Shaun Hill and the Price of Perfection

The founder of Vermont’s Hill Farmstead ponders what comes after you’ve brewed the best beer in the world.

By Rowan Jacobsen

May 31 2019


“Most of my identity has been wrapped up
in beer since I was 18 years old,” says Shaun Hill, who founded the phenomenally successful Hill Farmstead Brewery on family land in Greensboro, Vermont.

Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson

Wednesdays are supposed to be the slow day at Hill Farmstead, the cult brewery in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, but on a steamy summer day at 11 a.m.—an hour before it opened—30 cars were parked along the dirt road in front of the brewery, and a line of people stood before the taproom door. Families showed up in matching Hill Farmstead T-shirts and lolled on blankets on the lawn. There were 50 cars at noon, and 75 at 1:15. The plates covered every state in the Northeast down to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, plus Florida, Illinois, and Quebec. Inside the taproom, a modern-rustic affair with poured concrete floors and a curving wooden bar, the wait to fill growlers stretched an hour. 

No one seemed to mind. Tunes thumped on the speaker system, beer flowed, and the din in the room slowly mounted with the roar of happy people drinking and anticipating. Many Hill Farmstead beers are available only at the brewery, and making the pilgrimage to Greensboro is on the life list of every beer geek.

In the adjacent brewery, visible from the taproom through two large glass windows, Shaun Hill ignored them all. If he stepped into the taproom he would get mired in photo ops and adulation, both of which he dreads. Instead, Hill leaned against the lauter tun, the gleaming steel tank where the wort for his latest batch of Edward—the beer that made him famous—was being siphoned from the spent grain husks, and pressed his face against the glass porthole, staring motionless at the paddles whirling inside for an unnervingly long time.

When I asked him what he was looking for, he said, “Things that can go wrong.” I wasn’t sure this referred to what was happening inside the lauter tun. Hill was a philosophy major at Haverford College before brewing called him, and he still practices an excruciating amount of self-examination. That and his accolades have earned him a position as the Daniel Day-Lewis of beer, a once-in-a-generation talent whose meticulous attention to craft is paired with a seeming ambivalence toward the craft itself.

This actually was a slow day, Hill told me. Back in the difficult days of 2013, when he ran the brewery out of his garage and was fresh off his first crowning as Best Brewery in the World by the website RateBeer—the arbiter of such things—and the entire beer universe was parading to his door to genuflect, three-hour waits were common. At 7 a.m. he would look out the window of his farmhouse and see people who had arrived the night before, sleeping in their cars.

Shaun Hill and the Price of Perfection
The Hill Farmstead Brewery.
Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson

When you’ve been a home brewer and you finally realize your dream by opening a brewery at your house, you picture your friends coming over to buy some. You don’t picture Joe Public showing up and posting nasty tweets about the lines. Hill cares deeply about both the happiness of his customers and the presentation of his beer, but it came out as irritable perfectionism. “There was a period of time when I was tuned out to the public,” he admitted to me. “I felt like everybody wanted something from me, or thought they knew something about me, and that’s the worst. There’s something in my personality that wants to hide.”

Hill finally lifted his face from the porthole and apologized for being poor company. His on-again, off-again girlfriend, a dairy farmer in Maine, was emphatically off again, and he blamed himself. For years, he said, the brewery had been all-consuming, and that made it difficult to be fully present for other parts of his life.

Hill climbed down a twisting metal stairway to the spotless basement level of the brewery, where rows of gleaming fermentation tanks were connected by a spaghetti network of stainless steel pipes. Touch screens on the tanks monitored every variable, from time and temperature to acidity and specific gravity. He pushed a button, and the wort began to cook in the boiling kettle. It felt more like the engine room of a modern ship than a brewery in the Vermont countryside, and it was a stark contrast to Hill’s famously disheveled look: ratty T-shirt, cargo shorts, three-day beard, thinning hair heading off in random directions.

Shaun Hill and the Price of Perfection
Hill was brewing in an unfinished garage when he first made a national name for himself; today Hill Farmstead beers are crafted in a state-of-the-art brewery
Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson

Until recently, there was no contrast. Hill and his farmstead were one. The gambrel-roofed white farmhouse with the peeling paint at 403 Hill Road and the collapsed shed across the road and the faded wooden Hill Farmstead sign and the scraggly kid in work boots trudging back and forth between the house and the garage were all of a piece with what you found on every back road in the Northeast Kingdom. There just happened to be fermentation tanks in the garage instead of cars or cows, and there was beer for sale instead of maple syrup.

But in 2015, as it became clear that the crowds were not going to stop, Hill opened this state-of-the-art brewery and taproom, right next to the old farmhouse. With separate lines for the bottle-conditioned ales and the growler refills, and lots of servers filling orders, epic crushes happen only on the craziest days of summer, and even then, the new taproom means everyone can bide their time drinking pints on the lawn while they wait for their growler number to be called.

It’s an unlikely scene, this shining brewery with the nonstop party beside the little white house, and it is wildly successful. Hill Farmstead is now a thriving business with 19 employees in a corner of Vermont where jobs are like truffles, and it has won Best Brewery in the World the past five years in a row.

That’s already way beyond anything Shaun Hill ever expected to achieve by age 40. As he climbed back up the spiral staircase and began adding hops to the batch of Edward, the room humid with pine and grapefruit aromas, he told me that when he conceived of the idea of a brewery 20 years ago, it was just a means for him to be able to stay at 403 Hill Road and live a life of the mind, reading and writing. He thought he could count on selling one growler a week. Then things got crazy. “Most of my identity has been wrapped up with beer since I was 18 years old,” he said, his brown eyes searching the roiling surface of the Edward. “Twenty years!”

Once the Edward finished brewing, Hill ducked out the side door of the brewery and crossed the yard to his house for a quick escape, picking his way through the crowd. Ambivalence followed him like a cloud, and I thought again of Daniel Day-Lewis, who took years off from acting to be a woodworker and shoemaker before returning for Lincoln and Phantom Thread. Hill stole a glance at the cars, the unlikely taco truck framed by rolling hayfields, and said, “You have caught me at the most remarkable crossroads.”

He has always been here, of course, as have his people, eight generations of Hills going back to 1780 in Greensboro, a town that should have been named Hillsboro, since the Greens were just land prospectors who never lived here, while old Peleg Hill was one of the original three settlers. There are still Hills everywhere. The spent grain from the beer goes to his relatives’ farms for their cows. His brother does the woodworking at the brewery. His parents live across the road. Lewis Hill, the celebrated gardening writer, was a cousin, and the curvy glass on the Hill Farmstead logo came straight off the wooden sign that hangs in Lewis Hill’s house for a. hill entertainment—an 1800s tavern run by Shaun’s great-great-great-grandfather.

And then there are the beers, named for his ancestors. The first beer Hill brewed in his brewery, on March 30, 2010, was Edward, named for the beloved grandfather Hill grew up with in the white farmhouse, and it set the tone for all that followed. An intense, dry-hopped, extraordinarily floral American pale ale, it had a buttery mouthfeel and a sake-like fruitiness, and it made Hill a star. He has brewed 5,000 liters of it every Wednesday since expanding the brewery in 2015.

After Edward came Abner. “Abner is our great-grandfather,” reads the label, following a tradition that has now been used for dozens of beers. “Hill Farmstead Brewery rests upon the land that was once home to him and his 14 children. … [T]his is the ale that I dream to have shared with Abner.” Over the past eight years he has crafted the specific beers that he’d like to have shared with Anna, Arthur, Clara, Dorothy, Earl, Edith, Ephraim, Everett, Florence, Foster, George, Harlan, James, Jim, Marie, Mary, Norma, Peleg, Shirley Mae, Sumner, Susan, and Vera Mae.

History weighed heavily on Hill as he grew up in the farmhouse, which by then was no longer a working farm. But he kept the romance of the farm alive through his youth, a classic Vermont childhood spent largely outside, haying, building tree forts, swimming, riding bicycles, playing with his brother on the remnants of the foundation of Edward’s barn. And as a 15-year-old who was starting to home-brew, he was already fantasizing about reviving the memory of Hill Farmstead by building a brewery on the spot.

Hill was always a soul-searcher. In high school his friends called him “Zen Master,” and by the time he went away to college at Haverford on a full scholarship he was deeply interested in Buddhism. But Haverford was a culture shock to a poor-as-dirt kid from rural Vermont. “I felt like an alien. I was very homesick. I remember this conversation with my freshman roommates. The son of the lawyer said he felt like if he could make $400,000, he could be comfortable. The son of the doctor said he’d be OK with $200,000. The son of the public works director came in at $100,000. And little ol’ Shaun said $30K. I felt like if I could make that, I could live a good life.”

Sure enough, a few years later he landed his first job as a brewer at the Shed, a popular Stowe brewpub. “I got paid $33,000 and had everything I needed or wanted. I had creative freedom; I just had to keep the beer going.”

That was the beginning of what Hill calls Chapter 2 of his life. Chapter 1 runs from birth to age 24, after Edward had died and Hill embarked on a round-the-world trip to find himself. He did an intensive yoga meditation retreat in the mountains overlooking Kathmandu. He hiked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. He did most of it in Birkenstocks and a T-shirt, the other travelers gawking at him. “It was so rewarding to get to the summit on Annapurna,” he said. “There was hardly anyone there. It was so peaceful. The snow and the wind. I just wanted to stay up there, but my guides were like, no, you have to go back down.”

Chapter 2: He wrestled with the morality of becoming a brewer. In the Eightfold Path to enlightenment, Buddha discouraged slavery, prostitution, and the manufacturing of alcohol or weapons as occupations that did not qualify as Right Livelihood. But maybe there’s a difference between Bud Light and a beer meant to be savored in small amounts by friends in a convivial circle? What if beer could actually encourage presence and mindfulness?

He got his big break working for a Danish brewery. Unlike Germany and England, which were wedded to their traditional styles, the Danes were up for anything. Hill was hired because he was young and American and not afraid of big, bold experiments. He put together the prototype for Edward. He made a barrel-aged, high-alcohol imperial stout with “lots of complexity and fudginess from the malts and sugars and the way the bourbon and wood interplay,” and he won lots of medals at the World Beer Cup. That gave him the confidence to come home to Greensboro and launch Hill Farmstead in 2010.

Success was instant. Hill’s beers were intense, delicious, creative, and impossible to get—the perfect formula for the beer craziness of the time. You had to haul your own empty bottles to a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, and people did. “Mules” would drive in from Chicago, fill 80 growlers, and resell them in the city for absurd prices. Hill banned for life anyone caught reselling his beer. His perfectionist quirks only stoked the frenzy. I personally have been turned away more than once for bringing bottles that were not clean enough (mea culpa) or too transparent (seriously?), which can create skunky flavors when light interacts with the beer.

And then there were the names. Hill’s Ancestral Series covers his relatively normal beers—pilsners and pale ales and porters—but his wickedly experimental beers go into his Philosophy Series, heavy on the Emerson and Nietzsche. Suffice it to say, no other brewery had offerings named Society & Solitude, Self-Reliance, Beyond Good & Evil, or Madness & Civilization. He staked out a place as the Philosopher King of beer.

Success brought its own problems. Unbearable lines. Unhappy customers. Fried employees. People told him to take the pressure off by contracting with other breweries to brew his beers for him, a suggestion that still irritates him. “I don’t think you understand. This is Hill Farmstead. This is our farmhouse beer. How does that work if you don’t have a farmhouse?”

Instead, he borrowed a ton of cash and built the big brewery, which dwarfs the farmhouse despite his best efforts to nestle it unobtrusively into the hillside. With the brewery came more employees and more responsibility for people’s livelihoods, so Hill devoted himself to becoming a better leader. He hired an executive coach, read business books like Small Giants and Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, taught himself to delegate and to empower others, and built a model small business. Financially, he’s at Year 150 of his original business plan.

Yet it may have gone a little too well. The systems and people Hill has put in place are about to put him out of a day job. “From a company standpoint, the best thing for our team is for me to shift from the role of leader to the role of supporter. The entire process has been the shedding of layers of burden and weight and knowledge, to the point where I’m naked.”

After all the years of striving to build a stable business and make the best beer, he’s got time to take stock, and he doesn’t much like what he sees. “Brewing allowed me to be obsessive and to have a deep, intense focus, and I thought those things would make me feel good. But all of the qualities that make me a great brewer—the ability to control an environment, to utilize the scientific method, to constantly engage in dialectic and experimentation—are the opposite of the things you need to be happy and to accept what is.”

Success, he believes, actually stagnated his growth. “It pretty much just led to ego. You forge this identity as a writer or a brewer or whatever, and so much of your identity is wrapped up in that. You form these habitual patterns and you keep going through the motions, but you’re empty inside. That’s me.”

And so begins Chapter 3.

I’d timed my visit to Hill Farmstead to coincide with the release of Poetica, a pilsner that Hill believes is one of the four beers he has nailed in his career. The others are Edward, an American pale ale; Damon, the imperial stout; and Art, a tangy farmhouse ale aged in wine barrels for two years and bottle-conditioned for another two. Each of the four is exemplary of a traditional style, but while the first three are all in the flavor-bomb style that made Hill famous, Poetica is the opposite. Pilsner is the light, crisp style of beer that most Americans drank until craft beer came along and made pilsner seriously uncool, and it was inspired by Hill’s recent visit to the Pilsner Urquell brewery in the Czech Republic, where pilsner began. It’s made using an archaic and labor-intensive process called decoction that involves separating part of the mash, boiling it, then returning it to the kettle, which results in a softer, rounder beer with a formidable head.

Indeed, the glass of golden lager I was handed at the bar was topped by an extraordinary white cumulonimbus. I carried it out of the taproom and eased into an Adirondack chair in the sunshine. All around me was boisterous conversation, as if people couldn’t quite believe their luck to be lolling on a Vermont hillside in high summer with a mug of the world’s best beer in their hands.

Edward, an American pale ale, from Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont
Among the array of varieties made at the Greensboro facility are Edward, an American pale ale.
Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson

I tilted the glass, pushed my nose through the foam, and took a sip. There’s nowhere to hide when you make pilsner. The malt, hops, and water have to be in perfect balance, and this was. It was clean and bitter and refreshing. But the more I sipped, the better it got. It captured the spice of the August hayfields and snapped to a finish, leaving me wanting another sip. I felt a little fluttering in my chest of what might have been love; this was the beer-next-door I’d been waiting for my whole life.

Poetica, a pilsner, from Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont
Poetica, a pilsner.
Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson

When he describes his beers, Hill talks more about mouthfeel than flavor. “Soft” is the highest praise he can bestow. “Succinct” and “elegant” are two more of his favorites. The beers he hates are chalky and edgy and the bitterness is all out of whack. And while he is loath to criticize his competitors, I will come out and say that there is a lot of undrinkable swill in New England masquerading as craft beer. In the arms race to build bigger and bolder brews—more malt, more alcohol, more hops—brewers have created a generation of beers with all the softness and elegance of a Marvel superhero blockbuster. They taste like pine resin spiked with cat pee, and they have no heart. Such unbalanced beers have become painfully common in the hophead culture that Hill helped create, and he partly blames himself. As with the Buddha, many of his followers miss the point.

Everett, a porter, from Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont
Everett, a porter.
Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson

When I asked Hill the secret, he was evasive. He’s sick of other brewers copying his beers. He allowed that he puts some oats in every beer he makes (“I like oatmeal”), which gives a creamy mouthfeel, and he mentioned that most brewers don’t think enough about water chemistry. (I’d noticed lots of interesting notes about times and temperatures and pH scrawled in marker on the white walls of the brewery, but when I took out my phone to snap some photos, everybody freaked out.) But the real secret was just rigorous self-analysis. “They aren’t seeing their product as a continual evolution toward perfection,” he said, then sighed darkly. “Which eventually you have to give up on. It’s frustrating.”

A Hill Farmstead beer is both subtly better and a lot better than a bad craft beer, the way a bespoke dress outclasses the off-the-rack knockoff. As I drained my glass of Poetica and watched dozens of smiling people mill around the lawn with pints in every earth tone, it occurred to me that what actually set the beer apart was joy. Drinking one was like hanging out with someone who is generous and optimistic and makes you feel good about the world. The beer had a sunny soul. And it didn’t have anything to do with water chemistry.

I saw Hill emerge from the brewery and scuttle toward his house, a dark figure hoping not to be waylaid, and the irony of my thoughts became clear. It was as if, in creating Hill Farmstead, Shaun Hill had mined his subconscious for all the childhood joy he’d always associated with the place and the people who’d lived there. And he’d taken those feelings and fantasies and poured them into something physical that people could touch and taste and share. It was a stunning artistic achievement. But he hadn’t saved anything for himself.

When I last visited Hill Farmstead, in late August, nobody had seen Hill. Despite a line of cars that crested the hill and disappeared down the other side, the place was running so smoothly that it hadn’t even occurred to anyone that he was missing.

I finally found him next door, painting his house. His clothes and hair were flecked with white paint, which made him look even more like Shaun Hill than usual, if such a thing were possible. When I asked him why he was painting it himself, he quoted a Zen saying: “Stare at the wall until your face falls off.” Obliteration of self. But he admitted that he loved painting houses. The meditative nature of it, the instant gratification of making something better. Plus, the quote he’d received was $12,000. Ridiculous.

The subtext, of course, was that Hill can suddenly afford to spend 80 hours painting his house. He’d put great people and great systems in place and it was all working. The brewery that he’d raised from birth was mature and successful and didn’t need him so much any more. He could just do special projects like Poetica.

I asked him if he had a title for Chapter 3 yet. “The thing I want most in my life right now is companionship,” he said, applying thick white paint in long, practiced strokes. “Starting my own family. But who would ever want to date me in this chaos?” There are these patterns and grooves in our lives, he said, preconditions that set the rails down which our existence runs, and from birth the Shaun/Family/Greensboro groove was so solidified in his brain that he’d never questioned it, “never thinking that if I meet someone and fall in love, they’re going to have to live right next door to a brewery.” He finished off a clapboard and stared at the wall. “Foolish.”

Maybe Chapter 3 would start with another round-the-world trip. Maybe it would begin with a drive to Maine to try to patch things up with his girlfriend. He’d been writing her a lot of letters in his 19th-century Emersonian sermon style, long and lofty, and word had come back through an intermediary that they were a little bit overwhelming. “That’s better than being underwhelming,” he mused as he started on the final clapboard. “Right?”

The front of the house was now a gleaming tabula rasa, and it came as a bit of a shock. It had been so weathered for so many years that I’d never imagined it new and fresh. It looked reborn. It looked like a great place to live.

Hill said that after years of making company-focused lists of daily goals, he wanted to try something different. “What if I had a checklist in my pocket that was my three goals for the day: Make eye contact with every person I speak to, stand up straight with my heart exposed and vulnerable, and be patient and loving? And then I checked back with myself at the end of the day? That’s the stuff I’m most interested in right now.”

And with that, he squeezed the extra paint from his paintbrush, picked up his can, glanced one last time at the happy hordes carousing on the site of Edward’s old barn, and disappeared behind the front door of 403 Hill Road.