Beer Bucket List – A Trip to the Farm
Hill Farmstead Brewery, named the best in the world in 2013 by RateBeer, had been high on my list of places to visit for a long time. Despite being a shorter drive from Ottawa than any of Toronto’s breweries, a day trip to Hill Farmstead , in Greensboro, Vermont, never seemed feasible. Considerations like crossing an international border, duties and taxes and phone and data plans made it seem like one big headache to me. Be that as it may, I don’t always listen to my rational brain and last week I set out to prove that it was doable.
As it turns out, getting there isn’t actually very difficult. In the interest of keeping costs low, I decided to shut my phone data off for the American leg of the journey and navigate using a screenshot of the directions. It was a beautiful drive through Appalachian valleys, surrounded on all sides by misty, tree-covered giants, painted red, yellow and green. The views around every bend made the drive worthwhile. There were barely four turns after crossing the border and I would have made it without incident had Taylor Road been labelled. No matter, I stopped at one of the quaint little shops along Highway 16 and got straightened out quickly (look for Sparhawk Road).
There’s nothing flashy about Hill Farmstead. It’s small and rustic, befitting the area, with brewing and bottling equipment stacked, seemingly, everywhere. It’s the kind of place that puts the beer first, celebrating the craft and the culture without any need for bells and whistles.
They said I showed up on a “slow day”, with maybe 20 odd people ahead of me in line. And shortly after I arrived, there were at least another 20 behind me – though the cue still hadn’t quite made it out the door. Part of the build up was due to the growlers being top-filled, which requires staff to stop every now and again to allow the foam to dissipate before completing the filling. As a result, there wasn’t much movement in the line and when all was said and done I had been there for about two hours. As much as I’m a patient guy, and extremely indecisive when it comes to ordering beer (more time to decide isn’t a bad thing), the wait was a bit tedious. It would have been much worse had they not offered tasting flights, featuring four beers of your choice (for $5!). The flights have to be paid for in cash, despite them accepting cards for growler fills and bottle purchases – so if you’re planning to visit, be sure you have American currency. I didn’t, and had to barter a Canadian twenty for a five. It was bad business, but I’m glad I did it.
One of the common complaints I came across while researching Hill Farmstead was that the staff were unfriendly and unhelpful. This, in my experience, couldn’t be any further from the truth. The lady responsible for taking orders and delivering the tasters was very pleasant and knowledgeable. She demonstrated good product insight, which I appreciated in my decision making process.
I ended up trying Dorothy (Farmhouse Ale), Edward (Pale Ale), Susan (IPA) and Society & Solitude #7 (IIPA), served one after the other in that order. Having never had Hill Farmstead before, it didn’t take long to figure out what it was all about. These were uncomplicated beers, that used uncomplicated ingredients to create something truly exceptional. Whereas some breweries make a name for themselves by colouring outside the stylistic guidelines of beer, Hill Farmstead, rather, colours more vividly within them. The products that I sampled were brilliantly executed, superbly balanced and full of flavour. While there did seem to be some flavour overlaps amongst them, in particular the Simcoe hop character, each beer had its own personality. Dorothy carried the day for me, with her in your face funk, bright citrus and peppery finish.
Apart from the flights, there isn’t much at Hill Farmstead to stick around for. So I picked up three growlers (a couple Abner and an Earl) as well as a bottle of Dorothy and hit the road. By this time it was getting late and with a, roughly, four and half hour drive back to Ottawa I decided that there wouldn’t be enough time to visit any of the maple syrup farms or cozy looking country restaurants I passed on the way down.
I didn’t have much trouble at the border. Of course there was to be some suspicion surrounding my very brief visit to the United States, but it wasn’t anything a thorough inspection of my vehicle couldn’t allay. It was also fairly inexpensive to bring the beer back with me. My three litres with glassware only ended up costing an additional $9.
In the end, was it worth driving 815 km, round trip, to stand in line for two hours, taste four beers and buy three litres of beer (most of which is half flat in growlers), a glass and a t-shirt? Well for starters, their beer really is excellent. I wouldn’t say that it’s beyond reproach, nor would I emphatically proclaim it the best I’ve ever had – but it’s pretty damn difficult to think of many better. The fact that besides the brewery itself there are especially few places where you can even get a glass of the stuff also has to count for something. So if you like craft beer Hill Farmstead is a must-visit… just not as a day trip. Vermont has so much else to offer such that it seems like a terrible waste to go all that way and see so little. If I could do it over, I would have driven down on a Thursday morning and spent the weekend enjoying the nature and exploring the rest of the State’s impressive craft beer scene.
Oh well, guess I’ll have to go back.