Top Shelf Brewing Company coming to Manchester

By Christian Mysliwiec - Staff Writer
Manchester - posted Fri., Jun. 14, 2013
Mike Boney, with partners T.J. Lavery and Joe Frost, will open Top Shelf Brewery in the historic Hilliard Mills complex. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.
Mike Boney, with partners T.J. Lavery and Joe Frost, will open Top Shelf Brewery in the historic Hilliard Mills complex. Photos by Christian Mysliwiec.

The interior is a work in progress. An entire half of the floor is bare dirt, awaiting fresh cement. But Mike Boney can still visualize the craft microbrewery he is working to create. "This is going to be our tap room," he said inside the 2,000-square-foot space. "This is our brew house." He is standing inside a unit of the Hilliard Mills Complex, a historic building and a testament to Manchester's industrial heritage. It is also the future site of the Top Shelf Brewing Company.

Boney is founding the craft microbrewery with his two partners, T.J. Lavery and Joe Frost. They plan to open their doors in August with three flagship beers, which they will distribute to package stores throughout the state: the American Ale, the Irish Ale and the Belgian Ale.

"The American Ale is going to be a combination of a cream, wheat and golden pale," said Boney. "It's light in color, with a lot of flavor to it." The second brew, the Irish Ale, is "not your normal Irish Red," said Boney. "It's very smooth, and more towards the brown side."

The Belgian Ale will have a little more kick than the American and Irish, which are both 5-percent alcohol by volume. While he is still tinkering, Boney anticipates a finished product at 8 percent. "It's orange in color, and has a nice Belgian 'bubblegum-like' taste," he said.

They will supply at least one restaurant, Little Mark's Big BBQ in Vernon, and many others are queuing up for shipments as well.

The heart of the business will be the tap room in the brewery, where guests can sample the three Top Shelf signature brews. The tap room will also feature five or more experimental batches available exclusively onsite. Boney hopes to use feedback from free sampling sessions in order to brew better beers suited to local palates. "If we have one beer that everybody is raving about, obviously we'll want to put it into mass production," he said. Some recipes he hopes to experiment with include rye, milk stout, imperial stout, imperial IPA, brown ale, winter brown and smoked porter.

Boney left his sales job in August, when he decided the time had come for a change. He always wanted to be his own boss, and as the manager of his own business, he could spend more time with his wife and two children. His wife's uncle inspired him to start home-brewing eight years ago, and he decided to turn his hobby into a business.

In January, he reached out to his childhood friend, Lavery, also a salesman.  "T.J. is always down for an adventure," Boney said, and the two agreed to partner up. They wanted a third partner, and found one in fellow UConn alum Joe Frost, who works in the tech field and is a brewer of five years.

The three are financing the start-up out of their own pockets. The move may prove less risky than it sounds. Boney is already anticipating higher demand than he can supply. The craft brewing scene in Connecticut has exploded within the last year and a half, he said, and the market for craft beers is growing. While beer consumption is remaining steady, craft microbreweries are carving into market shares formerly held by large-scale name brands. Boney believes that Connecticut has plenty of room to catch up to the brewer-to-population ratio of other states. In New York and Vermont, he jokes, there's a brewery for every person.

Boney is also content to start small, without loans, and expand naturally. One of the largest barriers to entry in the microbrewing field is that would-be brewers envision a business plan that is far more ambitious than what they can turn into a reality. Deterred, they abandon the plan altogether. Boney is excited to start with just three flagship beers rather than not start at all. "Starting off with three is just more feasible, and then we can grow organically," he said.

Top Shelf is moving into the space which jump-started the Onyx Spirits Company, which relocated to East Hartford earlier this year when it outgrew the Hilliard Mills location. The Prohibition-era liquor distiller has become a highly-visible local favorite, partly through its use of social media. Boney also hopes to build a fan base on the Internet, and visitors can connect with Top Shelf on several social media platforms via the company's website, www.topshelfbrewery.com.


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