I don’t want to overplay my recent trip to McNeill’s Brewery in Brattleboro, Vermont, but when I got home it seemed like my arthritic knee was healed, my hair was growing back, and I’m pretty sure Mary Louise Parker winked at me from a passing car.
Okay, none of those are true. But life is always better after a trip to McNeill’s. At least it seems that way to me.
Ray McNeill has been brewing beer a long time and I had been remiss in visiting him lately. It’s not like I hadn’t been to his place before, it’s just that it had been a long time. Too long, I must admit now. Ray invited me – along with my pals Michael and Richard – up for a private tasting session a few Fridays ago. We sampled the few ounces of about 10 different brews, and let me tell you, they all were spectacular.
This normally wouldn’t be surprising, but the past few years have been rough for Ray. He was attempting to open a second brewing facility and things kept going awry. Then he developed some serious health problems which landed him in the hospital.
“Almost everything that could possibly go wrong did,” he said.
As hard as it was, they had to put his health first and basically just walked away from the second brewing facility. He is still ironing out a few things businesswise, but the good news is he is back and better than ever, at least in my opinion.
Of the 10 or so beers we sampled, I was amazed that the consistency of quality. I was also stunned by the fact that he made me like certain styles that usually not my favorites. Take his Maibock for example. It’s a style I like, but never gravitate towards. Let me say this about Ray’s Maibock: I might put it at the top of my list if I could get it on a daily basis. It has a smooth caramel aspect that is just outstanding.
Likewise his Pullman’s Porter, which got an honorable mention at the Great American Beer Festival back in the 1990s. It’s one of the best porters I’ve had in years. Granted, Ray uses more hops in the style than most brewers, and that, of course, suits my palate. He tells a great story about the beer:
“When it won the honorable mention, the judges gave me scorecards. And one judge said not to change one thing about the beer. But others said it was too hoppy, so rather than listening to the one judge who loved it, I listened to the others and changed it,” he said. “A little while later I was drinking it and said to myself, ‘I wish this beer had more hops,’ but then I realized, hey it’s my beer and I can add more hops if I want to. So I did and brought it back to its original form.”
Other standouts of the afternoon were his ESB, which is a multiple award winner, and the Firehouse Amber Ale, which may have been my favorite of the afternoon. Of course, I also savored his classic Dead Horse IPA, which I’ve enjoyed in bottled form for years. Unfortunately it will no longer be available in bottles. Ray is changing the way he does things and bottling will no longer be on the menu. However, a pending agreement with another brewery may see some of his beer showing up in cans sooner rather than later. I’ll keep you informed if and when that happens.
So, if you find yourself up in Brattleboro, you should definitely check out McNeill’s. I would even recommend taking a specific trip to go to the brewpub. It’s a beautiful little town and McNeill’s is definitely one of the highlights.
George Lenker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org