Last updated on April 14, 2020
Revered brewer Shaun Hill believes a trip to New Zealand in 2004 set the wheels in motion for a career that has made him a global beer star.
Hill visited New Zealand in March to select hops to take back to his renowned Hill Farmstead brewery in Vermont.
It’s his sixth trip to New Zealand, the past five to buy the Kiwi hops that define many of his beers. It was his first trip here in 2004 – hitchhiking and working on organic farms – that put him on the path to brewing greatness.
“I was a young sprite on a round-the-world trip – New Zealand was destination one for just shy of two months. I was on my own, exploring – it was very inspirational, and the unfolding of my life in the beer world was shaped by that time in New Zealand.
“The New Zealand beer scene itself was quite weak at that time – but I met two different women who somehow drew me, at different times, to Europe.”
One of those journeys to Europe was to work at Nørrebro Bryghus, a famous Copenhagen brewery where he created award-winning beer and gained the confidence and knowledge to set up his own business.
“I met a girl called Annika in Wanaka,” Hill explains. “We talked for only two hours but exchanged details and kept in touch.
“When I moved to Copenhagen is was because of Annika – I moved there to take that job because of my willingness to explore a relationship with her – that’s the quick version.”
At the end that round the world trip Hill tasted a beer brewed with NZ-grown Nelson Sauvin hops and he was hooked on the flavour profile.
“I started experimenting through 2005 on trying to make a beer that tasted like sauvignon blanc, using those Nelson Sauvin hops, and I ended up calling the beer Annika.”
While the relationship with Annika didn’t work out, the brewing experience in Denmark was critical for Hill. He returned home to found Hill Farmstead on his family’s century-old farm, building a unique brewery that is regularly ranked No. 1 in the world according to the review site RateBeer.
Philosophy and spirituality
Hill studied philosophy at university and what fascinates him as much as beer is the nature of consciousness and spirituality. His round-world trip that started in New Zealand finished with a yoga retreat in Kathmandu.
His philosophy background is reflected in beers with names such Civil Disobedience, Geneaology of Morals, Society & Solitude, Self-Reliance, Beyond Good & Evil. Others bear personal names such as Anna, Arthur, Edward, Flora – usually as tributes to some of his ancestors.
On the plane to New Zealand for this trip he read The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer. It tells the story of what happened when, after a deep spiritual awakening, Singer decided to let go of his personal preferences and let life call the shots.
“I’ve always been fascinated with consciousness and I’ve been drawn to Buddhism and other spiritual disciplines through the course of my life – and hitchhiking around New Zealand at the age of 24 was as close as it gets to surrender. Reading that book on the way over here reminded me of that.
“There were so many amazing coincidences that kept unfolding during that trip.”
Hill says the echoes of New Zealand in 2004 are still with him – and come back every time he returns to the Nelson area for the annual hop harvest, taking home hops such as Riwaka, Motueka and Nelson Sauvin with their flavours of passionfruit, lime/tropical fruit and sauvignon blanc respectively.
“I’m inspired by landscape and places, and when I started discovering Motueka, Riwaka and Nelson hops. They created this emotional recollection for me, solidifying the spiritual unfolding I experienced when I was here in 2004 and which in turn created the unfolding of the 15 years to follow.”
Pursuit of perfection
Hill has a simple explanation as to why he’s been so successful in those intervening years – although it comes with a warning, and it’s again tied to the exploration of self.
“My own lack of self-esteem and self-love through much of my youth led me towards wanting to become a perfectionist. I wouldn’t settle for anything less than being one of the best at whatever I was doing because I thought that when I arrived at that place I would actually feel all the things I should have felt and that they’d make me feel good.
“I spent a long time building up the mechanisms of control which you need to make a really amazing product that’s consistent. But there is very little happiness within the confines of obsessive-compulsive control over process.”
Hill acknowledges his continual pursuit of perfection was ultimately an exercise in frustration but he only really learned to “let go” when he expanded his brewery in 2014.
“My worst nightmare was that at some point I would lose my magic touch, so to speak – and it happened.
“I had one of the most difficult but fortuitous happenstances in 2014 when we expanded our brewery. I drilled a new well, installed a new brewhouse, got a grain silo – all things we didn’t have before.”
But the new brewhouse also changed something.
“We destroyed a lot of beer – 40,000 litres or more went down the drain over the course of two years.
“So, when people tell me ‘Hey man I’ve never had a bad beer from you’, I say ‘I know. We destroy the bad beer’.
“As a result of that I had to unlearn all the things I thought I knew – I had to basically surrender and say ‘I don’t know anything – all I’ve been doing is making educated guesses’.
“What I’m doing now in relation to my business and brewery is letting go of so much control.”
The importance of mouthfeel and texture
That said, Hill admits his microscopic attention to detail is what creates the Hill Farmstead “thumbprint”. And if there’s one thing that sets apart his beers it’s his focus on creating a holistic experience via texture and mouthfeel.
“My hyper-focus on mouthfeel and texture is something that no other brewery had done when we started focusing on it. No-one seemed obsessed with the overall experience and sensory satisfaction that comes with texture and mouthfeel. After all, you’re putting this in your mouth, it shouldn’t feel like razor blades, or be too bitter, it should be pleasant.”
Hill’s obsession with mouthfeel and texture is best summed up by his Poetica Pilsner, which he describes as one of the best beers he’s made. It’s created in the traditional Pilsner Urquell style which requires three months lagering in wooden barrels. Ideally, it’s then poured in the traditional Czech style, from what is known as a side-pull faucet.
In a world where brewers are constantly throwing more and more ingredients into their beer, stepping up hopping rates and boosting alcohol – Hill believes he’s created something close to the perfection because of its sheer simplicity.
The best compliment he can give it? “It’s wet.”
“When I taste this beer I would describe it as a very wet beer – the best beers are wet. If I’m drinking beer I want my mouth to feel ‘aaahh’ because of that overall presence and a beautiful wettingness.
“It’s so round, so wet and so honest. In a way it’s a testament to a process that’s been in perpetual refinement for the past 15 years.
“There is no place to hide in a pale lager that is balanced and not over-hopped. The more adjuncts, the more hops, the more alcohol we put into a process the harder it is to discern the precision of the artist’s brushstrokes, so to speak.”
In perfecting the beer, Hill guesses he wasted 50 litres just trying to learn how to pour it properly – with the traditional Czech method.
“I wanted to absolutely nail the texture through the serving process because people forget that how you pour a beer influences the way the carbon dioxide interacts with your palate and that’s something the Czech folk discovered long ago.”