Top Shelf Brewing Company

Shelf. Just Shelf.
Top Shelf Brewing Company, Manchester

September, 2013

My Top Shelf Beer Reviews


Top Shelf burst onto the scene in 2013 with a grand opening and big bottle release “party.” No one had ever had a Top Shelf beer before, but the tweets and facebook upates suggested that the lines should start forming around 9AM for the 1PM opening.

I remember alerting my beer-circle friends to this and we all sort of scratched our heads. No one had hardly even heard of Top Shelf and there was virtually no buzz about its quality. Since they opened, a slew of new breweries have opened in the state: OEC, Black Hog, Broad Brook, DuVig, Overshores… and all opened in their own ways, but none with the mysterious puffery of Top Shelf.

I visited the brewery, housed in a “historic” mill in Manchester. From their website:

Top Shelf found a home in the historic Hilliard Mills complex located in Manchester, CT. Known as America’s oldest woolen mill site, it once housed a factory famous for creating the wool stitched into the suit that George Washington wore to his inauguration. It’s also noted that this same wool was used in the blankets for soldiers in the War of 1812. Continued success made the Hilliard Mills one of the longest continually run industrial sites in the country.


I have no idea how true all of that is, but it sounds good. (I do know that Hilliard Mill was a woolen mill and it was super old.) The parking lot for the brewery is also from George Washington’s time, but that’s not so uncommon for breweries.

ughThe space is clean and just a little weird. The incredibly tiny 3-barrel system seems like a toy. The taproom bar is certainly serviceable and does the job. I read somewhere that this is where Onyx Moonshine started out. If true, that’s pretty cool too.

I want every Connecticut brewery to succeed. No, every one can’t be “the best.” Or even great. I think our small state can sustain probably 35-40 breweries. Seriously. We keep 33 or so wineries afloat, and on average, our breweries are better than our wineries. Plus, breweries can distribute WAY better, can make way more styles, and can bang out a new style in a month. Wineries are at a huge disadvantage with all of this.

So when I have difficulties with a few of our breweries (or museums or trails or anything, really), it’s not because it’s “cool” or “fun” for me to bash these places. I don’t like doing it.

tsbBut at the same time, when I started this non-commercial website six years ago, I made it a point to be honest. To not accept freebies left and right. To not become immersed into the various industries I write about. To remain a bit of an outsider. That allows me the freedom to say something sucks when something sucks.

Which brings us back to Top Shelf. They are celebrating their first birthday soon, and I’ve promised myself that I’ll return to check it out. They aren’t too far from my work and house, yet I’ve never gone back after my first time. Yet I’ve been to NEBCO and Beer’d and every other brewery in the state multiple times in the interim.

You are piecing the puzzle together here, right?

I actually visited Top Shelf twice in their first few months. Once in September and once in December, during a bottle release party. The guys who run the place were very nice and very excited about their product. The beer I sampled – free samples, y’all! – was much, much better than the bottled efforts. They clearly have had a year-long, on and off bottling infection problem. Period. I can’t mince words about that issue.

Sterilize everything. Then do it again. Start fresh for year two. Please.

oyVeyThere have been issues with the website – not an uncommon thing, but still a bit annoying. It’s September 2014 and the current “coming events” page on their website is still this same December 6 bottle release party. The beer listing is all goofy, with their flagships listed as their “specialty” beers. They put out a job posting for a head brewer three months into their operation.

Again, there could be perfectly legitimate reasons for such a job posting, but all these different things sort of add up to a mess. Who opens a brewery and needs a head brewer within three months – without the current brewer going anywhere? Top Shelf does.

During my two visits, I bought every bottle available. I drank them all – or at least tried to – and unfortunately they were not good. I’ve heard a few damning rumors about certain things that have happened at the brewery during their first year. I know stuff about from distributors and others “in the business” that does not bode well. However, everyone is clear to state that “the guys seem really cool and nice.” So let’s stick with that – nice guys, a sterilization program, and a new head brewer. 2015 could be Top Shelf’s year!

tseI sometimes think about the “fairness” of reviewing our breweries right out of the gate. There is a restaurant reviewer “code” that lets them get their fet under them for a few months before reviewing. I love that policy – for restaurants. Think about it; when you go into HotNu Restaurant and order the Caesar salad, duck and risotto, they are making those three items for you right then and there. When you go into HotNu Brewery and order their flagship ales, those beers were made 2 months ago, tasted and tested and kegged and tasted and tested and bottled. To me, that’s just a very different scenario. That beer should be good. Perfect? No, not at all. Every brewery, no matter how good, hones their craft over iterations.

So I’m totally over the “Oh, they’re new, be easy on them” thing. I visited OEC, Beer’d, Firefly, Black Hog, Overshores, um… Relic, Shebeen, Broad Brook, … all within their first three months. Some of them, within their first 3 hours. And I didn’t “expect” infected and/or terrible beer because they were new. And nor should you.

Lastly, I admit that am somewhat skeptical about the whole operation. Why? Because as I was rolling through some Top Shelf reviews, I happened upon one of the owner’s untappd account. It’s great to have confidence, but some of his reviews are a bit concerning.

I can’t even be cool about this. If you know why this, in its totality, is ridiculous, enjoy. If not, then oh well.

These oldsters took one sip each, asked if the brewery used extracts, and left. They had a European accent and seemed to know a bit about beer. I like them very much.

Top Shelf Brewing Company
CTMQ’s page on CT Breweries and Brewpubs

Top Shelf Beer Reviews
CTMQ Drinks every CT Beer

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