Ask a brewer in New England for a Ray McNeill story and prepare to either be uplifted or appalled. On one hand, stories abound of his generosity to other brewers, with heaping contributions of freely given technical advice or much needed raw ingredients donated in a pinch. On the other, darker hand you'll find a multitude of less glowing reviews, from angry, self-righteous tirades to allegations that other brewers have stolen his recipes.
A recent profile piece in the Boston Globe attempted to gently pull back the covers on the somewhat reclusive McNeill. While it went far to capture the engaging ambience of his no-frills pub, it only provided mere hints as to the moody character that lies within him.
A common, early image of McNeill is one where he dressed in brightly colored Zuma pajama pants, a tie-dyed t-shirt, no shoes, and frizzy black hair. McNeill's hair is now cropped short, lightly graying at the temples, and he sports a simple knit sweater and jeans. Instead of toiling over mash tuns and bottling operations, McNeill now makes sales calls from his office apartment perched in the slanted rooms above the pub that bears his name. He keeps the books, makes deposits and takes orders. A classically trained cellist, McNeill - the bohemian spirit and pub owner - has turned into a respectable Brattleboro, Vermont businessman.
When he first considered opening a brewpub, McNeill approached the task the best way he knew how: by reading every brewing text he could find. He would select a technical brewing manual, read it cover to cover, and then start all over again. After spending time training at the Catamount Brewery in White River Junction, McNeill eventually started brewing on his own system at his pub.
When he opened McNeill's Brewery in a rundown building in downtown Brattleboro, a structure that once served as a police station, a town office hall and a jail, McNeill had a vision. "I was trying to create a sort of social meeting house for the town.You know that stupid television show 'Cheers'? That actually happens here. That's what this bar is like." The bar's insular atmosphere can prove challenging for outsiders. "Some of them get it right away and some of them don't," says McNeill. "Some people from out of town just figure it out right away. I've seen people from out of town, within twenty minutes, were on a first name basis with another half dozen people. If some people live in some real cloistered suburban place, they're probably not going to figure it out. But a lot of them do. If people don't know who I am, I certainly try and encourage that. If I see someone from out of town, I try and start a conversation with them right away. I go a little bit out of my way to do that."
From the start, McNeill focused on brewing traditional beer styles. "I'm really interested in beer styles, in what makes 'pilsner' pilsner," he says. "And what makes pilsner different than Budweiser. Then going a little further, what makes north German pilsner different from south German pilsner different from Czech pilsner. And I became a pretty serious student of that."
McNeill is not shy about his approach to brewing traditional beer styles. "To some degree, I know this sounds a little egotistical, but to some degree with some beer styles, I define them, at least in the Northeast. The basic premise is that we don't make any beers that I don't like. For instance, I don't like Belgian Tripels so I never bothered to learn - well I know a little bit about them but I've never made one. I never went that far because I didn't want to. I think it makes sense that if you're a chef and hate cake, it's unlikely that you're going to put your heart and soul into becoming a great cake baker."
He points to his Alle Tage Altbier, a beer widely praised among beer enthusiasts and in beer competitions, as being one of his best accomplishments as a brewer. "My Alt beer is one of the best anywhere," he flatly states. The history of McNeill's Alt beer, however, is not so well-regarded. "I had this palette of very pricey Czech malts and mice were getting at it.," says McNeill. "And so I needed to use it while I still could. I was already throwing some of it away. We used to have a mouse infestation here but I haven't seen a mouse here in years. So the mice were getting into this malt and so I was going to either have to throw a thousand dollars worth of malt away or do something with it. So, we we're so stressed out for production and there was no time to make a lager beer, which is what this malt was really made for. It was Moravian malt from Czechoslovakia, which we still use. So I had to come up with an ale. I had to come up with something that I could make relatively quickly, so I launched a big alt investigation."
McNeill does admit that he brews some beers solely for business reasons. "We make a couple of beers here that I just have no interest in," he says. "But there's some market demand for that type of beer. So there are like one or two beers that we do it just because I know it's going to sell. I don't even know why we bother at this point because everything sells."
In creating his recipes, McNeill starts with an idea, and then researches the style thoroughly before embarking on a batch. "I would decide, 'Ok, I'm going to make kolsch. What defines kolsch?' And I would read anything that I could find about kolsch and try to determine what raw materials I would be using if I lived in Koln. I also have a couple of friends who are skilled brewers who have traveled all around the world and have extensive notes. So I would often ask them, 'Tell me all about all of the kolsches you have ever had.' They would just email me their notes. I would talk to anyone who had ever had it, especially brewers that have been there, and get any samples I could possibly find. Then I would buy the raw materials and make kolsch. I've been very effective at doing that."
McNeill firmly believes that traditional methods must be employed to achieve true-to-style results. "There have been other brewers who have made kolsch, but they were using Ringwood yeast and you can't make kolsch with that yeast. You can't make it with British malt. You can't make it with British hops. It was just all wrong. We don't do that. We're lucky enough that the main yeast strain we use here has a very neutral flavor profile and allows me to paint what I want on the canvas with malts and hops. Yeasts with stronger flavor profiles are more easily identifiable. I think it's a little like if you're a painter and you're trying to paint, you want the canvas to be white. If the canvas is pink to begin with, that's going to come through somehow in everything that you do."
With Ray McNeill, you just never know what you're going to get. The same can be said for his beer. Order a pint at his pub, and you may have an entirely memorable experience. Beyond the hype, the beers on tap at McNeill's Brewery are usually worth a special trip in their own right. But pop the cap on a 22-ounce bottle that looks to have been hand-labeled by an uncoordinated child, and you may find yourself with a flat, insipid version of that same style. Carbonation levels pose a continuing problem for the brewery, though concern there is hardly palpable.
While you can pick up a few bottles at the pub, the distribution of McNeill's beers outside of Vermont is spotty at best. Outside of the Green Mountain State, you may occasionally run across an occasional single, neglected bottle of Dead Horse IPA orphaned on a package store shelf - or an even rarer pint of draft Extra Special Bitter.
Behind the facade of the little red house on Elliot Street, with a deeply slanted roof, lurks the lair of Ray McNeill. Pass through a door off the main bar room, down a rickety metal staircase (pause to note the bitterly cold wind whistling through sizable gaps in the exterior siding) and watch your step, you find yourself in the scariest brewhouse in America. The brewhouse at McNeill's Brewery is a freezing cold dungeon that, in a testament to the free-spirited, laissez faire nature of Brattleboro, has not been condemned. God bless the poor brewers who have toiled in this evil, inhumane environment to produce a flavorful range of ales and lagers.
For his part, McNeill misses spending time in the crowded, dank brewhouse. "I used to love to make beer," he says. "The physical act of brewing was like sex to me. I just loved it. If I had a day off, if it was Christmas, if it was my birthday, I wanted to make beer. And that changed. I think it changed when we got the bigger brewhouse. Everything was more automated. When the manual labor got reduced, it lost a lot of its appeal to me. Before, I was doing this by hand. Now, we're just throwing switches."
Following his lead, I ask McNeill if he misses the loss of intimacy with the machinery. "It's more like a loss of intimacy with malt," he says. "I liked being a production brewer. I think I was actually happier being a production brewer. If, and when I get the new brewery open, I am probably going to head production for some time until I get things dialed in. This brewery will continue to operate and I will fire up the new one. When the new one is fired up and running smoothly, the people working here are probably going to start working there."
Rumors that McNeill plans to expand his operations beyond the Elliot Street pub have scored more mileage than a New Yorker in foliage season. For his part, McNeill speaks vaguely about a timetable and plans for expanding to a new package facility. He prefers to talk about what he would like to do with additional space and equipment. "I'm trying to figure out a way that I can package all of the beers in 22-ounce bottles for Vermont distribution, while putting out another six or eight or ten of these beers in 12-ounce six-packs for wider distribution," he says. "Sooner or later, all of the beers in the new plant will be filtered and krausened. None of the beers are filtered now. Krausening is remarkably effective in giving shelf stability to beer."
During our wide-ranging, several hour conversation, we switched gears frequently to discuss a variety of topics. At one point, McNeill offered his views on the so-called 'extreme beer movement'.
"I think it's a bunch of hokey crap, by and large," he says. "With the exception of Dogfish Head, because I think that Sam (Calagione) really thinks that getting that spoiled grape juice out of the refrigerator and throwing it into a beer is a good idea. He is out there but he is genuine about it. I think that most of the other ones are just trying to make money through marketing hooey. They come up with the bizarre beers in an effort to appeal to a certain member of the public who thinks that a 21-percent (alcohol by volume) beer has got to be great. In fact, most of it sucks. So that's what I feel about the 'let's pour some maple syrup and raisins and some pineapple juice in our beer, we'll add two or three more yeast strains and store it in a Jack Daniel's barrel and then we'll put it in a cutesy little blue bottle and sell it for twenty dollars each and try and get press all around the world with it.' It's just hooey. It's PT Barnum crap. My opinion has always been, 'if you're a really good violinist, you play the violin. If you suck, you get an electric violin, and a fuzz box, and a wah-wah pedal and then no one has to know that you really suck.' For the record, and you can print this if you want, if you believe that Sam adds hops every minute for 90 minutes in his 90 Minute IPA, then I've got some beachfront property in Colorado you might be interested in. That's marketing hooey. I've only met Sam once, and I really like his beers, but that's just ridiculous."
Ask McNeill about beer geeks, and he launches into a tirade about the arrogance of homebrewers, complete with several dusty anecdotes.
"Well, there's a yin-yang thing for you. Homebrewers can be very rude and egotistical and arrogant. Years ago, I was buying a house and the realtor suggested we get someone to inspect the house.When I got there, my now ex-wife said to me, "This is John and he's a homebrewer.' And I said, "If I help you out with your homebrewing, maybe you can cut the bill in half." I was just kidding and it was just a joke. The guy deadpanned and said, "I don't think I need any help with my brewing." So I dropped the subject completely. A little later, as we we're walking through the house, I said, 'So John, how often do you make beer?' He said, 'Well I make beer about six or eight times a year.' I said, 'And how long have you been doing that?' He said, 'Oh, I've doing that for about six or eight years.' So here is a guy, who by his own admission has brewed forty or fifty times in his life. At that point, I had overseen the production of a thousand or fifteen-hundred brews and this guy thinks I don't have some information that he doesn't have. It was absurd. So they can be a little like that. I think there's a difference between beer geek people and homebrewers. Homebrewers can be disrespectful and arrogant. I don't care what anybody says, there's a big difference between making beer a few times a year in your garage and reading thousands of pages of technical literature and then making thousands of beers. Beer is a weird thing. It doesn't come with a scorecard. If you're a golfer and you shoot 112, you know that you suck. But if you're a homebrewer and you make a third-rate beer, you probably think it's great. A a lot of homebrewers think they are lot better than they really are."
During my visit, I watched McNeill play genial host to guests of his pub, myself certainly included. He occasionally floated between tables, talking with regulars, hugging friends, buying rounds, and even sitting down to talk with complete strangers. Watching him in his own environment, it is clear that few pub owners in New England are so closely identified with their establishments. The pub is perfectly named: It is indeed 'McNeill's' place.
Our conversation went on at length beyond the above topics. There's probably another hour of tape covering a range of topics, from McNeill's debunking of the myth that open fermentation provides different results from closed fermentation, to why craft beer has limited growth potential, and ending with a rant on why Stella Artois is worse than Budweiser (you can save four bucks buying Budweiser). But as with all things Ray, these are stories for another day and another visit.