Pintful: At Top of the Hill, beer and spirits mix well

john.frank@newsobserver.comApril 2, 2013 

  • What’s on Tap Inside North Carolina breweries

    6-8 p.m. Wednesday.

    Hosted by All About Beer magazine, this free forum will pull back the curtain on local breweries with insights from area brewers. A $5 donation is suggested for the Neuse River Keeper Foundation. RSVP necessary. Info:

    Deep River Grand Opening

    5 p.m. Saturday in Clayton.

    Johnston County’s first brewery opens soon, and tickets for the inaugural big bash are on sale now. The $50 ticket gets you free samples, three pints, souvenir glass, a 22-ounce bottle, local food and live music. Info:

    Bootleggers Banquet at Top of the Hill

    6 p.m. Sunday in Chapel Hill.

    The four-course dinner pairs food with beer and spirits as it celebrates the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition. Hosted in the brewery’s Great Room, it features the debut of two new beers and Topo Piedmont Gin. The dinner costs $75. Info:

    Big Boss Film Fest

    10 p.m. Mondays in April at Mission Valley Cinema.

    As part of N.C. Beer Month, Big Boss Brewery is hosting a free movie night to screen classics like “The Big Lebowski.” Bad Penny, Angry Angel and High Roller are on draft. Info:

— Standing next to the shiny copper still at Top of the Hill’s microdistillery in Chapel Hill, proprietor Scott Maitland easily links his newest venture to his well-known microbrewery down Franklin Street.

“I think of this wheat whiskey like a porter,” he said.

Maitland’s whiskey is made with organic wheat, as opposed to corn and barley, reviving a rare style much like the campaign years ago to save the porter beer style in Britain.

Top of the Hill is bringing together its new line of Topo small-batch spirits with its craft beers Sunday at the Bootleggers Banquet. The dinner celebrates the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition and debuts two new beers: the “Old 96” pale ale and an imperial stout aged in whiskey barrels.

The pale ale uses 96 percent locally sourced ingredients thanks to North Carolina-grown grains from Riverbend Malt House in Asheville. Top of the Hill’s brewery is one of many local craft brewers, including Fullsteam in Durham and Aviator in Fuquay-Varina, to start incorporating Riverbend into their beers.

Maitland said he sought to make an all-local beer, much like his whiskey, but he couldn’t find enough locally grown hops, instead opting for the emerging citrus-flavored varieties from New Zealand. He is a locavore and organic purist. “We are doing the organic thing not to (promote) the product itself but to encourage the proper sustainable farming,” he said.

The stout is the brewery’s first-ever barrel-aged beer – but certainly not its last. For this beer, Maitland used a Jack Daniels barrel to impart the whiskey flavor in the aging process. But in the future, he hopes to use his own Topo barrels.

Beer: A special ingredient

Maitland likes to say that beer is food. And chefs in the recent Competition Dining series in Wilmington helped prove it true.

The statewide, “Iron Chef” styled cooking competition features a secret ingredient at each event. In the semifinal Fire on the Dock round last week, the ingredient was Big Boss beer.

The chefs from Cape Fear Country Club and Circa 81 had to incorporate the Raleigh craft brewery’s Saucy Pants saison or Big Operator Belgian style ale into all their dishes.

Jimmy Crippen, the event’s organizer, said the crowd roared with excitement when he revealed the special ingredient. “We go out searching for products that we think would be challenging for our chefs,” Crippen said. “The chefs were very excited about the product. I don’t think there’s a chef out there that doesn’t like a good beer.”

But Crippen said it’s a challenge to work with beer. “Normally you make a broth or braise carrots, but to try to get six courses with (beer) is not that easy,” he said. “It’s not so hard to cook with beer, but to bring out the flavor of beer in food is difficult.”

The chefs seemed to enjoy to the challenge, producing Big Operator crème fraiche and Saucy Pants pork belly jus. But Circa 81 Chef Clarke Merrell hit all the highlights in his dessert: Big Operator agave ice cream with Big Operator mocha sponge cake, Big Operator chocolate mousse, blackberry Saucy Pants curd and Saucy Pants peanut brittle.

What I’m drinking

The rich dessert reminds me of the rich 2002 Bell’s Eccentric Ale I drank the other day.

The special beer – released once a year at the brewery’s Eccentric Cafe in Kalamazoo, Mich. – is a favorite among beer enthusiasts, who like to store it away in the cellar for years. At 11 years old, the beer had a velvety sweetness from the malt, with maple syrup and caramel tones and a slight alcoholic bite.

You won’t find this beer in the local bottle shop, but plenty of beer traders online will share.

Contact John at 919-829-4698 or On Twitter @ByJohnFrank.

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