How many people are the best in the world at what they do? It’s a rare breed who has the ability to focus and dedicate their life to one specific craft for long enough to not only be recognized as a master, but to be considered the best on the planet.
I’ve been planning a trip to Hill Farmstead Brewery for a while, and when Shaun accepted my interview request, my wife and I made the eight hour trek from New York City to the backwoods of Northern Vermont to talk to the 2013 Brewer Of The Year and taste some of his life’s work.
Nick Santora: You brewed eight of the top ten beers in the world in 2012*. That’s fucking nuts! Which came first, the accolades or the lines of people at the brewery?
Shaun Hill: We made 100 beers in the last few years, I think. When we started releasing larger batches of bourbon barrel aged imperial stouts and Mimosa and Ann and some of these other beers, is when I started noticing. I remember the first time we did a bottle release and we had two hundred people waiting in line when we opened. There have been multiple shifts. The Rate Beer Awards, the release of Norma, the Vanity Fair article, the Associated Press. Those sorts of things get you new groups of people and a new shift. Then it plateaus for a while. It’s quiet right now which is good.
The crowds stress you out?
Yeah they do, if there’s a three hour wait for beer. I don’t want anyone to have to wait for beer. But the mechanisms we would have to shift in our business to not have anyone wait, would be packaging, distribution, and wholesaling, which all compromise the quality of the beer. So it’s like, oh fuck, these things have to be in order to deliver the product in the freshest way possible.
Do you feel pressure to live up to the awards now?
You have to try to tune that out. It’s a nice form of validation but ultimately that’s not why I make the beer. I studied Zen Buddhism and the idea of attunement is sort of like if you’re really attuned to your environment, you can focus very intently on one thing and then blank everything out when you need to. Like Michael Jordan shooting free throws. Ultimately, I think being super obsessive and dedicating the last ten years of my life and not caring about anything, and not having good relationships with people because I was obsessing; that comes through in the pint glass in a way. If you want to become a Nietzsche scholar, you spend ten years traveling to Germany, learning German, reading all these texts and talking to everyone else who thinks they understand him. After ten years you will probably know more about Nietzsche than most other people in the United States. You need to consume it and live it and breathe it.
10,000 hours, right?
Absolutely, I talk about that often.
You brew every beer yourself here?
Yes. I have an assistant brewer in the other room cleaning tanks and prepping…
Do you know what you want the beer to taste like before you start brewing it, or do the flavors develop during the production process?
Eventually I think you get to a point where you have a certain level of comfort to be able to paint and make something. To represent something the way you want it to be. There are definitely certain elements of barrel aging, especially with wild yeast and bacteria. There are variables that you can’t really control. You just try to favor the reactions and the formations of certain flavors in the way that you hope you want them.
How long does it take you to create what you’re looking for? Is it a year-long experimentation process, or are you pretty good at nailing it down?
We don’t do pilot brews. We brew five hundred gallons and we always kind of tweak and refine from there, but I think most of those beers are all 85 to 90% of where I want them to be.
I’m still somewhat of a beer novice, but as soon as I tasted the Abner, I was like damn, this is good! I didn’t want to stop drinking it.
I know. It’s so easy to drink. It’s citrusy and so soft. With all of my beers, I want them to be sort of like a good wine; really palatable with a nice acid profile and pleasant in your mouth. If you drink a wine that’s really tannic; sort of young or too aggressive in your mouth, you’re like, oh it’s too young. That’s the point with the beer for me. To perfect the process so the beer (well I can’t ever perfect it), but so the beer is soft, palatable, enjoyable, and all the flavors are in the right places. That’s what I try to do.
Is there something I should be looking for when I taste beer, or is it just so subjective?
Taste is totally subjective and a lot of people ask that question here. They ask, what should I be tasting here? and I say, I don’t know, what do you taste? I prefer tasting beer with people who are sort of virgins. They’ll say, I taste peach or something and I’ll be like, Whoa. I really don’t have the most advanced palette.
Do you study beer?
I don’t do anything anymore. There aren’t that many other beers that I drink anymore. I’ve been drinking wine and champagne lately.
Is that to learn about the process and flavors?
Yes. There are a lot of parallels between those things and some of the beers like our Wild Saisons or Farmstead Ales. We are putting these beers in wine barrels that are aging out with wild yeast and bacteria for one to three years. The flavors that we are getting out of this microflora are akin to Loire Valley and Burgundy and some other regions of France (so I’m finding). It’s fascinating to think how they’re getting that character through their landscape and we’re getting it just through microorganisms, because everyone is buying the same malt and the same hops and water.
Have you spoiled yourself with your own beer?
You had the Abner. How many other Double IPA’s do you want to drink now? We’re talking elegance and succinctness; how palatable the beer is. At some point when you start finding the beers that taste that way to you, it’s a small percentage of the spectrum. I actually find myself drinking Miller High Life or Budweiser because those beers are perfectly crafted. They’re soft and there are off flavors, but they’re intentional. There are flaws that they intentionally put in the beer in order to continue the flavor profile, but those beers are really easy to drink. Not all beers are easy to drink.
Is there only a certain level of growth you can achieve before the quality is compromised?
When we say quality, it’s not the quality of my production. I can replicate this process to ten times its size or more and the beer would taste the same. It’s the vehicle of delivery and freshness to the consumer. So once you start to saturate your local market or send the beer away, how quickly is it going to be sold? Like right now when we send beer to New York and Philadelphia, it disappears immediately because people haven’t had it and it’s fresh and they enjoy it. And that’s how beer should be enjoyed. That’s how beer should be anyway. Especially IPA, but it’s not. People are shipping it 3,000 miles away because their marketing or business model is to try to become the largest brewery in the United States. The beer doesn’t taste as good as it does closer to the source. I don’t want to go through all this effort for people to be like, Eh… It’s funny because people will be like, It’s good, but there’s beer that’s fresh and almost as good closer to home. And it’s like, No Shit. Exactly. I know.
Vermonters themselves love drinking our beer. There’s this sort of misconception that we only make beer for beer geeks and it’s only this very special beer. That’s what beer geeks themselves want to believe; that we purposely only make a small amount to drive the hype and the laws of scarcity and demand et cetera. It’s like, what? No. I’m not that fucking smart that I sit down and formulate some plan. No. It’s just sort of organic growth. But if you go into Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier on a Friday night, a lot of the times fifty percent of the bar will be drinking Edward [Hill Farmstead’s American Pale Ale]. Fifty percent of the bar lives in Montpelier and are Vermonters anyway. Same with Parker Pie in Glover [VT]. Everyone is drinking our beer because it’s fresh, it tastes great and they enjoy it.
Why is Vermont such a great place for beer culture and brewing? Is it because you’re so secluded up here and have to focus on perfecting a craft?
I don’t know because I didn’t grow up anywhere else. My family is here and I have a connection to this place. I’m starting to notice this shift of Vermont companies (and I won’t mention names), that started out very authentic, small, artisan, and craft because they wanted to be here [in Vermont], and sort of make this artisan thing. But then companies grow and you don’t know how large or fast they’ve grown, but they are relying on their original branding and marketing, and original intent or whatever psychological impact that their origin made upon you. That is the perception and narrative the company lives under, until there is some sort of fallout. Then the consumer realizes that they’ve been duped. I see that more and more with companies that are associated with Vermont. In that sense, I’m not always that psyched about Vermont businesses. I’m psyched about Greensboro. I’m a Greensboro-er.
Vermont relies upon tourism, the ski industry, et cetera. There’s not a lot of industry per se and people just typically like the quieter lifestyle. So it’s like: Vermont. Come visit us. Now please go home. I think everyone here is worried about population explosion. You know that Robert Frost poem, Good fences make good neighbors? Vermonters are stoic. It takes a long time to warm up to them.
My feeling about what’s happening here is, I wanted to live in this place and I realized that beer was a vehicle for me to do that. I really didn’t expect to sell this much beer or for people to enjoy the beer as much as they did.
What does authenticity mean to you? Remaining true to your original intentions?
Absolutely, and that’s something that I’ve known all along. From very early on, I knew it was important to establish my principles and stick to them because it would get very complicated if I started bending in one direction or another. Like doing collaborations with people…
Tell me more about your beer collaborations, because that’s actually another parallel between the beer and sneaker worlds?
Collaborating is a tough one because a lot of people ask to collaborate with us. I knew that was going to become a problem at some point. There was a rule that I established really early on. The first collaboration was with my old boss in Denmark. Second collaboration was with a really good friend from Denmark who is a fellow brewer, who I learned a lot from. I think the third collaboration was with another Danish brewer. These are all people that I met along the way pre Hill Farmstead. If there’s something there and we were friends before Hill Farmstead.
The best part for me is seeing how Brewer X approaches the formulation and process. Oh, you like to use pale chocolate in your beer? Oh, that’s cool, or honey malt or whatever. What is your characteristic favorite malt to use and let’s use that in this beer to try to express a little bit of your soul.
Many of the people I’ve interviewed created something for themselves and then turned it into a business. Is that how it was with you? Were you trying to create something that didn’t exist when you started?
No. That isn’t why I started making beer. I think there are good commercial beers available. It was more about experimentation and fun and I was really mystified by fermentation. I started home brewing when I was fifteen years old. There was (and still is) something about fermentation that is just so cool. The whole process and then just all the different flavor compounds that are produced during fermentation…
Where can I get the beer in New York?
Nowhere now. If you pay attention to our Twitter feed, when we sent beer to New York a month ago, it blew up. Everybody was like, I’m going to The Pony Bar tonight and drinking eight glasses of Anna! I don’t even want to pay attention to where the beer goes anymore. I just trust that we’ll put it where it needs to go and that those people will pour it as soon as they get it, it will be fresh, people will enjoy it, and it will disappear. If I ever send beer out and it sits around too long then I will know that people don’t care anymore or that I’m doing something wrong, or I brewed too much or whatever.
How’s the new retail space coming along?
Great. The space is just so much better for my mind. I used to have to brew on Monday, then double brew on Tuesday and then not brew on Wednesday because the retail shop would open. If it was nasty weather and we had some sort of special bottle on the shelf, there was no room. I realized we were at crisis point when I was trying to do what I was doing and there was a whole line of people right here asking me questions. It was just not comfortable. It’s just so important to be focused on what you’re doing. It was difficult during the construction phase too because it was constant questions and decisions that had to be made. I would be in the middle of something and they’d be like, Hey can you come look at this or Where do you want this, and I’m like, oh fuck I don’t know. I’m in the middle of a boil, I’m mashing the second batch and then inevitable something would go wrong or I would use too much water and something would happen. Now I can brew on any day of the week. I kept the garage door, but I haven’t closed it yet. If it’s gets really crazy out there maybe I will.
* = Top 10 ‘New Releases’ of 2012.