‘Open with caution’

Ray McNeill did things a little differently, in brewing as in life

WILLIAMSVILLE — I would happily make a sandwich, with mayo, on the floor of most breweries these days. They're as clean, if not cleaner, than hospitals, for the simple reason that a lack of sanitation is the quickest way to produce bad beer. Bad in terms of flavor, and badly behaved, too - beers that gush out of bottles like a garden hose run amok.

Ray McNeill did things a little differently, in brewing as in life. For a while, he had a production brewery out on Route 5 in Brattleboro that I visited a time or two, and I was always struck by its resemblance to an overworked and understaffed auto repair shop run by a guy who, as a kid, never cleaned his room. Random parts seemed to have been tossed about, randomly.

We all have our methods.

On one visit, Ray gave me a case of Professor Brewhead's Old-Fashioned Brown Ale that he said he had over-primed. “I don't know, maybe I did it twice. But open with caution,” he said. The beers were festooned with Ray's typically lighthearted and haphazardly placed labels. I stashed the case in the garage, but realized a few days later that two of the bottles had blown up.

Now that I was in mortal danger from flying shards, I took to handling the bottles as if they were loaded with nitroglycerin. This was years ago, and I was a little startled recently to find I still had a few bottles in a small refrigerator I keep in the garage and clearly don't think much about.

That I would keep these bottles around at all shows a fierce dedication to free beer and an emblematic tribute to my Scotch Presbyterian background.

Yesterday, Saturday, I awoke to find out that the fire at McNeill's Brewery on Eliot Street I'd heard about the night before was far worse than could be imagined. Ray was in the apartment in the upper floor of the building.

He was gone.

* * *

Now I was in a world with no Ray McNeill. Later in the day, its demolition underway, I was now also in a world with no McNeill's Brewery. It was a multiple diminishment.

I clearly wasn't alone in my shock. Social media was soon awash in dismay and tribute, both to Ray and to his establishment. A pub sing, a tradition that had long been held at McNeill's prior to the pandemic and the pub's closure due to structural problems, was to take place in the afternoon at the River Garden Marketplace, now run by the Whetstone Beer Co.

At the River Garden, the afternoon light slowly departed as the crowd gradually swelled, as did the tunes, memories, stories, and tears.

More than one rendition of “McNeill's Ales” rang forth, a traditional English pub song with its title and chorus long ago adapted to fit the original location for the sing and, no doubt, what many of the singers then had in their glasses.

There was no McNeill's Ale to be had at the River Garden, but beer there was; the wash of music and emotion, and the social lubricant of beer to be sure, began to pool into an odd eddy of melancholy and comfort.

Those on line to order their pints were happy to swap tales of their first visit to McNeill's or its original incarnation, Three Dollar Deweys, on South Main St., when Ray was solely a publican, not yet a brewer.

* * *

Naturally, I have my own tales.

It was at Three Dollar Deweys, on one of our first trips to Brattleboro while I was still living in New York, where I ordered Bios, a Flemish oud bruin sour.

“I'll give it to you,” Ray said, “but you're not going to like it. It's a little different.” Indeed it was, but wonderfully so. Ray's challenge instantly expanded my beer horizons.

Just as he did at the pub sings, Ray once willingly gave me the floor at McNeill's for a literary reading sponsored by Windham County Reads. In a daylong marathon, readers were reciting selections in schools, libraries, book stores, general stores, a bakery. Naturally, I chose a bar, and I unfurled a few poems and a selection from Thurber for Ray's bemused afternoon imbibers.

It was at McNeill's that my wife and daughter and I came up with the three-step Meaning of Life, the one catch being that you have to do all three:

1. Have fun.

2. Make friends.

3. Try to be of some use.

It was Ray playing the cello at a wedding we attended (he was a classically trained musician), and it was a keg of Ray's beer we served at our daughter's wedding.

It was at McNeill's that Ray held a blind tasting between his newly brewed Lazarus Double IPA and Heady Topper, the beer from The Alchemist in Stowe that was then being hailed as the best in the world.

Four of us took part, including Ray, and three of us picked his as the better beer. He picked Heady Topper.

That's when I took six bottles of vintage-aged Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine-style Ale (from 2010-2015) and parked them at Ray's, planning for some future beer tasting that would never come.

* * *

McNeill's Brewery was an indispensable community asset. How many tens of thousands of pints were pulled there, fueling how many millions of laughs and memories?

Whether he was riding his bike along Route 30, or he was wearing his tie-dyed shirts or a T-shirt that said, “Beer is the reason I get up every afternoon,” Ray was a genuine character, often beloved - but still not always an easy one.

He was known to sample his own wares to a degree exceeding good health. His attitude could be as volatile as an over-primed beer.

Paul Sayler, founder of Zero Gravity Brewing in Burlington, was working at Catamount Brewing in the early '90s and living in these parts, so he became something of a regular at Three Dollar Deweys.

“I was one of the early brewers to survive Ray's initial cantankerous bluff and work my way into his good graces,” he said. “Ray was then selling more Catamount beer than any other outlet, and he used that to some advantage to gain an apprenticeship at Catamount.”

“And you said that was a good idea?”

“Well, I didn't say it was a good idea; I knew better than that; Ray had a habit of alienating people that was such a future-ending way. But I supported it.”

Many of Ray's beers were prize-winning efforts; I never lost my affection for his ESB, Extra Special Bitter. But he did go through a period when many of his brews, once bottled, became virtually undrinkable. In the years before the pandemic he seemed to have found his best stride again.

* * *

The last time we communicated turned out to be two months ago.

Each year, Ray would give me some beer for the Brattleboro Literary Festival authors' dinner, and we would have our at-least-annual chin wag over some pints, Ray sitting in his usual spot on the right-hand side of the bar, me on the right corner.

This year, I assumed that the construction needed to reopen the brewery and pub was not yet complete and that Ray was not yet brewing, but I figured I'd check in just in case.

So I shot him a Facebook message.

He answered, “My dearest friend....”

This was McNeill hyperbole at its best.

“To begin with, you could take the Bigfoot beers you left with me 6 or 8 years ago. There is little doubt (in my mind) that they are worthless. Yet, they have occupied space in my cramped fridge for years.”

That grouse out of the way (and I have no doubt if I had picked the beers up we would have sampled them anyway), Ray said, “I, personally, will be making a pilot brew this weekend. There is 0 chance that I would donate that to anyone other than a select few. But when that beer is ready, I would be delighted to hear your feedback.”

“Glad to hear you're firing up the kettle!” I responded. “I would certainly be honored to sample the result.”

And I would have been.

I heard from one of Ray's friends that the beer he was brewing was the Lazarus; he was still trying to find that former sweet spot of a beer.

Today, while writing this, I finally opened one of the over-primed Professor Brewhead bottles - daringly, without safety googles. Pretty much as expected, it gushed like mad, and it did not taste good.

But it made me laugh.

And I loved it.

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