Top-Notch Brewing in the Heart of Sussex

Words: Rach Smith | Photos: Mike Smith, Alistair Maddock

We head over to Haywards Heath for the second time in three months. That’s a record for us, before now we’ve only ever ventured that way twice in three years, and even that’s an ambitious estimate, but there’s a small revolution happening in the Heart of Sussex. Four months ago Dark Star brewery rolled out the second in its new wave of pubs, The Lockhart Tavern, to much applause, in what had been a rather barren landscape in terms of quality drinking establishments with a varied and interesting array of beers to choose from. On the 14th November we made our way to the launch night of the pub and, in a way it’s that tavern that’s brought us back to this pocket of the county, as it’s there that we first met Alistair Maddock of The Top-Notch Brewing Co.

Top-notch: adjective, informal – of the highest quality; excellent.

I think it’s fair to say that evening was one of celebration for the Sussex brewer, not only was his hometown of seventeen years gaining an exceptional pub, but Dark Star had chosen one of his cask ales to feature on the bar for the opening. The beer was #BONZER IPA, a dark take on the traditional style, displaying a complex profile, including toasted oat and pineapple, and offering up something new with each sip. It’s a unique brew and a standout of local cask, “I wanted to brew a Dark IPA using Australian and New Zealand hops as everyone else seemed to be using American hops at the time”, says Alistair of the beer. “The secret with a dark IPA is to get the colour without too much of the roastyness and bitterness. I think the USP of #BONZER is the structured malt base, building different layers of complexity by using 5 different Malts, a normal Pale Ale would probably only have one possibly two malts. The complexity is further enhanced by the hop schedule to deliver that tropical/citrus hit”

It’s a pretty big deal to have your own cask beer pouring on the opening night of a pub located in your hometown and run by a brewery that you’re a fan of “It feels very satisfying to walk through the door and look up to the board and see your brewery and beer name there,” says Alistair of the experience, “It’s also great to surreptitiously look around the bar and see who’s drinking your beer and what their reactions are. I always think the beers look and taste different at another location, at the brewery I get very close to the beers and sometimes become a bit hyper-critical! We’ve waited a long time for a bar like The Lockhart in Haywards Heath and they’ve been very supportive, taking one of most of the beers I have produced.” But success has followed Top-Notch from the start, when back in 2014, just one year after setting up commercially, Alistair’s first commercial pale ale; Hop Festival; a well balanced beer which never drinks thin and displays a juicy tangerine character; sold out at that years Sussex Beer Festival, a big event held each year by the local CAMRA branches. A surprise success for Alistair who didn’t even have a cask before entering the event, but the good news soon broke via Twitter, “Hop Festival sold out early in the Friday afternoon session -third session- at the 2014 SBF. It was the fastest selling beer and second to Thornbridge’s Juipur which sold out first across the whole festival.”

It’s all quite a feat when you factor in the size of Top-Notch, a one-man-band with the capacity to only brew four casks at any one time. An airline pilot by day, the brewery started out life as a way to ward off twiddling thumbs between shifts. Avid home brewing is one thing, but with friends and family urging him he could go commercial, the seed was planted, the puzzle of local authority admin was navigated and the brewery kit was set up. That kit is a modest One Brewer’s Barrel brewery consisting of a 200l Electric Hot Liquor Tank, a 160l Insulated Mash Tun and a 200l Gas ‘Copper’ Boiler, all set up to produce 2640 pints a year. It’s housed in a converted outbuilding where Alistair lives and everything is done by him on site, from brewing and fermenting, to bottling, labelling and hopefully soon, kegging.

“I always think the beers look and taste different at another location, at the brewery I get very close to the beers and sometimes become a bit hyper-critical!” -Alistair Maddock, Top-Notch

The scale seems to suit Alistair, enabling him to keep brewing part-time without too much pressure and have time to experiment with new recipes, create bespoke brews for special events and continue to supply many of the county’s micropubs and beer festivals. I ask if Top-Notch is the county’s smallest brewery, “I was”, comes the reply, but it seems Kiln and Unbarred may have taken that crown. It just so happens that Alistair helped Unbarred achieve similar success at the Sussex Beer Festival the following year, when it’s Benchmark IPA brewed at Top-Notch, won accolades.

The brewery may be small but the awards & accolades keep coming and with them a reputation for quality local ales, many of which are becoming firm favourites among the Sussex drinker, “I think the award-winners are the favourites; Hop Festival, Flare-Path and recently Panzific -Horsham Equinox Light Beer of the Festival. Fortunately they all appear to sell quickly, but I think that is as much a function of limited availability/novelty as well as quality!”.

Whilst demand is there for the favourites, Alistair still finds the time to dial in new recipes and has new beers out and ready in the pipeline for the spring/summer season. Recent releases have included Panzific, Crystal Maize and the first in a new series of single malt and single hop (SMaSH) beers is close to availability, “look out for a new beer, SMaSH Olicana, available from mid March”, says Alistair. The first version of a brand new DIPA also packs in the promise for an exciting run, bursting with sweet and creamy tropicals. It’s not all pales and bitters in the portfolio though, plans to move into darker territories are afoot, with talk of a collaborative coffee stout to see in the tail-end of the season, “provisional plans are for a Cappuccino Milk Stout, probably in the Autumn. The owner of the Horsham Coffee Roast is also a pilot, and we occasionally work together, so we spend some of our time talking about either brewing coffee or beer. There are many areas which crossover; roasting, flavour profiles, aromas, bitterness, water temperatures, blending and infusions to name a few.”

Expansion isn’t on the cards right now and really it doesn’t need to be. What Alistair is doing; brewing small batch, experimenting, building a solid reputation, collaborating with others; it all creates a thread that weaves back into a tapestry that is the Sussex food and drink scene. That scene is a community of artisans who seek to use the best ingredients possible to provide unique experience, quality and choice whilst adding an important element to the identity of the county. It’s a tapestry, a network, which is repeated in counties nationwide making it essential that we travel, we seek out and support the little guys because that’s how we get a sense of place and how we really get to see the bigger picture. And, right now in Haywards Heath, in Sussex, the view is good. In fact, it’s top-notch.