At the start of the week, following on from my visit to Stewart Brewing in Loanhead, I also managed to stick my head through the door at their new, near, neighbours – Top Out Brewing Company. Top Out’s gunmetal-grey corrugated unit is only a few minutes’ stroll away from Stewarts’ black hangar, and (of course) couldn’t be more different. A piece of A4 in the door’s small window reveals that this is where Edinburgh’s latest brewery has set up shop, and inside co-founder Moo waits, supervising some urgent-looking drainage repair work going on, as two contractors crunch a corner of the floor into small pieces. The space Moo and Michael have is larger than I was expecting, although that could be down more to the understandable lack of clutter as they start out. The brewkit, bought from RedWillow in Cheshire, sits in the corner, backed in by pallets of bottles.
Bottling is where Top Out are concentrating their resources, for now – and despite it being one of the more cost-effective ways for a new brewery to get their beer out, this brings plenty of challenges with it. With pun firmly intended, the main bottleneck they have is filling and labelling the bottles, which all has to be done by hand. Moo, who has a background in both physics and construction, has engineered this quite brilliant hand-labeller from chunks of wood and a few nails, but it’s still a hugely slow process – even if they are only, at best, brewing twice a week. With interest already strong, Top Out are understandably keen to get as much out there as possible. The progression to contract bottling seems like an inevitable step for the near future.
As things take shape, the branding definitely stands out. Initially, Michael and Moo’s brewery was to be called Eclipse, until a trademark objection arrived at the last minute, from an overseas drinks producer. It was back to the drawing board – so the pair switched tack and came up with Top Out – a phrase borrowed from Michael’s love of mountaineering. As such, the labels now feature (genuine) detail from Ordnance Survey maps, reproduced with permission, and the abv of each beer at the top of their peaked logo. I think the dispute worked really well for them, creating a stronger brand, and a really interesting idea that’s meaningful to both of them. They now have three beers – a 5.6% Smoked Porter, 4% Staple Pale Ale, and an 8.9% Belgian-style Dark Abbey. Launching with a smoked porter was a brave thing to do, but Moo is adamant it was what they wanted to do from the very start, and it seems to have paid off.
The infectiousness I talked about at Stewart Brewing is also more than evident around Top Out. Moo talked me through their set-up, with that can-do pride you always get with new start-ups. The Top Out brewery is so different to that of their near-neighbours – Steve Stewart told me they are keeping their old kit, for now, having traded up (the ‘previous’ brewkit being 10bbl), and Moo told me exactly the same thing, pointing at their old kit; a stovetop homebrew kit. Steve and Jo have been helping out, where they can, selling Top Out’s bottles in their shop, as Michael and Moo only have a wholesale licence. In fact, Moo was hugely pleased with the attitude of co-operation that exists between brewers, reeling off a list of names of people who have helped out along the way, as they get started.
I’ve no doubt that Top Out will do well – pretty much for one reason. The inventiveness they have shown in getting around the potentially enormous number of problems. For example, aside from the cobbled-together equipment, as they lack a cold store to condition their casks, they have simply filled their one spare vessel with water and put the casks in (they have only twelve) – essentially the equivalent of putting beers in the bath at a party. Plywood sheets earmarked for their office have been co-opted into acting as a strengthener for the pallets of filled bottles, as they await labelling. They even made the lids for the brewing vessels themselves. Top Out are under no illusions about how hard it will be – every penny currently goes to pay bills or is re-invested in the brewery – but with this kind of ingenuity, and Stewarts’ around the corner as inspiration, Top Out are well on the way to success.