Jan 21, 2014

    Craft beer, the (very) limited edition


    TWO weeks ago, a beer drinker in California called Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont to ask where he could buy its craft beers.

    "You have to drive to the airport, get a ticket, fly to Burlington, rent a car, and drive an hour and a half to the brewery," the owner, Mr Shaun Hill, replied with a laugh. But he wasn't joking.

    Hill Farmstead, in the hamlet of Greensboro, produces only about 227,000 litres of beers annually. The beers are available for purchase only at the brewery and in about 20 Vermont bars. Mr Hill sends 12 kegs to distributors in New York City and Philadelphia a few times a year.

    Next year, after several buildings are expanded and new equipment is installed, he plans to cap production at about 682,000 litres a year - forever. In comparison, the Russian River Brewing Company, a craft brewery in California, made close to 2 million litres last year, and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware produced 28.6 million litres.

    Hill Farmstead is one of at least three Vermont craft breweries that are churning out small batches of highly sought-after beers.

    Mr Hill, 34, has been honing his brewing technique for nearly 20 years. He first learnt to make beer for a high school science fair project, then started a home-brew club in college, and later worked as the head brewer at two Vermont breweries, the Shed and the Trout River Brewing Company, as well as one in Copenhagen, Norrebro Bryghus.

    Two beers created during his tenure at Norrebro Bryghus won gold medals in 2010 at the World Beer Cup, and a third earned a silver medal.

    Several months before these accolades, Mr Hill returned to Vermont to begin construction of Hill Farmstead Brewery on a former dairy farm that he and his brother Darren, a wood worker, inherited from their grandfather.

    "I wanted to make beer, I wanted to live in this place, and I wanted to help my family and make sure I had the finances available to take care of this land in perpetuity," he said.

    From the start, his philosophy has been to make the best beer possible without pursuing what he calls "infinite, boundless growth".

    He operates under the belief that beer is a perishable item, "just like lettuce or broccoli", and should be consumed locally, not shipped over long distances.

    He has a staff of six, including two assistant brewers who harvest yeast and transfer beer into kegs, but he personally makes all of the brewery's offerings - pale ales, stouts and porters - using modern stainless-steel tanks and traditional wooden barrels, like those used in wine-making.

    The beers are known for having "a sense of balance that isn't common in a lot of new breweries", said Mr Jeff Baker, bar manager of the Farmhouse Tap and Grill in Burlington, which serves the beers. "They're hoppy, but they're not superbitter and they don't exhaust your palate."

    Mr Hill said that he fields questions like the one from the Californian caller every day. He estimated that thousands of people have made long-distance beer runs to Hill Farmstead Brewery, some travelling from as far away as New Zealand, Norway and Japan.

    Customers wait in line for one to four hours to buy bottles of the beers.