Earlier this year, Hill Farmstead Brewery usurped Three Floyds as the general-consensus “World’s Best Brewery,” at least in terms of crowd-sourced opinion (such things are, obviously, every-fluctuating and nigh-on impossible to quantify).
Now, this is impressive enough on its own merits. Three Floyds is a veritable behemoth in the craft beer community — not quite to the extent of Samuel Adams or Rogue, inasmuch as either of those can be labeled “craft” or “micro” anymore — and seemed to all but have the crown fused to their skulls a couple of years back. Boasting a stellar flagship line — including No. 1 wheat ale Gumballhead and two out of the top five American pale ales in Zombie Dust and Alpha King — and a nascent but always palpable hype behind their Dark Lord imperial stout, they appeared to have things on lockdown.
It’s more than a little curious, then, that a brewery like Hill Farmstead — barely three years into its existence — managed to topple a Goliath (two of you see what I just did there) like Three Floyds. Branding-wise, they couldn’t be more diametrically opposed: Three Floyds favors big, brash labels hawking beers with names like Arctic Panzer Wolf, Blackheart IPA and Murda’d Out Stout; they host Dark Lord Day in April each year, an event built around the sale of a 15 percent ABV imperial stout and headlined by bands like High on Fire and Pig Destroyer; their goal, it seems, is world domination, and they could give a damn who knows it.
Hill Farmstead, on the other hand, labels their beers as pastorally as God laid out the Vermont woods where the brewery is located; the beers are generally divided into the “Ancestral” series, named after one of founder/brewer Shaun Hill’s bygone family members (Everett, Vera Mae, etc.), and the “Philosophical” series (“Madness and Civilization,” “Civil Disobedience”); the brewery hosts the Festival of Farmhouse Ales, a well-attended but fairly reserved event featuring complex, elegant saisons and sours; as for world domination, Shaun Hill, though appreciative and a little mystified by the response his product has garnered, is content to either wait for the world to come to him — which it has — or to wait for it to crumble around him: he doggedly refuses to expand, arguing that it would compromise the freshness and integrity of Hill Farmstead beers.
Each brand is certainly worth the hype. I’ve never had a Three Floyds beer I didn’t like; their Dreadnaught IPA is still one of the best I’ve tasted. Regarding Hill Farmstead, I’ve only had the opportunity to drink two of their beers — Edward, a pale ale, and Arthur, a saison — but if the remainder of the portfolio is reflected by the quality of those two beers, then the high ranking is well-earned.
It’s difficult to say what instigated, and then continued to facilitate, such a sudden changing of the guard. Quality, obviously, figures into it. Edward was the second-best pale ale I’ve every had; Arthur, the best saison. It’s no stretch, though, to view this as something of a microcosm of the ongoing backlash against corporate breweries, or at least breweries that, like Three Floyds, smack of the monolithic — the latter has something of a reputation, at least at festivals, of being a little prickly, earned by a combination of self-righteousness on their part and entitlement on the part of consumers.
And it’s a commendable trend, this Thoreau-like patronization of farmhouse-style, or at least tiny, breweries: Hair of the Dog, Logsdon, Funkwerks, Crooked Stave, Lawson’s, The Alchemist; all are enjoying considerable success based on little more than word of mouth and monastic dedication to a craft. Again, it’s encouraging: these are the real blue-collar beers, conceptualized, produced and packaged by independent artisans. In a sense, though (and I’ve touched on this before), we seem, however noble our intentions, to unknowingly feed the beast.
Three examples, in increasing order of ridiculousness: I, along with hundreds of other people, just paid $5 for the mere privilege of having the option to buy up to eight bottles of Central Waters Sixteen when it gets released in late January (the $5 goes to charity); two months ago, my cousin stood in line at Hair of the Dog in Portland, Oregon, for three hours to get me two 12-ounce bottles of Otto, an ultra-limited release; in the same city, I dropped $30 on a 25-ounce bottle of Cascade’s Manhattan NW.
This barely scrapes the tip of the iceberg. At Hill Farmstead, for instance, people stand in line for bottle sales and growler fills for nearly three hours on a normal day. It’s frustrating for Shaun Hill, a talented brewer and thinker who just wanted to move out to the woods and brew beer on his own terms (the brewery is within sight of his home) and who is becoming, I think, more and more attuned to the fact that just because you love what you do, life does not get any easier. Sometimes, it gets downright unbearable.
Perhaps, then, it’s appropriate that Hill launched his specialty “Philosophical” series. The study of philosophy can be rewarding, sure, for the gaining of insight into history and society’s most complex and damning questions. In philosophy, though, there are no true, final answers. There is only the newest question each answer uncovers and, drunk, we rush towards it, hoping that, if only for a moment, we are the only one pawing at it.