McNeill's pushes beer envelope

By Donald S. Gosselin

Few visitors to the hamlet of Brattleboro, Vermont will forget an encounter with one of the local rising stars on the New England brewing horizon. To begin with, Ray McNeill is quite a sight, "I'm the fattest and loudest-dressing brewer in New England," he proclaims in outlandish style. Visitors to McNeill's Brewery will often find the massive master brewer garishly clad in a multi-colored, tie-dyed smock and tee shirt, his hair style nodding politely to that of the late Larry Fine of Three Stooges fame. Some may be tempted not to take Ray McNeill seriously. You will, however, once you taste his beer.

As one of a growing trend of brewpub establishments that also bottles and distributes its beers off-premises, McNeill's is now widely available in Vermont, and will soon be available in Massachusetts package stores and pubs. Redbones in Somerville recently devoted several prized tap handles to some of McNeill's beers. As for the beers, they're kind of like... well... they're kind of like Ray. All of McNeill's beers are bold and dynamic, "in your face" sort of products. Far from being a slave to all of brewing's more stodgy traditions, McNeill seems to delight in pushing the envelope of certain brewing styles. This rule-breaking approach certainly shows up in his beers. His Firehouse Amber Ale is far from just another brownish tinted knockoff. Rather, it is an extraordinary example of a malty Scottish style ale --- an example that one might not expect to find here in the United States, much less in Brattleboro, Vermont. Exterminator Dopplebock has a distinctive noble hop aroma that is rarely, if ever, found in German examples. While McNeill often challenges style, he can also be a fierce devotee to certain brewing traditions. Dead Horse India Pale Ale, for example, is so richly infused with authentic British ale hops that perhaps other microbrewers may add a bit of it to their India Pale Ales and boost their hop aroma.

McNeill's Alle Tage Alt is a classic example of the altbier, or German ale, style. So much so, that the 1995 Great American Beer Festival awarded it a Gold Medal for the style. McNeill's Alt is what it is, a very well hopped German ale hybrid -- one that features some of the fruitiness of an ale with some of the smoothness of a lager. "If you can't taste the (hop) bitterness in an alt beer, then it is not an alt beer," McNeill proclaimed recently. Apparently, the judges at the Great American Beer Festival agreed.

Oddly enough, Ray McNeill started out as a classically trained cellist. After finding life in New York to be too much of a rat race, the McNeills packed their bags for Brattleboro, Vermont. Once there, they acquired Dewey's Ale House, a flagging local pub. The McNeills put a great deal of sweat equity into the place and turned it around. In 1991, McNeill began a brewing internship with the Catamount Brewery of White River Junction, Vermont. He swapped the Dewey's name for his own, purchased some brewing equipment and promptly began making waves across the northern New England microbrewing scene. Now with an eye on the lucrative Massachusetts market, McNeill is well into his second expansion of the pub. A larger scale bottling operation is planned for the very near future, after which, Bay State retailers will have access to an even greater array of McNeill's beers.

Big Nose Blonde Ale
Fruity and light quencher with ample hop flavor.

Alle Tage Altbier
Copper-amber with hints of chocolate and caramel. Smooth structure, well hopped with lots of German hop flavor, a classic.

Firehouse Amber
Amber color with ample heady malt, Scottish 60 shilling style, fruity ale.
*** 1/2

Dead Horse IPA
Huge, vegetal British hop character leaps out of this unfiltered, creamy ale.
*** 1/2

Pullman's Porter
Molasses and chocolate nose. Fruity ale with splendid creaminess.
*** 1/2

Exterminator Dopplebock
Dense malt, warming with good smack of hops. A potent brew.
*** 1/2

© 1996 Donald S. Gosselin