When New England descended into its most frigid depths in February or March, I’d start to feel the pull. A tug at first but soon the gravitational forces compelled me to get in the car and head a couple hours west to Brattleboro, Vermont. I only visited McNeill’s in the dead of winter, at least once a year for many years, when I’d feel trapped in Boston, suffocating from too much time spent huddling from the cold, needing a respite and replenishment of spirit. My friends and I would trek up to the southeast corner of the Green Mountain State, check into the art deco classic Latchis Hotel, grab a quick bite to eat, and then trek up the street to the quirky red house across from the fire station for a long session.
From the street, McNeill’s didn’t look like much and it had a potemkin-esque ability to obscure its true size. Painted fire truck red and adorned with an ostentatious McNeill’s Brewery sign and a hand painted mural of a cartoonish bartender, it presented as a smallish A frame house. A plate glass window gave passersby a glimpse of the warm, convivial, and welcoming environment contained within. I’d sit in that window and watch others walk by, people with no intention of stopping for a beer, only to be drawn in by the warmth emanating from the space.
From the moment you walked into McNeill’s, you felt part of something, an honorary and immediate member of an unspoken community of characters and you had a role to play. And there were always characters, colorful locals holding up the bar with lively conversation and ridiculous tales. These folks were drawn to Brattleboro’s progressive and lively community and relished playing their parts in the theatre at McNeill’s.
Once you entered the bar at McNeill’s, you could almost always count on the presence of the man responsible for curating this collection of curiosities, Ray McNeill. Any time I’d enter the place, my eyes would automatically scan the room for Ray. He’d usually be anchoring one end of the bar or he’d be playing congenial host, making his rounds talking to old friends and making first time visitors feel like forever pals.
Ray McNeill died on December 2, 2022, after a fire swept through his small second floor apartment atop the Elliott Street brewhouse and bar. His family confirmed the death via social media. Due to the fragility of the structure, the local fire chief ordered the demolition of the building the next day.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the bar room at McNeill’s. It is, I mean, was, a tight space. One I still can’t believe is gone. I knew it had closed a few years ago, even before COVID, due to a series of structural issues with the building. But I always held out hope they would be resolved, that I’d get to have a few more pints in that well-worn and welcoming space. The square, three-sided bar contained a sunken space in which the bartender operated. In the middle of the bar was a wooden Cougar head with tap handles jutting from it, a remnant from Vermont’s long defunct Catamount Brewery, where McNeill did part of his training. I can’t help but wonder what happened to it in the chaos, flame, smoke, and water. Around the room, a half-dozen long wooden tables, set up community style, welcomed guests to interact with one another. My friends and I have spent several hours trying to master the angles on a ring toss game on a bar post, with mixed results.
The simple, attractive exterior belied a hidden secret, that the building perched on the side of a limestone hill, precariously set on the precipice of a four story drop to the street below. The lower floors contained the brewery and the real mystery of the place. The space never made sense from an engineering perspective. How the building, with all the crushing weight of the brewing system, fermenters, and conditioning tanks, avoided sliding off the hill was a minor miracle. The building, which previously served as a police station, town office hall, and jail, was certainly a ridiculous place in which to operate a brewery. I still don’t understand how the tanks ever got into the building. Yet Ray had a vision.
“I was trying to create a sort of social meeting house for the town,” he told me back in 2005 as I was writing The Good Beer Guide To New England. “You know that stupid television show ‘Cheers’? That actually happens here. That’s what this bar is like.” At first, the interplay between guests at the bar might prove challenging for newcomers. “Some of them get it right away and some of them don’t,” Ray told me. “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.”
Ray McNeill was one of my favorite people in New England beer. Sharp, funny, brash, kindly, and brusque, Ray never lacked for outward displays of confidence, especially relating to his beer. He was the kind of character that as a journalist I love. Always quotable, at times confrontational, and always opinionated, he spoke his mind and delivered gold into my recorder. He was proud of the community he built at McNeill’s, which he loved to discuss, but he’d also happily dish on his hunger for beer knowledge, and which beer styles he thought were great or trash.
Ray was also legendary for his dislike of homebrewers. During one extended rant, he told me, “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 lot of homebrewers think they’re a lot better than they really are.”
With Ray, you just never knew what you were going to get. And the same could always be said for his beer. The beer at McNeill’s was legendary: it would either be among the best you’d ever tasted or the worst. Consistency was not something anyone expected from McNeill’s and that was oddly part of the place’s charm. Before visiting, beer geeks would check BeerAdvocate forums to get updates on how recent batches had tasted. A bad streak probably wouldn’t dissuade you from visiting–it never did for me–but you at least wanted to know what to expect. The hand-bottled 22 ouncers that defined his brewery’s off-premise trade boasted labels that appeared to have been drawn and affixed by a young child. We all still bought them by the dozens on our trips to the pub.
Anyone who visited the brewery at McNeill’s will never forget the experience. I wrote about my first experience in The Good Beer Guide To New England. I led the profile of McNeill’s with this paragraph:
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.
The experience was captured in a classic scene in the 2004 documentary, “American Beer,” by Paul Kermizian, who would later go on to open the Barcade beer bar group. In the documentary, Paul and four friends traveled to 38 breweries around the country in 40 days and interviewed many of craft beer’s most notable names, including Sam Calagione and Fritz Maytag. But it was the scenes at McNeill’s that stole the show. It accurately reflected a night at McNeill’s, which started early and ended incredibly late. You can watch Ray drain pint after pint, all the while entertaining his new friends. Ray’s tour of the brewhouse, which I’ve embedded here, isn’t to be missed. The vignettes from the trip include very personal and compelling moments with some brewers, including a haunting segment where Ray, a classically trained cellist, provides some chilling theme music for the film.
When he first considered opening a brewery, Ray 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. From the start, Ray focused on brewing traditional beer styles. “I’m really interested in beer styles, in what makes ‘pilsner’ pilsner,” he told me. “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 was never shy about touting his brewing skills and 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,” he told me in 2005. A lover of classic English style ales, Ray never wanted to brew beers he personally wouldn’t drink. “The basic premise is that we don’t make any beers that I don’t like,” he said. “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.”
Ray’s pride was most evident when talking about his Alle Tage Altbier, for which he won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 1995. “My Alt beer is one of the best anywhere,” he flatly told me. The story behind the beer, however, was classic McNeill’s. “I had this pallet of very pricey Czech malts and mice were getting at it,” he recalled. “And so I needed to use it while I still could. I was already throwing some of it away. 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.”
In creating his recipes, Ray always started with an idea, and then researched 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.”
Ray firmly believed that traditional methods had to 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.”
For all of his quirks, Ray remained a brewer to his core, always hungry to learn more about beer and brewing. That is one of many things I will miss about him and his iconic brewery. He loved the physicality of brewing and lamented when he bought a bigger system that required less hands-on work. “I used to love to make beer,” he told me. “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.”