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Good Beer Hunting

Sep 23, 2016

Longtime GBH readers may recall the article I wrote about Hill Farmstead back in January 2014. For GBH, and myself as a beer writer, it was a bit of a turning point. That article remains our most-read brewery profile ever. And now that it has two years running on it, I doubt that'll ever change. The reach it’s created for GBH opened a lot of doors for me and the team, and it was shortly after that that I first began bringing other writers into the fold. The entire reason many of those writers sought me out was because of that article. It changed something for them. It gave them a reason to think about beer writing very differently—and that was their words, not mine. But I can attest that even for me, it changed things. I’ve written about many many breweries over the years—almost a decade now. And most breweries have a sense of place and personality. But until that visit to Hill Farmstead, no brewery I’d visited had that sense of place. Or that kind of personality. Indeed, it took me almost a year to gather my feelings on the subject, and to share that story with my readers.  It’s a bit ironic for me that so much of my thesis was focused on the story beyond the hype for Hill Farmstead at the time. Don’t get me wrong, Shaun Hill's reputation was warranted, and the beautiful setting of the place certainly told an accurate story. But it was ironic because my experience actually made me value Hill Farmstead even more, but for very different reasons. I was attracted to Shaun's focus, the simple-but-expressive beers being made at a time when there was no real vocabulary for a mixed fermentation Saison in our typical craft parlance. The beers harkened back to my first and enduring loves, like Saison Dupont, for which I’d not found anything comparable in the states. And something about the place reminded me so much of the upbringing I had in rural Pennsylvania. The terrain, the isolation, the struggle to produce something valuable so far away from where those things are typically valued. After reading the article himself, Shaun admitted to not remembering my visit much that day. In fact, he reluctantly gave me about 10 minutes of his time and went back to work. And most of the piece came not from the things that Shaun said, but the things that he did. I witnessed not just the beauty and rare quality of it, but the work, frustration, and anxiety of it all—and it stuck with me. It was mostly a portrait built on observation, and a bit of self-reflection for my own life experience. That article tied Shaun and I together.  Years later, and we’ve become friends of a sort. I’ve gone back to visit a couple times a year, like many of you have. And I’ve been lucky enough to steal away some time on each of those trips to listen and learn from his experiences up on that hill in Greensboro, Vermont. Some of it has been trying and frustrating. And some of it has been revelatory and edifying. That’s just a way of living in that part of the world.  The weekend we recorded this episode, he was in town for our friend Ryan Burk’s wedding in Chicago. Ryan is the cider maker at Angry Orchard’s Walden project. You may have listened to his episode a few weeks back. You’ll find a lot of parallels here in my conversation with Shaun. The three of us learn a lot from each other these days, but of course, so much of it will be unique to his experience as the creator of Hill Farmstead—which, to my mind, is still one of the most singular things in the world.