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This brewer's sounds and suds are sweet

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. -- Skiers and snowboarders who speed past this quirky southern Vermont town on the way to the moguls of Mount Snow don't know what they're missing. To those who love a good pint of beer, however, Brattleboro is a year-round mecca, and the object of their devotion is McNeill's Brewery.

''I have three passions," says brewery owner Ray McNeill. ''The cello, bikes, and the beer thing." Aficionados of fine brews in New England and beyond have to be deeply grateful that McNeill put aside his pursuit of a graduate degree in music to concentrate on the ''beer thing."

In a two-story building on Elliot Street here, the brewmaster brings his talent and single-mindedness to exemplary lagers and ales. The place used to be a firehouse, then town offices and the police station and jail. McNeill, who has a dry, sometimes caustic wit, likes to joke that after a night of partying, the town's rowdier element ''used to sleep here. Now they work here." Among the mix of locals of all ages and skiers stopping in on their way home from the slopes there is invariably a family with kids sitting around playing board games. Once a month, McNeill brings two of his passions together -- the cello and the brew -- and plays for his customers. The brewer-cellist rides one of his mountain bikes or road bikes -- ''I'm down to five bikes right now" -- about 1,000 miles a month, weather permitting, but only townspeople here see that side of him.

The focus of the place is the beer; McNeill has 35 in his portfolio, and the bar usually has 11 or 12 brews on tap. ''With the exception of a Belgian double," says the owner, ''we do not make Belgian beers because I do not like them."

Though McNeill doesn't do much brewing himself anymore, all the recipes are his. ''We've tweaked them over the years," head brewer Otis Rogers says, ''but they're all Ray's ideas. He's the creative one, I'm the one who makes things work."

The beer has a very loyal following, says the head brewer. But that took time. After first opening a bar in another Brattleboro building in 1985, which served specialty beers -- McNeill did this to finance his musical studies -- he bought and renovated the Elliot Street building in 1989-'90.It was then he decided to start making his own beer, so he read and re-read industrial brewing books, apprenticed at the Catamount Brewery in White River Junction two days a week, and ''made lots and lots of beer," McNeill says. ''I was obsessed. I wanted to make great beer. But business was awful." Patrons who came to the bar were drinking everything but McNeill's beer. It wouldn't catch on.

In fact, the industry loved what he was up to. But it wasn't until he won his second medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 1995 -- a gold for his German alt beer -- and the Rutland Herald wrote a piece about him that the locals started paying attention.

''Now we make as much beer as we can and we sell as much beer as we make," says McNeill. That translates to about 1,000 gallons of beer per week.

The bar itself is a rustic but comfortable space with big communal wooden tables, a horseshoe bar, a dartboard in one corner, and paintings by local artists on the walls. ''It's not one of those shiny, sleek brewpubs you see opening these days," one longtime patron says. ''Ray probably didn't spend a whole lot of time poring over catalogs looking for furnishings."

McNeill waves aside questions about whether the bar has art openings or live music or food. ''It sounds like you're tying in the bar with the beer here," he writes in an e-mail. ''I'd like to point out that my bar is just that, a bar."

But the musician does admit that he plays cello in a ''funny jazz band" at the bar the first Wednesday of every month. The band includes double bass, mandolin, guitar, and sometimes violin. McNeill says, ''We play a wide variety of music, from jazz standards to reggae to '60s television theme songs. It's a hoot."

And there is also food: grape leaves, hummus, and lamb stew supplied by a good Middle Eastern restaurant down the street. You can also get salsa made by McNeill. ''No kidding, it's some of the best salsa you'll ever have," Rogers says.

Some of McNeill's beers -- Dead Horse IPA, Firehouse Amber Ale, and Extra Special Bitter -- are available in 22-ounce bottles throughout Massachusetts, but unless you go to the pub, you can't get the alt beer, the Scotch ale, or the salsa; you can't hear McNeill play the cello. And you'll never see him hop on his bike and ride away.

McNeill's Brewery is at 90 Elliot St., Brattleboro, Vt., 802-254-2553.

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Ray McNeill's Brattleboro, Vt. brewery has 35 beers in its portfolio.
Ray McNeill's Brattleboro, Vt. brewery has 35 beers in its portfolio. (Globe Photo / Caleb Kenna)
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