Small Town, Big Beer

May 19, 2017

By Aaron Goldfarb, May 19, 2017

My wife had lived in Massachusetts her whole childhood yet never heard of Monson. We’d passed the tiny town numerous times taking I-84 to visit her family in Newburyport, just north of Boston. It still didn’t register as a place worth stopping en route.

There’s no rest stop in Monson. No McDonald’s. Even my wife’s mother, seemingly an expert on every city in the state, able to spew facts about places like Haverhill and Beverly, upon hearing where we were visiting, had to ask, “Monson???”

But, yes, Monson – population of 9,000 give or take – had become a destination I absolutely needed to get to. Finally, on a Saturday morning this winter, we exited 84 and took a winding country road some fifteen miles off the highway, toward a 1600s mill town with few businesses more than a Rite Aid and Sunoco gas station.

Why did we do this? Because Tree House Brewing Co. is located in Monson.

It’s perhaps only in the beer world that places like Monson, Massachusetts, Greensboro, Vermont, and Decorah, Iowa are “legendary” towns, bucket-list locations, starred on beer geek’s Google Maps like they’re Paris or Tokyo. That’s, of course, because these small (if not minuscule) towns house breweries such as Tree House, Hill Farmstead, and Toppling Goliath – arguably the three most acclaimed breweries in America at the moment.

But are these breweries fully deserving of their acclaim? Or are they so highly acclaimed because they lie in such hard-to-reach destinations? In other words, is some “small town effect” at play here?

Michael Kiser / Good Beer HuntingMonson: little town that serves as a home to a giant in brewing.

Before the microbrewery boom of the last several decades, breweries pretty much only existed in large urban areas. When immigrants moved to America, they typically didn’t want to settle in the sticks. So the Dutch and English laid ground in New York City and began brewing the beers of their motherland. The Germans and Czechs settled in Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis and did likewise with lagers. Steam beer arose in San Francisco when everyone immigrated west in the 19th century.

These weren’t just booming areas with good access, via waterways and rail, to means of bringing in the necessary ingredients to make beer; these locations also had plenty of people. It used to go without saying that you needed to brew beer in places where there were plenty of people to actually drink it.

Not any more.

When Shaun Hill returned home in 2010 after brewing at Nørrebro Bryghus in Copenhagen and started laying the foundation for his own brewery, he didn’t pick Boston or Burlington or even a place people had actually heard of like Vermont’s capital of Montpelier. Instead, Hill decided to build a brewery on his family’s farm in Greensboro Bend. Like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, Hill seemed to sense that if he simply made good enough beer, “they will come.”

He was right.

I recall the first time I visited Hill Farmstead in 2011 or so. Hill’s beers had just begun garnering buzz online, though his distribution was still tiny. I can’t recall if I’d ever even tasted any Hill Farmstead offerings before my wife and I headed up to Vermont for a little weekend getaway, stopping first at The Alchemist’s earliest production brewery in Waterbury, likewise a tiny town.

The Alchemist had just begun to can Heady Topper and, though many beer geeks already knew about it, I was still able to march in unimpeded and buy a case without waiting in any sort of line. In fact, so few people were in the brewery that day, my wife and I spent a good twenty minutes shooting the shit with brewer John Kimmich and his wife Jennifer. When they heard we planned to visit Hill Farmstead next, John abruptly stopped us from leaving.

“Wait. I’ll go print out some directions for you.”

But we have iPhones, I persisted.

“They won’t work out there,” he explained as he handed me a MapQuest printout.

Michael Kiser / Good Beer HuntingBring an actual map, maybe. to go get some of Hill Farmstead's hand crafted genius.

Indeed, by the time we were driving on the snow-kissed, dirt roads of Orleans County, our iPhones were getting absolutely no bars and Kimmich’s computer printout had become our bubble-jetted Sherpa. If Waterbury was a bit of a Mayberry in its own right, the town of 5,000 still had a lot going for it: an Amtrak station, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters’ headquarters, Ben & Jerry’s main factory. And, even if it was home to no buildings taller than 100 feet, it seemed like Hong Kong compared to tiny Greensboro Bend.

That first trip to Hill Farmstead, just five years ago, found us as the only customers in the small tasting room aside from two overalls-clad farmers. Still, the beer was unquestionably outstanding, well worth taking us an hour away from, what we would consider, civilization. Did beers like Everett and Society & Solitude #3 taste so good because they were so hard to get to? Maybe. But maybe that was part of the romance of it all.

As Hill told Boston Magazine in 2015, “One of the most interesting things anyone has said to me was Richard [Geoffroy] from Dom Pérignon, who said, ‘In the end, luxury is emotion,’ which I think is amazing.”  So, it seems even Hill (quite savvily) believes you are more likely to get that emotion, that feeling of luxury, of quality, of greatness, if you have to travel to the middle of nowhere to try his beers.

My wife and I felt a similar emotion upon finally getting up to Tree House in February. Again, the snow-covered, winding roads (though, thankfully paved and Google Map-able). A humble sign the only thing alerting drivers-by that a business was here. The gravelly, dirt parking lot, with equipment and barrels inter-strewn amongst visitors’ Volvos.

Unfortunately, unlike my Hill Farmstead visit in 2011, today beer geeks are willing to travel wherever, whenever, creating long lines everywhere we go. Still, even if I had to stand in a line and grab a number to get a growler filled, the excitement of acquiring this vaunted Tree House beer was palpable. And, even if I had to wait ’til I got to Newburyport to drink beers like Doppleganger and Bright, the taste was remarkable.

Still, very few supposedly “great” beers seem to come out of the country’s biggest cities.”

Others clearly agree. Looking at BeerAdvocate’s current top 250 list, there’s utter dominance by small-town breweries. Hill Farmstead claims 17 beers on the list. Tree House occupies 19 slots, with four beers (like Good Morning at No. 2 and King Julius at No. 4) in the top 10. The Alchemist counts four beers on the list, pretty much everything they regularly can. Lawson’s Finest from Warren, Vermont (population: 1,705), Kern River from Kernville, California (1,395), de Garde from tiny Tillamook, Oregon (4,944), they all place a few beers on the top 250.

There are eight spots, including the overall No. 1, awarded to a small-town brewery in Iowa. When Clark Lewey founded Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. in 2009, he selected the small town of Decorah – population 8,127 – simply because it lacked quality beer. “It would’ve been more beneficial to our company to start in a metropolitan area,” Lewey told the Des Moines Register last year.

I have to wonder if he’s actually right. I’d say being in Decorah, just south of the Minnesota border, over 200 miles from “big city” Des Moines, actually benefits Lewey’s beers. Toppling Goliath’s beers – the rare ones I’ve been able to get my hands on – truly do impress (and I’ve only drank them in Brooklyn, never Decorah).

Lots of breweries make the same kind of bourbon barrel-aged, coffee and vanilla and maple-infused, beers these day. Yet none dominate BeerAdvocate’s top 250 list as does small-town Toppling Goliath, which also has the No. 1 overall beer of the moment, Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout. The romance (and resulting rarity) of Toppling Goliath’s small-town brews has to be somewhat in play here.

Admittedly, I have had plenty of awful beers in plenty of small towns. Still, very few supposedly “great” beers seem to come out of the country’s biggest cities. Match the top 10 largest cities to the Beer Advocate Top 250 and you see:

  • Four beers from New York City (3 Other Half IPAs and SingleCut’s Softly Spoken Magic Spells)
  • Nine beers from Los Angeles (all big imperial stouts from either Bottle Logic or The Bruery)
  • Three beers out of Chicago (all Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stouts)
  • Zero beers out of Houston
  • Zero beers out of Philadelphia
  • Zero beers out of Phoenix
  • Zero beers out of San Antonio
  • Twelve beers from supposed beer mecca San Diego (a smattering of stouts from AleSmith, IPAs from Alpine, and sours from The Lost Abbey)
  • Zero beers out of Dallas
  • Zero beers out of San Jose

I refuse to believe it’s mere coincidence. Those aforementioned cities, with combined metro area populations of 75 million people, only manage to place 28 total beers on Beer Advocate’s Top 250 today. That’s barely more than Tree House has all by itself!

New York and LA and Chicago and San Francisco, with all their Michelin-starred restaurants, famed chefs and publicans, World’s Best cocktail bars, and wealth of people, ideas, artisans, and cold hard cash, can’t also seem to produce as much world-class beer as a few tiny towns? Hmmm.

In 2015 Toppling Goliath signed with a company called Brew Hub. Founded in St. Louis by “(beer) industry executives and craft brewing experts,” Brew Hub’s Tampa-area facility contract brews and then packages beer for their “partner” breweries. While most famously used by chain brewpub BJ’s, Toppling Goliath opted to utilize Brew Hub to increase canned quantities of some flagships like psuedoSue (a pale ale) and Golden Nugget (an IPA).

Now those Toppling Goliath beers are available well outside of small-town Decorah, in six states and even as part of the current Jurassic World exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum. Beer drinkers suddenly seem to enjoy them less. Maybe it’s because Brew Hub hasn’t quite dialed-in the recipes yet. Maybe it’s the resulting lack of rarity. Or maybe people just want to trek to a small town to drink great beer these days? As Reddit user sevenzig bluntly put it:

“Any [Toppling Goliath] beer not brewed and served on tap in Decorah isn’t that great.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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