with John Withey
Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery, Chapel Hill, NC
You’ve brewed at just about every size of brewery during your career.
I started in Greene King doing a pupilage, and then an improvership―you never hear of that these days. Then I spent 20-odd years at Whitbread, which was then a national brewery, I was seconded to various places all over the U.K., and, of course, in the headquarters, Chiswell Street, which was pretty good fun. There was a brewer’s house there, which we paid virtually nothing for. We lived in the City of London, we had free food and free drink, with a maid and a cook.
It was all downhill after that…
It certainly was (laughs). Following Whitbread, I moved to Shepherd Neame in the southeast of England
…which is the oldest brewery in England?
Yes. Well, actually they’ve got the date wrong, but they don’t like to admit it. It’s not 1698, as they say, but they can’t change that now. That was a medium-sized regional brewery.
Following that, I decided to try my hand at being a publican, Big mistake. An absolute dog’s life, having to deal with totally unreasonable customers. That was near Canterbury, in a village called Stelling Minnis. Eventually, I put a little microbrewery in there and did cask beer. But we were hit at the time with breweries putting rents up, and the opening of the borders with France, which gave people the ability to go to France and drive back with a whole load of alcohol. It really hit sales. Having said that, I could sell all the beer I made in the summer, but I couldn’t sell anything in the winter. All the big brewers were discounting like crazy, and the publicans were being squeezed.
I was a member of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, and they had a newspapaer, What’s Brewing. There was an article in there that headed off with “Go west, brewers!” and it was a thinly-veiled advertisement for this job. I wrote, and here I am. I’ve been here 13 years.
What changes have there been here over the years?
When I first came here, they said, look, this is the South. People are very careful and conservative, they don’t like change, and they’d rather drink Natural Light. So we did start off making things relatively bland. But over the years, we have deliberately made everything more assertive.
It’s difficult, because there are basically two types of craft brewers; there are craft beers who have to brew beer for people to guzzle in large quantities―like us―and there are craft brewers who can make all kind of funky stuff that you couldn’t drink more than one bottle of.
But you do make specialty styles, like this imperial stout.
We don’t sell very much of those styles, but we like to do it, and we feel we need to have it there for those people who do want it.
The two most dramatic successes we’ve had here are the wit and, funnily enough, the blueberry wheat, which we’ve just taken off. There were howls of protest about it. Who would have dreamt I’d ever be putting fruit in beer?
Or brewing a Belgian style?
Yeah, but we’ve improved on it (laughs). When we first opened, the most adventurous beer was probably the IPA. We’ve brewed doubles, other strong styles. The funny thing is, the best thing we’ve ever brewed was a saison. The guys from Allagash came in here, and they said, gosh this is better than ours, and they drank a whole load of it. But the public didn’t drink much. It’s always the same, though, with a new beer: you just have to grit your teeth and keep it on for it to become popular.
One thing we haven’t done is lactic brews, And we haven’t put beer into bourbon casks, but I think we can safely wait until we have some casks of our own [from the distillery to be opened later this year]. Otherwise, we’re done pretty much everything. I know we’ve brewed about 60 different styles.
I come from a culture, as you know, where you drink weak beer and lots of it. Cask ale, draft bitter, those are the real session beers. We need them here at the brewpub, and that’s my personal preference as well.
The interesting thing is that we’re going to be doing cask beer in the new bar we’re building. We just bought a two-headed engine. There’ll be one cask beer, as they’re only small casks. We’re aiming to do two firkins a day and when it runs out, it runs out until tomorrow. The first beer will be the pale ale―that’s the very reason we’ve got the pale ale on at the moment, so we can tune it to be ready for casking
What characteristics are you looking for?
Obviously dry hopping makes all the difference. And the other thing that makes a huge difference is the temperature and lower carbonation. You don’t want it too bitter, and you don’t want it too strong. Strength makes it more difficult and slower to fine. If it’s right, it’s just pure nectar.
You known for brewing very bright, clear beers.
I was a judge at the GABF three or four years ago. I took a flashlight and the first thing I did was to click it on and have a look at the cloudiness of the beer. This goes back to when we were judging cask beers in the U.K. If it was cloudy you didn’t even bother tasting it.
I got at least two beers that were absolutely thick. I had them changed, and I got clear beer the next time, which is saying to me that they were bottle conditioned. To me, that’s cheating, because if you’re sending bottle-conditioned beers, you’re falsely overcoming the problems of oxidation when you bottle.
There is a trend about at the moment. We noticed it particularly out in Seattle a few years ago. It seems the beers are all cloudy: one has the impression people think if it’s cloudy, its craft beer. We stick by our belief that if a style is supposed to be clear, it’s got to be clear. People are paying good money and they deserve to have the right style and the right polish on it.
So, how do you get bright beer?
We fine them with eisenglass, which really is just like cask beer. What I’d like to go on a bit about is this business of clarity. At the Great American Beer Festival, the style guidelines say “chill haze acceptable.” I don’t think it is: I think it’s totally wrong. It never was, so why should it be now? I think people are taking advantage of this to enter beers into competitions that are cloudy. And people aren’t judging on clarity; they’re only judging on taste.
When you cool a beer, the proteins precipitate and form a haze. When you warm hazed beer, the haze will disappear. The idea is, of course, you create a chill haze when you chill a beer, then you filter it to get rid of the haze, and you stabilize the beer. I think people are losing that distinction.
Will bottle-conditioned beers always be susceptible to chill haze?
Yes, well they should be. There are people―Sierra Nevada’s a good example―as far as I know, they clarify their beer, then add some yeast back in before bottling. I can’t criticize them, because all their beers are excellent. But if you have a normal, bottle-conditioned beer, it will throw a haze below about 45 degrees. So you don’t want it too cold, to pour at its best.
Did you run into resistance from the other GABF judges over clarity?
Oh, yes. I remember this one―a very nice bloke, actually―I went to his stand afterwards, and I said “I’ll try your wit if I may,” and he said “You won’t need your flashlight for this, mate, it’s meant to be cloudy!”
Julie Johnson is the technical editor of All About Beer Magazine.