A Hard Look at Vermont Brewery Legends, Hill Farmstead and The Alchemist

World class breweres are understandably put on a pedistal because after a while average beer doesn’t satisfy you the same way it once did. But among world class breweries some, for various reasons, don’t allow you to drink much when you visit. Some people prefer to simply show up and buy legendary cans to enjoy at home. I generally travel and visit breweries to both buy their beer and try it first while I am there. At Hill Farmstead you do not have a chance to try their saisons before buying bottles. That isn’t to say that I doubt the quality of the beer but even among beers at world class breweries, individuals differ in their palate preferences. I may have chosen to buy a $30 bottle of the aged saison at Hill Farmstead for example if I had tasted it first.

I happened to visit Hill Farmstead and The Alchemist in the same trip as I visited the world class Montreal Canada brewery Dieu du Ciel and of the two I would sooner return to Dieu du Ciel because I really enjoyed hanging out there. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad that I visited both of these breweries and will be enjoying the beers that I purchased from them but the experience of hanging out at a brewery and having a beer before I buy beer to go is something I generally value. And while Trillium’s boston location has similar limitations, one could also quickly stop for beer on the way through with much more ease because they are located in central Boston.

It can be hard for someone who lives in California to conceptualize just how far apart breweries in Vermont are or even just how spread out Vermont is in general. In parts of the North East United States you don’t have cities so much as you have towns. And these cities are sometimes 20 or 30 miles apart. So the drive from The Alchemist to Hill Farmstead takes 50 minutes not so much because the distance is so great but because the roads in between have such low speed limits that you can’t possibly drive that distance in what you would be used to in San Diego or Los Angeles. The closest thing to the roads in Vermont is some smaller roads in the rural outskirts of San Diego. To get out to Valley center you drive through a number of small two lane roads that by nature you can’t drive through very fast. Add to that an hour or so wait in line at The Alchemist at least when I visited and it is an experience I would prefer to not repeat again for a while despite really enjoying the beers I brought back.

The Alchemist

I was excited to visit the new brewery for The Alchemist once it opened because it is the first time that they have made available beers other than heady topper after their two years or so of brewing just the one beer. From what they indicated they have no plans to serve beer on site so if you want to buy the beers other than heady topper you must visit the brewery in Stowe and potentially wait in line for an hour for the opportunity to buy cans of their beer. The beers are fantastic. I enjoyed what I tasted. But I also value the experience of sitting around at a brewery chatting with the other people who made the same pilgrimidge and would rather not have those conversations only in line.

Massive line of people waiting in the sun to buy cans.
Massive line of people waiting in the sun to buy cans.

You get a few very small tastes of the beer while you are waiting in line, once they let you inside but before you get to purchase the beers. Right now they limit you to purchasing two four packs of each of the double IPAs per person per day. The amount they allow people to buy may fluctuate over time so check their web site to see what is for sale. Though I waited an hour in line it wasn’t a bad experience because I had a lot of great conversations with people I met in line. I would like it much better if they also added a room next door where you can stay and have some full size tasters and even potentially drink some beer on site and relax. Treehouse, in Massachusets, I am told has similar lines and waits for their cans and also doesn’t do tastings, if that is a consideration for you.

Taps from which you get your small tasters.
Taps from which you get your small tasters.

I wasn’t able to get any cans of Crusher, their other double IPA so I can’t comment on how it tastes. However, cans of Heady Topper and Focal Banger were all quite delicious. I prefer Focal Banger just slightly because you get to taste the English yeast a bit more prominently. Once you notice the flavor in Focal Banger, it becomes more apparent in Heady Topper. I did some experimentation to see if the beers really did taste better straight from the can and found that the bitter hop resins that sink to the bottom are best left in the can until the very end because they can overpower the rest of the beer. As with any beer, some cans in the four packs I got were better than others. Some showcased more prominently the hop aromas and others were more heavily bitter.

Crazy cool wall art outside.
Crazy cool wall art outside.

I also bought a few cans of their double wit beer while I was there and enjoyed one while I was still in Vermont. It was quite tasty and blended nicely the flavors of added spice usually found in a wit and the spice notes generally associated with Belgian yeast. At 7% alcohol, it was sweet without being cloying and is a nice alternative for someone who isn’t so much into hops.

Hill Farmstead

Hill Farmstead has been named the greatest brewery in the world on a number of occasions. They are a long 50 minute drive from where you can visit The Alchemist in Stowe. There is nothing else in the area and only a handfull of shops in the area sell their beers. This means people in surrounding areas must make the drive pretty regularly to refill their growlers if they want to drink Hill Farmstead IPAs. They have a small area where they serve half pours of a small number of their beers and sell bottles to take away with you, which are generally priced very reasonably, $10 for most bottles and more for barrel aged ones. They also have a main area where they fill growlers and offer half ounce tastes of the different beers on tap.

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Also keep in mind that though I found the experience somewhat lacking, it is still much better than it used to be before they renovated the facility. Though admittedly if I had known I would end up just buying bottles there I would have driven myself out there two years ago when I was staying in Burlington rather than skipping it because my husband was busy with other things and unable to drive me as he usually does for the safety of myself and others on the road.

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You are going to find the hop forward beers on tap and for growler fills while the farmhouse style ales are served in bottles either for on site consumption or take away. Though I could have tasted a bottle while I was there, I would have ended up sharing with strangers to avoid drinking a whole bottle myself, though it seemed most people there were stopping by for quick growler fills. Growler pricing is also reasonable with $3 for an empty 750ml growler. IPAs are served in growlers and not bottles for freshness reasons. I misread the price of empty growlers when I visited and didn’t realize that only the 2L empty growlers were $10.

For the full list of growlers they fill you can read their growler policy here. Otherwise if buying their growlers when you visit (much easier if you are flying in rather than driving) you can expect to pay a total price of $13 for 750ml of double IPA (factoring in the empty growler). I could tell many locals were coming by with multiple empty growlers to re-fill so they must love those hoppy beers.

Enjoying a bottle of Arthur at home.
Enjoying a bottle of Arthur at home.

I left the brewery with four bottles of their farmhouse ales and am quite looking forward to trying them but I did not buy the double IPA growlers I had considered buying because I misread the prices they charge for an empty growler. I didn’t find the hoppy beers that I sampled while I was there to be drastically different from anything else I have ever tasted in the same style. If anything the lighter hoppy pales were a bit light on the hops for my tastes. Considering that your only option for buying their beer is to drive out into the middle of no where in Vermont you are better off connecting with friends who can give you tastes of their beers. You may find some of the farmhouse ales at certain restaurants in the area but if you want a growler of IPA you have to go to the source. I have been quite impressed by the quality of the farmhouse ales I brought back with me after opening them and they were absolutely worth the cost for bottles.

Enjoying a bottle of Dorothy at home.
Enjoying a bottle of Dorothy at home.

If you do take the trip out to the brewery despite everything mentioned above I have a few suggestions for you. Take advantage of the area you are driving through and do some hiking or grab some local cheese and farm fresh vegetables around the area and enjoy the experience. We picked up a loaf of bread nearby, some local soft cheese, and some current jelly that we enjoyed really nicely together. Also consider borrowing a growler from a friend if you know someone who has made the trip and takes proper care of their growlers. In that case, the prices for the hoppy beers are quite reasonable. If you are there for farmhouse ales, consider buying in bulk if you have the space and interest in cellaring them.

Corrections:
9-11-16 – This post has been updated to correct an earlier version of the post which inaccurately indicated that empty 750ml growlers are $10 at Hill Farmstead. The post now correctly indicates that empty 750ml growlers are $3 and empty 2L growlers are $10.

Paul McGuire

Paul McGuire is a craft beer enthusiast. He likes to travel with his husband and enjoy the great outdoors. In his day job, Paul is a divorce attorney focusing on serving the San Diego LGBT community.

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