In January of this year, Hill Farmstead was dubbed Best Brewery in the World by RateBeer.com—the world’s most comprehensive beer-review-and-rating Web site—just two years after being awarded the title New Brewer of the Year. In February, I sat down with its head brewer/founder/etc., Shaun E. Hill, in the 33-year-old’s home, located impossibly close to the brewery itself. When the doors opened at noon, the line for the retail shop was already so long for beers like Edward (its flagship American pale ale named after Hill’s grandfather) and Fear and Trembling (its smoked Baltic porter named after Søren Kierkegaard’s work) that it took the friends I arrived with the hour-and-a-half length of the interview to get growlers filled. Even Shaun himself was scratching his head at the crowd . . .
Shaun Hill: Oh man, I can’t even go out there. It’s just too much. I wish it wasn’t like that. My driveway is completely full. Someday hopefully I can build a house down in the woods. . . . And it’s only one o’clock—it’s just going to keep getting worse. Is the line out the door?
VF Daily: Yeah.
Fuck. . . . I don’t know what to do about it all. There really is no other brewery that is in thatposition. We seem to be the only ones who ceaselessly have people buying like 20 growlers and 12 cases of beer. Sorry, I have a very somber tone here, right? Anyone else sitting in this position would probably be like, “Man, everything is so great and we’re doing this and this,” and I’m just like, “Man, success is fucking stressful . . . ”
Well, the first thing I wanted to say is congratulations on all the recent accolades. You’ve hit this sort of consumer-driven zenith, and I’m wondering what that means in terms of the future?
Creating a little more space for me to have enough distance so that I can actually decide when I feel like being social. Because currently the retail shop is also where I work. If you’re in the middle of brewing and you’re not having a great day, that’s when all these people are really excited to talk to you and meet the brewer.
I wear everything on my sleeve. I can’t paint on a face and pretend. And I’ve gotten a lot of shit about that.
We’re adding more buildings [to the campus], but that’s also pretty stressful because Vermont in general is not really an industrial place. It’s not that easy to find people who know what you need done. But that’s what we’re doing, moving in a direction that will allow us to increase production if we wanted to. And I don’t actually want to. I don’t want to be a larger brewer. I just sort of want to build a playground.
At the moment, we have no debt; everything is paid for. Up until October, I only had two employees, and the October before that, I only had one, and the February before that, it was just me doing the work of five people. So I’m slowly adding people to take over different facets of the brewery, which will help separate my life from my work . . . if I ever have a personal life again.
I just feel like I’m managing chaos all the time. The crowds, however, hold great implications for Vermont tourism.
Why did you open Hill Farmstead?
When I was younger, I knew that I wanted to be a brewer. I started a home-brew club in college and fantasized about coming back here and putting a brewery in this woodshed and painting houses and just trying to create time for myself to read and write. I’ve kept all these kind of journaling notebooks since I was 18, and it’s really fascinating to go back and look at them, like, “Whoa—some of those things actually worked out.” I didn’t build an outdoor bread oven, and I’m not raising chickens or whatever.
I’ve been really lucky through my life to have a sense of place. From day one I’ve been saying that we are part of a neo-American ideal, which is the opposite of infinite, boundless growth. Why that manifest destiny? I’ve had offers to design an I.P.A. for $5 a case, or for a check for 20 grand right on the spot. And I’m like, “This is absurd!” I mean, I’ll look at a recipe and help someone out, but I’ve worked way too hard for too long and have too much integrity and self-pride to help someone brand a beer so they can make money by having someone else do all the work for them.
If everything is inherently meaningless and you choose what to give value to, why not choose to give value to that thing you’ve dedicated so much of your time and effort into producing? In today’s marketplace, there’s a segment of the population who in the absence of God—if God is dead, so to speak—have moved into this phase of what’s been called “person-centered civil religion,” where people start to find meaning and value in different things in their lives. Maybe it’s football and the New England Patriots are “God,” or maybe it’s boutique beers. It’s an age where people are spending their dollars in such a way that it also has the potential to bring meaning back into their lives.
Beer is quite a uniter. How do you reconcile with, say, fans of your beer who might be at complete philosophical odds with you?
We host events, which is often the time I’ll get a chance to talk to people the most, and I think the only time that there are glaring differences is when someone is a little hostile about not being able to get our beer as often as they want to. “Why don’t you just move into an industrial park? Why don’t you grow? You guys could sell so much beer.” They come from the point of view that business has a responsibility to meet their desires as opposed to business having a responsibility to create a positive-feedback loop that meets its own desires.
What is your design process? How do you go about dedicating beers to specific ancestors and philosophers?
Not that I’m a huge Grateful Dead fan, but I’ve read about Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, and with them sometimes the lyrics come before the music; sometimes the music comes before the lyrics. And that’s sort of how it is in terms of creating and brewing beers. As far as recipe development and flavor development, it’s all about an obsession with taste. Like: “Wow, mimosas are amazing”—and I love citrus—so we try to make a beer that would heighten those characteristics. And maybe in some of the bourbon-barrel beers, it’s an infatuation with marzipan and almond and coconut. And it’s also really important to taste other people’s beers. Although I don’t know how to say this without sounding far too egotistical or something, but . . . I remember when I was studying philosophy in school, I’d go to a professor and be like, “I really want to talk about Nietzsche’s madness and signing his name as ‘The Crucified’ in these letters,” and the professor would be like, “You’re focusing on the wrong things. In order to expand the canon, you have to understand the canon and work within it.”
A lot of brewers now go straight from home brewing into making a chili-chocolate-chipotle porter or whatever, and it’s like . . . well, just fucking make a good porter first, and understand what a porter is instead of trying to re-invent it.
As far as naming goes, when a particular beer really is striking and you know you would like to continue to make it for the rest of your life, then it’s an ancestor. With the philosophical works, sometimes those names have come at the same time as the beer. We’re about to launch Madness and Civilization, a Foucault series, because we have so many large, dark, strong beers in barrels that in some way end up getting fragmentized, either out of blending or by filling barrels, and there’ll be an extra 10 gallons left in the tank, so it goes into this other barrel that gets topped off with three different beers . . . what the heck do you do with those? Do you come up with a different name every time? January, February, March? Or name them after the planets? So it’s part of an “ultra-rational logistical structure.” It’s all already pretty chaotic, so to be able to make sense of it and feel that there is some semblance of control—at least in the design and the naming—the beer profile makes sense.
So, what beers taste like “tomorrow”?
That’s the problem. I drank all the other great world-class beers, and I think our beer is on par with those now. It’s more difficult for me to take inspiration from colleagues or other people in the industry than it was. Now it’s more about new yeasts, new bacteria, new ingredients, different types of wood, etc. But we’re not trying to slap people across the face with flavor and intensity. Just make succinct, enjoyable beer. People will walk into our shop and be like, “I don’t like hoppy beer,” and we’ll say, “Well, what don’t you like about hoppy beer?” And they will invariably respond, “It’s aggressive and too bitter,” and we’ll say, “Have you had our hoppy beer?” So we’ll give them some, and they’ll be like, “Oh my God, I didn’t know that hops and beer could taste like this! It’s so flavorful and feels so good in my mouth.” I suppose that’s why the driveway is full.
In what context is drinking beer most enjoyable for you? I’m assuming it’s changed over the past couple of years.
The context for me enjoying beer? Man, I don’t know . . . I’ve sort of rationed back to the point of only drinking maybe a beer a day. Like, if you know that you can only eat one meal a day, for example, you’d want it to be a good meal. You wouldn’t want to ruin yourself on Snickers bars or something. Well, maybe you would . . . But now when I sit and have a beer while I’m doing work in the evening or something, I’m always thinking, “What’s that flavor there? Where did it come from? What’s the date on this keg? What’s the batch number?”
So is the mystery gone?
Part of it, I guess. It’s different than it was 10 years ago. I might only be drinking wine in five years, because I don’t know enough about it. I really like wine and wish I had better relationships with people in the industry so I could learn a bit more about it. But even if I had access to or had the resources and wealth to acquire amazing bottles of wine, I don’t understand it well enough to know what makes this bottle so superior to this—say, a $30 bottle of Barolo or whatever. I’m still enthralled and amazed by yeast, though, man. That’s where the mystery remains.