Top of the Hill, Chapel Hill, NC

 

 

 

John Withey
Top of the Hill
Chapel Hill, NC

Craft brewing is a relatively new industry in America. It took root in the early 80s and began blossoming in the early-1990s. More than a decade before New Albion started the micro craze here, John Withey was brewing overseas. The likable Englishman began his professional brewing career in 1964, before most of today’s craft beer brewers were even conceived. Trained in natural sciences, including biochemistry, at England’s famed Cambridge University, followed by an MSc at Birmingham University, Withey’s introduction to brewing came courtesy of Greene King Brewing in Suffolk, though he joined Whitbread Brewing shortly thereafter. By 1985, the tall, self-effacing Brit had worked his way to the head brewer’s slot at Whitbread’s Sheffield brewery when he bolted for a Production and District Director job with Shepherd Neame, where he remained until 1991.

For a change of pace, Withey ran a pub near Canterbury. But brewing still coursed through his veins. It wasn’t long before he installed a brew house in the pub. His brewing skills still acute, his timing was not. Suffering from a recession in Southeast England and enticed by an article in CAMRA’s What’s Brewing, penned by American beer writer Daniel Bradford, John decided to “come west.” Enthralled by the article’s “gold fever” fervor, Withey contacted Bradford, who informed the hapless English brewer of a job opportunity. Coincidentally, Bradford was working as a consultant for the founders of a new Chapel Hill brewpub. The rest is fate.

By the time Withey arrived in America to stay, Top of the Hill’s brewery had already been installed. The next steps, commissioning the brewing equipment and established beer recipes, were his. Since the third-floor brewpub opened it elevator and doors for the first time in 1996, there’s been little time to look back. And little reason.

John stakes little claim to the success of Top of the Hill. “It’s a college town,” he exclaims matter-of-factly, “beer is only one small factor. It’s really all about location, location, location.” Despite his humility, Withey’s beers are highly quaffable. They may be brewed for a partly non-appreciative audience, yet he still managed to produce 1,465 barrels in his 15 barrel brewhouse in 2000. All 45,400 gallons was consumed on site.

Top of the Hill keeps five or six beers on tap at all times. They sell no beer but their own, so obviously John has a lighter beer for the uninitiated. Keenan Summer Lager, available year-round, is “the default beer for Bud drinkers.” Crafted from UK-grown pils malt with a helping of Continental hops, John says his lager is too flat for style, but it is light, refreshing and the Hill’s best seller by far. Summer Lager is also John’s personal session beer. Not that he doesn’t enjoy drinking other styles, the Lager is his regular because it’s less filling and lower in alcohol.

John and assistant George Dusek delight in brewing Davie Poplar IPA. Into the boiling kettle they “chuck pounds and pounds” of Golding and Liberty hops, creating a steamy cloud of effervescent bitter floral aroma within the glassed-in brewhouse. Not dry hopped, the IPA’s malt bill is all-English, producing a well-rounded hoppy brew. Withey claims that he never brews IPAs the same way twice. In an effort to make it better than before, he is “always tinkering with the recipe in search for the perfect pint.”

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John’s Blackwood Mountain Stout scored high in the Beverage Testing Institute’s 1998 competition, though the beer is no longer brewed. It was too strong for most of his customers and not selling well, so the unfazed brewer decided to lighten it up. The resulting Frank Graham Porter is no doubt a scaled-down stout. Resplendent with black roasted barley, this creamy nitrogenized ale maintains some of the Stout’s harshness within its complex flavor range yet sports only a weak 3.9% alcohol content. With says the Stout will reappear one of these days.

Because dry-hopping in unitanks and serving vessels creates problems, Ellie’s ESB is one of Top of the Hill’s few dry hopped beers. East Kent Golding and Styrian Goldings, in pellet form, are the hops of choice. This smooth ale is malty with hops effect relegated to the latter half of each swallow. With the exception of his wheat beers, Withey does not filter his beers, using fining agents instead for those beers whose style dictates clarity. The seasonal Belgian-style Wit has the same bittering level as Summer Lager, yet hops attributes are completely masked by dried orange and coriander spiciness. Though stylistic characteristics dictate otherwise, Withey uses malted wheat in his Hefeweizen, which comprises 60% of the grain bill.

While working in the UK, he learned quickly how problematic real ales could be. Brewers “spend all their time worrying about the cask,” when in reality these traditional ales are far from the biggest sellers. In the past, John has tried cask-conditioned ales behind Top of the Hill’s oddly-shaped island bar. Floorspace is minimal in the cramped serving area, though he vows, somewhat frustrated by bar lay-out, to try again.

The tireless brewer somehow squeezes 19 barrels from each batch. The brewery, which is running at 75% of capacity, has five 19 barrel fermenters and six serving tanks. Because of its position atop a bank building just off Franklin Street, all ingredients must eventually be transported up a small elevator. Grain is stored elsewhere until need. An inconvenience indeed, but as co-founder and sole active owner Scott Maitland once said: “If we can put a man on the moon, sure enough we can put a brewery on the third floor.” Based on the continued popularity of Top of the Hill, Maitland has never regretted that sentiment.

Naturally, Withey had to adjust to American preferences – cold, carbonated beer – and has learned to “listen to what customers say and to make what they want.” He taught himself to recognize, by color and strength, how well a beer will sell when he brews it. He readily admits that bartenders play a key role in beer sales. He makes time to educate all of Top of the Hill’s front of the house staff, bartenders as well as waitstaff and hostesses.

Withey’s beer philosophy is just as realistically succinct: “Beer geeks go to microbreweries and expect to be surprised. Top of the Hill has always, always aimed for totally consistent beer.” In a late-1990s book, noted English beer author Roger Protz listed Withey’s domain as “one of the best 12 breweries” in the United States.” He should know. At Top of the Hill there are no surprises, just well-made, enjoyable, freshly-produced beer brewed for everyone.

Top of the Hill
E. Franklin Street
Chapel Hill NC 27514-3629
919/929-8676

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