewing, then fermenting, dry-hopping, transferring, conditioning in a fermenter, foudre, puncheon, or wine barrel, and then bottling, and bottle conditioning until finding the optimal time to open, market, and present the beer to the thirsty public. It's so fucking tough, and makes breadmaking look easy by comparison. Yes, you can make really mediocre beer really easily, just as one can make mediocre bread. But if you drink your way through the HF catalogue, you'll see this unrivaled attention to detail, to craft, that makes it just one of the best in the world. The quality of the beer is directly proportional to the sophistication and predilections of Shaun's palate, as well as his meticulous attention to detail. "There is no Shaun," he said once, his nut-brown eyes glinting, "I am the brewery." I told him he had a book, or several books in him, as the beer not only is great, but is often accompanied by his personal philosophy as it is rendered through ancient and modern philosophers, as well as his ancestors that worked the very land that he brews on and sources some of his ingredients and water.

The beauty of the land there swept me over. While learning to attach tri-clamps to giant fermenters in a land of no cell service, dirt roads, and copious ponds to swim, I fell in love with the Northeast Kingdom as it's known, the beer, and even the people, often curmudgeonly and terse as they are. Returning to Durham after a month away, I wondered who I would be if I lived there permanently.

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