VT - Craft Beer, the (Very) Limited Edition
By CLAIRE MARTIN
Two weeks ago, a beer drinker in Fresno, Calif., 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, Shaun Hill, replied with a laugh. But he wasn’t joking.
Hill Farmstead, in the hamlet of Greensboro, produces just 60,000 gallons of beer annually. The beer is available for purchase only at the brewery and in roughly 20 Vermont bars. In addition, 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, Mr. Hill plans to cap production at 150,000 gallons a year — forever. (For context, the Russian River Brewing Company, a craft brewery in California, made 437,100 gallons last year, and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware produced 6.3 million gallons.)
Hill Farmstead is one of at least three Vermont craft breweries that are churning out small batches of highly sought-after beers and have owners with firm plans to keep the operations small. Mr. Hill’s story offers lessons in how limiting production can bring success.
Mr. Hill, 34, has been honing his brewing technique for nearly 20 years. He first learned 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 other Vermont breweries, the Shed and the Trout River Brewing Company, as well as one in Copenhagen, Norrebro Bryghus.
Two beers created during Mr. Hill’s tenure at Norrebro Bryghus won gold medals in 2010 at the World Beer Cup, an international beer competition, and a third earned a silver medal.
Several months before these accolades, Mr. Hill returned to Vermont to begin construction on Hill Farmstead Brewery on a former dairy farm that he and his brother, Darren, a woodworker, 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,” Mr. Hill says.
This wasn’t his first attempt at starting a brewery, but it was the first time he was able to obtain financial backing. “Ten years ago or even still five years ago,” he says, “it was very difficult to find private investment or to convince banks to loan money to a start-up.”
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The beers are sold at the brewery in bottles and 2-liter growlers. Herb Swanson for The New York Times
In the past decade, craft beer production has thrived, attracting investors with deep pockets. In 2012, national retail sales for craft beer were $11.9 billion, according to the most recent figures from the Brewers Association.
While Mr. Hill was in Denmark, where American craft beer was starting to become popular, he was able to borrow $80,000 from a small group of European and American lenders who he felt respected his vision and abilities.
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,” he says, and should be consumed locally, not shipped long distances.
Mr. Hill 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 winemaking.
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