In the early 1990s, during and after my time at Marlboro College, I spent countless hours at McNeill's Brewery in Brattleboro. Some months I spent more on beer than rent, probably - neither were very expensive. My favorites were the Extra Special Bitter, the Oatmeal Stout, and the legendary Dead Horse IPA (“you can't beat a Dead Horse”).
I think every one of us who loved McNeill's could write a memoir. The darts, the sound of Jenga crashing, Holiday's chicken chili, watching election returns, flirting with Amy or Rob or Chris behind the bar. Knowing that you would run into someone you knew. Miles Keefe's smile and bird laugh at a good story or indefensible opinion. Someone sitting in Fenwick's giant chair, holding court on top of a pile of coats.
Maybe Nora would draw your portrait on a coaster while you drank unawares.
Maybe Richard Coutant or Richard Gottlieb would be at the bar, and things would get philosophical, but not serious. Maybe Giles would come in, and you would build a dome of toothpicks and gum on the bar while he rambled about Buckminster Fuller. Maybe Ruby would come from the Common Ground with a tray of her flan. (It happened!)
The more I think of this, the more I remember: Taylor and Eve running around; laughing at (sometimes with) out-of-towners; and some memories that I can't write here, but man ... there were some nights.
It was the perfect bar.
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At the center of it was Ray McNeill - tie-dyed, moody, by all accounts brilliant.
You always knew where you stood with Ray. He once declared me a “hop head” when I told him a particular batch was not bitter enough for me. He once asked me when I would start brewing. I was honored.
When I came back with my family after 10 years away, he said he was glad to see me. I was stunned that he remembered me.
The bar had closed during Covid and did not reopen, but Ray continued to brew.
On the night of Dec. 2, there was a fire in that old building. Ray was living in the apartment upstairs from the bar and didn't make it out.
I am heartsick for all of Brattleboro, for all of us who loved the place, and mostly for Ray's family - for his children, whom he was so, so proud of.
Eve and Taylor: I have the best memories of you two scrambling around the bar. Your dad talked about you endlessly. I came back every few years, and he would give me the proudest updates. May the love of this community, your memories, and his legacy lift and comfort you for the rest of your days.
The loss of Ray and McNeill's to us all is immeasurable, but amidst all the sadness, what gratitude for the place and time. I think those of us who have the Marlboro-McNeill's love combo are experiencing an especially poignant sadness and loss.
Rest easy, Ray. Long live McNeill's.