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Sep 23, 2014

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Chapel Hill
March, 2001

By Bobby Bush

If you’re familiar with my predilection for institutes of higher learning, you also understand why I frequent Chapel Hill infrequently. But here I was in town for the annual Southeastern Microbrewers Invitational beer festival, so obviously - even in the face of the enemy - I took the opportunity to drink locally-brewed beer.

The last and only time that I’d visited Top of the Hill was back in March 1997. The third floor bank building location, complete with rooftop patio, is unique. As is head brewer John Withey’s beer. A product of England, Withey began brewing back in 1964 for Whitbread and Shepherd Neame before heading to the states to become Top of the Hill’s first brewer in 1996. Though Withey readily admits that his beer has nothing to do with the success of the brewpub (liquor outsells beer), he still managed to brew nearly 1500 barrels last year.

The Hill’s best seller is Keenan Summer Lager, a light, refreshing pils-style beer. Since this trendy spot serves their own beer only, the lager is the default beer for Bud drinkers. Medium bodied, Ellie’s ESB was malty with pronounced hops bitterness, while Bigger Bertha Brown worked the sweet malty UK Brown profile. Designed as a lighter stout, Frank Graham Porter was just that. Called a brown porter by Withey, this dark ale was not heavy in the least. It’s smooth nitro-infused mouthfeel was grainy, almost chewy, and somewhat Guinness-like in taste.

In one of his late 1990s books, famed English beer writer Roger Protz declared Top of the Hill as “one of the best twelve breweries in the states.” It’s easy to see why.

Just a ten minute walk down Franklin Street awaits Chapel Hill’s first brewpub. Carolina Brewery opened in February 1995 and is doing quite well. Jon Connolly mans the brewhouse, serving the busy brewpub bar and 25 local draft accounts. Almost the opposite of our previous stop, Carolina serves little liquor and is definitely more earthy and blue collar. We started with a pitcher of To Hell ‘N’ Bock, a tasty, strong, malty Marzen-style lager and topped it off with another of IPA, a pleasantly bitter brew. A shot of Old North State Stout found a dark and brooding, complex and intriguing drink. In somewhat of a rush, we passed on Downtown Trolley Brown, Copperline Amber Ale and the tricycle Sky Blue Golden Ale. Connolly brewed almost 1200 barrels of his deliciously satisfying beer last year.

A mile or so up Franklin we discovered the one-year-old Mellow Mushroom. The franchise pizza and multi-tap room was busy, though we found stools at the bar where 20 tap handles awaited. A few mundane titles could be found among a nice list of micros and imports. The best of the batch included Carolina Brewing Company’s Spring Bock (this is the Holly Springs, NC microbrewery, not the Chapel Hill brewpub), Abita Brewing’s Purple Haze, Anchor Liberty Ale, North Coast Bluestar Wheat and Red Seal Ale, Cottonwood Lowdown, Warsteiner Dunkel, Highland Oatmeal Porter and Gaelic, Rogue Shakespeare Stout, Redhook Hefeweizen, Red Oak, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, etc., etc. Five of twenty were brewed by North Carolina breweries. Not bad. And the pizza was fantastic. Other NC Mellow Mushrooms can be found in Boone, Blowing Rock, Charlotte (three locations, soon) and Asheville. Learn more at www.mellowmushroom.com.

Despite its academic shortcomings, Chapel Hill is a pretty decent beer town. Suds says check it out.

This article first appeared in Focus Magazine of Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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