Starr Bright: An interview with Starr Hill’s Mark Thompson
By Jeff Maisey
Starr Hill Brewing Company was already the largest craft beer enterprise in Virginia before a recent addition to its production line. Now its capacity is enormous.
Each of the breweries along the Blue Ridge Trail offers a unique experience. When you enter Starr Hill’s Crozet headquarters you feel like you are in a production brewery, and for good reason – you are!
Enter through a hallway lined with award medals on the wall, walk past pallets of packaged beer bottles and into a spacious room with a colorful tasting area featuring a bar and tons of Starr Hill merchandise. A few feet away bottles are being capped and boxed as they hurry down an automated production line like a scene out of Lavern & Shirley. Empty 16-oz aluminum cans are in position to be filled and capped. The sensory experience is visually dazzling. Room after room features an actively working brewery staffed with proud employees. One-ton bags of Bamburg malts, hops, gigantic stainless steel fermenting tanks, copper mashing kettles and even a Champagne-style bottling station for high-end specialty beers. It’s quite a sight.
Among Starr Hill’s popular beers: Jomo Lager, The Love (wheat), Northern Lights IPA, Grateful Pale Ale, Starr Saison, Starr Pils and Psycho Kilter.
Founder/brewmaster Mark Thompson was kind enough to give me a personal tour of the brewery. Following is an excerpt from our conversation.
Tell us about your new fermenting tanks and how they will dramatically increase your production?
We had eight 100-barrel fermentors come in over the last six months that brought our capacity to 26,000 barrels of beer. We will add another 15 to 20 100-barrel tanks in that room that will bring our capacity to 55,000 barrels of beer. We just finished raising roof and doing all of the floors. We started building-out our expansion fermenting cellar.
When people enter the tasting room of the brewery there is a tremendous amount to see. What experience do you want visitors to have when they come to Starr Hill?
The Starr Hill experience is that you are literally immersed into the action, the middle of the brewery. You get a factory feel. It’s the only brewery on the Brew Ridge Trail where when you walk in you know you’re in a brewery.
We are a production brewery. We are Virginia’s largest and most award-winning brewery. When you come to Starr Hill the experience is one of which the staff is highly educated about beer. They know beer as well as anyone out there. They tell you about all the beers we make. There are five or six on tap you’ve probably never heard of from us. We have a White Shade of Pale Belgian IPA on right now. We have a coffee stout called Little Red Roof Starr.
You started canning about a year and a half ago. Can you explain how canning is becoming the choice of packaged beer for craft breweries?
We’re canning now for several reasons. It used to be that the technology of can making was not advanced so all of your cheap beer went into cans and made the beer taste metallic. The technology has evolved so rapidly with cans that you can’t tell the difference between a can and bottled beer. Cans have qualities a bottle doesn’t. For instance, light never penetrates a can. The seal on the top of a can is air-tight verses a bottle cap that allows some air in. And especially for Starr Hill’s music lifestyle culture and the drinking opportunities, glass is not as favorable. If you go to concerts or biking, hiking or camping cans make a lot of sense. And specifically, if you go to the Virginia Beach Amphitheater this summer you’ll see Starr Hill’s Northern Lights cans in the concessions area.
Starr Hill is well established, but as a culture Virginia craft beer is finally just now emerging as an important industry. Where do you see the growth in the industry heading?
I have always said one of the biggest assets in Virginia is the wine industry. The wine industry has done a lot of heavy lifting for what we are doing in the craft beer industry. If there can be over 200 wineries in Virginia the logic in my mind is that there could be 200 breweries in Virginia.
I also credit Governor Bob McDonnell and the legislature for recognizing what is, in many ways, a growing industry in the worst economic times of our life. You have a growing manufacturing industry with a tourism component. In many ways we are a poster child for all things good. We’re small business owners with jobs that can’t be outsourced that pay higher than minimum wage. We’re creating jobs.
From your perspective, what does it say about Virginia that major West Coast craft breweries like Green Flash and Stone Brewing have sought to locate their East Coast breweries here?
I really see this as a rising tide lifting all boats. If you look at craft beer as an industry we continue to grow by 15 percent while beer as a category in the major domestics are losing market share. I think there are two or three generations of growth within the craft beer industry. If we as craft brewers ban together we are much stronger as a united force than if we start fighting amongst ourselves.
Tell us how the Brew Ridge Trail got started?
Prior to the Virginia Brewers Guild, brewers in the Albemarle and Nelson counties form an alliance called the Brew Ridge Trail. Every year we brew a collaborative beer. It started in 2009 here at Starr Hill. We then brewed at Devils Backbone, Wild Wolf and Blue Mountain. The 5th anniversary is here and we just finished a Triple IPA. It’ll be available in draft in limited amounts on May 15. Each brewer brought a box of their own hops and we sketched out a recipe. That beer will be available at each brewery’s tasting room in late May and early June.