Located at historic Hilliard Mills in the rustic eastern Hartford suburb of Manchester, TOP SHELF BREWING COMPANY opened its doors during August 2013 – right in the midst of Connecticut’s booming microbrew renaissance. Distributing product all over the state from a 2,000 square foot warehouse, the three-barrel nanaobrewery has room for expansion.

Taking up the space Onyx moonshine distillery once occupied (and picking up the slack left by the closing of Tullycross Brewery), Top Shelf came into existence when three nearby UConn alumni (home brewer Mike Boney and fellow co-owners TJ Lavery and Joe Frost) gained inspiration from local New England and Back East breweries and decided “it was time to get involved” with brewing on a professional scale.

On my initial one-hour February ’14 Saturday afternoon exploit, the inconspicuous cement-floored tasting room featured samples of various limited edition ales and one winter seasonal as well as three flagship beers (bought for home consumption). Behind the tap room in a seperate space, the immaculate brewhouse puts out the well-rounded selection of generically-named American, Belgian and Irish styled ales.

I reach for Smoked Belgian Ale , an alternate to the regular Belgian, upon entering. Its lightly smoked peat malting, toasted caramel spicing and earthen musk pick up meager orange fruiting. But a lack of true Belgian yeast character hurts.

Three more limited edition brews hit my lips thereafter. Snowed In Imperial Stout brought chocolate-chipped molasses malting to caramel-burnt toffee-cocoa-coconut restraint, creme brulee sweetness and compost-wafted winter spicing.

Village Charm IPA gained floral-perfumed citric hop prominence as lemony grapefruit rind and Chinook-hopped resin subtly embittered creamy crystal malts.

Interestingly experimental hybrid, You Be The Judge, an unclassified one-off (?) offered raw-honeyed cider souring to saison-like lemony orange tartness, vinous green grape esters, kiwi-mango-guava tropicalia, fig-dried acridity and sourdough wheat (retaining a crisp watered freshness).

My only problem was that Top Shelf’s Belgian- Style Ale surprisingly had a similar pungent yeast profile as their Irish Style Ale.

For the former, an astringent cider solvency seems to outdo the apple-soured green grape tartness and herbal-peppered guava-kiwi-pitaya tropicalia. As for the latter, a blatantly acrid cider souring overruns the peated molasses malting.    

Bottled versions are listed in Beer Index.


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