The Quiet Genius of Wunderkammer

Vasilios Gletsos, head brewer at Hill Farmstead, is drawing on the naturalistic, agrarian and mystical for beers that defy categorization.

Some of the most intriguing beers coming out of Vermont’s Hill Farmstead Brewery aren’t Hill Farmstead beers at all. Infused with scores of foraged herbs, mushrooms, lichen and other “forest bycatch”—organic woodland matter ranging from star moss to twigs—Wunderkamer Bier is the brainchild of Vasilios Gletsos, whose boundary-pushing beers have been quietly produced within Shaun Hill’s acclaimed brewery since 2016.

The pair first met in 2005, five years before the opening of Hill Farmstead, and 10 years before Hill offered Gletsos—then working as a brewer in Portland, Oregon—the opportunity to move east to work in the cellar and, eventually, as head brewer. At the time, Gletsos was in the early stages of opening his own brewery, Wunderkammer, focused on experimental mixed culture, oak fermentation and foraged beers—he’d even secured most of the funding for the project. But when the opportunity arose to join one of the top breweries in the world, he couldn’t turn it down.

Gletsos arrived at Hill Farmstead in January 2015 eager to join forces with Hill, but unable to push Wunderkammer entirely from his mind.

“I remember, either while interviewing or early on in my employment, Shaun had mentioned a willingness toward side projects or side labels,” recalls Gletsos. In fact, at the time, Hill was operating his own micro label, Grassroots Brewing, featuring collaborations and beers that, for one reason or another, didn’t fit into the Hill Farmstead portfolio. And in 2015, Ryan Witter-Merithew, another recently arrived brewer at Hill Farmstead, launched Casita Cerveceria—an experimental brewery that has since expanded and relocated to the Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery in North Carolina—on the small Hill Farmstead system. “About a year later, I brewed the first Wunderkammer there,” recalls Gletsos.

Since then, Gletsos has produced dozens of beers under the Wunderkammer label, many centered on ingredients from the surrounding Green Mountains that he’s foraged himself. Volume Seventeen: Hyla Crucifer, for example, is a mixed ferment ale brewed with lichen (an edible composite organism), mushrooms, and, according to the label, “some sticks and leaves.” Volume Sixteen: Ordinary Diadems, meanwhile, gets its brilliant yellow hue—the color of perfectly ripe lemons—from local goldenrod flowers. And Volume Six: Fertility Statues and Symbols relies on yarrow, a flowering herb historically used for medicinal qualities, for a beguiling herbaceous sweetness.

But it’s not just the local flora that inspires Gletsos; often he’ll draw on the naturalistic, agrarian and mystical, too—a compendium of interests reflected in the name of his brand. “Conceptually, the wunderkammer boils down to a collection of objects of beauty, curiosity and wonder from the outside world captured in a chamber—a personal sort of microcosm or reflection of the world for contemplation and exhibition,” explains Gletsos. “So, for me, there is a clear correlation . . . to the historic wunderkammer—foraging materials and practicing my craft and presenting my beers to the world.”

In other words, Gletsos sees his beers as physical manifestations of his personal interests and pursuits—foraging, farming, art (he designs all his own labels), brewing and simply being outdoors. This holistic approach paired with an insistence on eschewing of-the-moment trends sets Wunderkammer apart, cementing his status among the tiny sliver of forward-thinking brewers.

His current production is relatively small—even by craft standards—about 1,000 liters a month, half of which goes into bottles and half of which is kegged for distribution around Vermont. With fall and winter on the horizon, Gletsos says his foraging season is winding down and his focus is turning to more traditional beers made with typical brewing materials like hops and grains. Come spring, though, Gletsos plans to dive deeper into the experimental, steering his process even more toward the esoteric.

“They go to a deeper and darker place,” he says of his forthcoming releases. “I know not everyone will be willing to follow me here, but they are some fun and weird beers.”

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