We believe the building that became McNeill’s was constructed in 1892 and originally served as one of the fire stations on Elliot Street. The 1892 structure was a replacement for the fire station that had been there previously.
McNeill’s moved into the building in 1990 and began brewing beer in January 1991.
Ray McNeill was very proud of his daughter and shared stories with The Brattleboro Historical Society.
Ray would tell of the trajectory of daughter Eve’s career. We reminded him of a meeting between Eve and a BUHS teacher when Eve was at Mount Snow Academy. Eve needed a history course. She came to BUHS to find out whether or not she would take a Western Civilization course. The course was described to her and she responded, “I’m not doing that s….” Ray would laugh, at times uncontrollably and say, “That’s Eve.” We would remind him – that was you, also, Ray.
Eve Remembers Ray
“For the record, I regret not taking that course. God I wish I’d studied more history. Trying to catch up, but you know, there’s kind of a lot of it.
“You may not know this, but I was one art credit short of graduating from high school, and I said ‘f… it, I’m not spending an extra semester here to finger paint.’ I know teens can be pigheaded and short-sighted, and I cringe to remember how ‘juvenile’ I was.
When I later applied to Harvard and they sent for my transcript at BUHS, it had me marked as graduated.
I don’t know who did that, and I’ll probably never have a chance to thank them, but it literally changed my life. Harvard, Dartmouth, UCSF, Stanford. None of that would have ever happened without the help of someone back at home.
“I was a horrid teen, and the hell I put people through is no doubt going to come back to me when my kids hit that age. I told my 6-year-old to put his dirty clothes in the hamper instead of on the floor and he gave me that dismissive wave, rolled his eyes, and said, “Whatever, Eve.”
Eve’s final thought was about Brattleboro. “There’s a lot of love and forgiveness in that town.”
JUST A BAR
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A fire, a death, a bittersweet last call: The final 24 hours of a landmark Brattleboro pub
Ray McNeill (lower right) hosts patrons at his namesake brewery in Brattleboro. Photo by Karl Isselhardt
Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
A rose sits outside the charred remains of McNeill’s Brewery in Brattleboro around 2 p.m. on Saturday
BRATTLEBORO — When The Boston Globe visited what it called “this quirky southern Vermont town” in 2005, it raised a glass to one particularly spirited landmark.
“To those who love a good pint of beer,” the newspaper wrote, “Brattleboro is a year-round mecca, and the object of their devotion is McNeill’s Brewery.”
Owner Ray McNeill was a bit more modest. Take this past Friday at sundown, when the musician turned beer maker offered a taste of a new brew to a worker who was trying to help him reopen his downtown business closed since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Ray pronounced it drinkable, with all the right balances, but he wasn’t as thrilled with the flavor,” friend Stuart Strothman heard from the tester.
McNeill, last seen about 6 p.m., retired to his second-floor apartment over the barroom, his drinking buddies said. Less than two hours later, smoke alerted the town fire department just across the street to a blaze that took the 62-year-old’s life, authorities confirmed Monday.
None of the stunned locals who stared incredulously at the scene over the weekend knew what ignited the Elliot Street mainstay — built 150 years ago, in a twist of fate, as a firehouse.
“An investigation determined the area of origin was on the second floor, but the cause is going to remain undetermined,” Fire Chief Leonard Howard said. “There’s no criminal intent.”
But as townspeople gathered for one last call outside the three-decade community watering hole, they collectively told a story about a cello-playing, bike-pedaling barkeep who was scheduled to flee construction delays and the coming winter by flying to Mexico this week.
“Makes this doubly tragic,” friend Gray Zabriskie said.
Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, McNeill migrated to Bennington College in 1980 to ferment his love of music. He was bartending to pay for a master’s degree when he decided to open his Brattleboro brewery in the early 1990s.
“’I was obsessed — I wanted to make great beer,” he told the Globe. “But business was awful.”
Then crowds appeared when McNeill’s German Altbier won a gold medal at the 1995 Great American Beer Festival.
“Everyone from the construction workers outside to the attorneys down the street,” he told the local newspaper in 2003. “We’re sort of like the town melting pot.”
Brattleboro Selectboard member Jessica Gelter was a college student when she first visited McNeill’s to reunite with her old high school classmates.
“Then, when I was pregnant, I’d hang out with friends and a seltzer,” the now 37-year-old mother said as she eyed the charred space once filled with communal tables. “This was such an important cultural hub.”
Standing nearby: Alfred Hughes Jr., the glitter-sprinkled Brattleboro preschool educator who annually teaches the town how to wear a star-spangled gown in the Fourth of July parade.
Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
A crane targets the cupola of McNeill’s Brewery in Brattleboro at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
A backhoe levels McNeill’s Brewery at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Seemingly everyone in town had their own story. The Rev. Susie Webster-Toleno, a self-described introvert more partial to cider, professed she and McNeill had similar occupations.
“We sit in solidarity with those who are grieving and celebrate with those who are rejoicing,” the minister posted on Facebook. “We share sacred stories and our own interpretations of them, we pray, and we sing — oh, how we sing! And doesn’t that all sound like what happened in McNeill’s for so very many years? Our community has lost what was a sanctuary, a truly holy place.”
“The wear and tear of dumping thousands of gallons of acid, base, water and beer, combined with the weight of the 17 serving tanks (an estimated 22 tons) took their toll,” McNeill posted in February. “I honestly have no idea how long this is going to take. At any rate, provided I survive the ordeal physically, I think we will be back better than ever.”
The building’s instability prevented firefighters from entering Friday. Instead, water trucks from three states aimed up to 1,000 gallons a minute from the street before controlling the blaze at 9 p.m. and departing at 10:30 p.m.
Around noon, Renaud Brothers Construction of nearby Vernon arrived with concrete barriers and backhoes.
At 2 p.m., McNeill’s friends watched as firefighters salvaged the pub’s chairs, clock, framed art and front-door mural.
At 3 p.m., a growing crowd gasped as a seeming carnivore of a crane toppled the building’s cupola and tore into its red-clapboard shell.
By sundown, 24 hours after McNeill tasted his latest brew, the local institution had evaporated.
In a town known for debating everything from ambulance providers to zero-sort recycling, everyone stood together, silent in mourning.
“This was a home for many of us, and many different generations of us,” Strothman said. “Ray was the most generous proprietor and a remarkable man — very irascible, very direct, and very, very kind. He would give you the shirt off his back and did so many little things for so many people.”
But again, McNeill was a bit more modest.
“I’d like to point out that my bar is just that, a bar,” he told the Globe.
Those who hugged and cried in its wake over the weekend felt differently.
Beer Nut: A eulogy for brewing legend Ray McNeill By George Lenker
It’s 2:07 AM on Dec. 3 as I write this. I have just confirmed some of the worst news I’ve ever heard in the beer world.
Ray McNeil is dead.
I certainly can’t claim to have been a close friend of Ray’s. But over the past decade or so, I got to know him quite well and marveled at his incredible acumen about all things brewing. In fact, he was erudite about so much more than brewing. I don’t throw the word “polymath” around casually, but Ray certainly seemed to fit the definition.
McNeill died Dec. 2 in a fire at his Brattleboro brewpub, where he had an apartment upstairs.
McNeill’s Brewery was a legendary place on Eliot Street that opened in 1990. It was the closest thing to a real Irish pub I’ve ever seen in the U.S. Rustic, cozy, welcoming, the bar was a hangout for skiers, lovable Brattleboro oddballs, and of course, lovers of great beer. Because that’s what Ray brewed. And for a while, you might even catch Ray playing his beloved cello with a jazz group on certain nights.
But along with his love for cello (and bicycles), Ray had an equal passion for brewing great beer – and he brewed lots of it. The beer board always listed a dozen or so brews, and while they all were always on tap, that was mainly because they would sell out. And Ray almost always had some real ale from a cask available. That alone set McNeil’s apart from most brewpubs and beer bars.
I never spent as much time there as I wanted to. I’m lazy, and there are good craft beer venues right in my own backyard. But the times I did visit – often with my dear friend Michael, who was a good friend of Ray’s – were always great adventures. Ray could spin a yarn as well as anyone, and he had so many wild stories about his travels, his colorful patrons and, of course, beer. He was also hilarious, with a wonderfully dry sense of humor.
I never met anyone who could break down the brewing process the way Ray did. Open the tap of Ray’s mind and a delicious blend of science and artistry would flow out. And when he spoke about beer, the knowledge gushed out effortlessly. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone. He didn’t have to. The proof of his expertise was in the pudding – or in Ray’s case, the beer.
McNeill’s shut down during the pandemic, of course, and before it could open again, structural issues were found with the building, so Ray couldn’t reopen until those were repaired, which he was in the process of doing. I was honored that Ray allowed Micheal and I to still visit (on the sly) a few times, during which he would serve us maybe the best beer I ever had: a Bohemian Pilsner. Ray had found a perfect yeast and malt combination. I feel blessed that I was one of the few people who will ever have sampled it. (It was so good that I did two columns on it.)
So goodbye, Ray. There will never be another you. The 1970s band Clean Living once sang, “In heaven there is no beer,” but I never believed that to be true. Why would God ban such a beautiful creation?
And here’s a sure bet: The beer in heaven is now going to get a whole lot better.