What does a $30 bottle of beer taste like? I made the nearly four-hour trek from Boston to the venerable Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro Bend, Vt., to find out.
Standing on line at Hill Farmstead is like waiting for a jam-band concert to start. Guys with beards and girls in long skirts, wearing the T-shirts of other breweries they’ve visited, strike up conversations about their greatest beer moments. A couple of 50-something guys in line behind me have made the trip up from Maryland. They come toting empty Hill Farmstead growlers, waiting to be filled with IPAs with names like Susan and Abner. They’ve already made stops at about a dozen New England breweries, and I don’t dare ask how they’re going to get all this precious cargo home.
Our enthusiasm carries us into Hill Farmstead’s tasting room and retail store, where a tiny chalkboard in the corner reveals the special bottles on sale that day. One of them is Le Sarrasin, a collaboration with Belgium’s La Brasserie de Blaugies. The price tag is $30, but considering I’m all the way up here, I spring for two bottles in addition to my growler fills. It’s the most I’ve ever spent on any single beer.
Two years ago, a Vermont pub owner told me he thought Hill Farmstead brewer Shaun Hill was the best brewer in America. While that’s a tough thing to quantify, Hill’s beers are consistently among the best I’ve ever tried. Given the chance to bring his brews home (they’re not available in the Boston area), I gobbled up as much as I could.
La Brasserie de Blaugies’s Pierre-Alex Carlier and his son Kevin joined Hill in Vermont in June of 2013 to brew Le Sarrasin. It’s a saison made with hops from Mons, Belgium, and 30 percent raw organic buckwheat. The beer was fermented in both oak wine barrels and stainless steel, then aged for months in the oak. On the bottle, Hill says the beer is “among the finest farmhouse ales we’ve ever produced.”
I cracked open a bottle of Le Sarrasin on my son’s first birthday (sorry, kid, 20 years to go). It slips energetically into my glass, a haze of orange providing the backdrop for bubbles that move slowly, purposefully. The nose of this beer is shrouded in funk, a blast of barnyard and wet hay melding nicely with sour lemon pith.
Balance is the key to sour beers, which should be refreshingly tart but not bracingly so. You should expect balance and complexity from a $30 bottle produced by brewers of this magnitude, and that’s exactly what you get. The white grape skin and sour apple predominant in one sip takes a back seat to delicate black pepper and dandelions upon your mouth’s return to the glass. A musty, stinky cheese note is present throughout but is never off-putting. The mouth feel is wonderfully light, the liquid almost suspended on top of the tongue rather than engulfing it. As the drink warms, the various components vie for your attention, but none shouts too loudly.
Le Sarrasin is a truly exceptional beer, capturing a moment of time in brewing history unlikely to be repeated. Speaking of time, I’m keeping my second bottle in the cellar for another special occasion in a year or two.
The Alchemist Focal Banger
Just down Route 100 in Waterbury, Vt., The Alchemist Brewery has been rolling out beers other than its famed Heady Topper, holding “pop up” truck sales to dispense the new brews.
Earlier this month the brewery released Focal Banger, an IPA with a crisp Pearl and Pilsner malt base. While packaged in the same silver tallboy cans that Heady Topper has made famous, Focal Banger is a very different beer, slightly lower in alcohol (7 percent alcohol by volume compared to 8 percent) and hopped “judiciously” with Citra and Mosaic.
The Alchemist was kind enough to save me a couple of cans of Focal Banger to try. Straw-yellow in color with that trademark Alchemist unfiltered murk, the beer has a more fruit-forward nose than its counterpart. I get less pine in the taste as well, though it’s still sappy and resiny enough where you can’t help but take notice. This is another home run for the Alchemist, which plans on brewing the beer more regularly when its new facility is up and running in Stowe, scheduled for sometime in 2015.Gary Dzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GaryDzen.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version misspelled Shaun Hill’s name.