Barley + Rye: Starr Hill Brewery extends distribution to Georgia

The biggest craft brewery in Virginia comes to market
Images courtesy of Starr Hill

Starr Hill Brewery first launched in Charlottesville, Virginia, fifteen years ago, and after winning hearts and minds throughout the Mid-Atlantic, its beer is headed west with launch events starting next week through April.

I recently sat down with founder and brewmaster Mark Thompson, who can’t help but laugh each time he says how long he’s been brewing—23 years. Thompson got his first beer gig in the early 90s in Portland at Nor’wester Brewing. At the age of 22 he had relocated to Oregon from his native Charlottesville. Like many brewers of that time, Thompson was taken with the free case of beer after work—and also the ability to apply his science education, a BS in biology.

Thompson left Portland for Denver where he started Mile High Brewing Co. He had “the good fortune” of working with future SweetWater Brewing co-founder Freddy Bensch. “I hired him to be my first assistant brewer, and we worked together for about a year.” Thompson moved back to Charlottesville to begin Starr Hill in 1999, which according to the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, is now the state’s largest craft beer brewery.

And if the name Starr Hill conjures up memories of music festivals gone by, that’s because Starr Hill considers itself a music-centric brand: Thompson met his business partner at a Grateful Dead show, Starr Hill proudly pours at Bonnaroo every year, and Starr Hill started out as a restaurant-brewery-meets-music-hall, featuring early performances by Jack Johnson and John Mayer.

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The beer company still keeps close ties to live music alongside Red Light Management, which represents Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Tim McGraw among many others. If Thompson had it his way, newcomers to Starr Hill would, “enjoy their first bottle on a cool fall day in front of their favorite band.”

Judging by this leisurely winter, Atlantans may have to settle for a hip bar and NCAA basketball, but the beer will surely be just as good. Starr Hill will be featured as the April beer of the month at Taco Mac locations, and Smith’s Olde Bar starts pouring Monday night.

You guys are collaborating with Terrapin, tell us more. Spike [Buckowski, brewmaster and Terrapin co-founder] and I have known each other forever. We’re doing a Belgian-style stout that uses a lot of rye, then we’re going to dry hop it with coffee. Half of the coffee is from Jittery Joe out of Athens and half is from our local roaster, Shenandoah Joe. It’s called GAVA Joe—for Georgia and Virginia.

When will we see it? GAVA Joe comes out April 1. We’re going to do about a 150 barrels, draft only. It’s cool, Terrapin will help Starr Hill in Atlanta, and we hope to do the same for them in Virginia.

Everyone is so buddy-buddy. One of the coolest things about craft beer is that we all still get along with each other so we can grow our industry collectively.

What else are you bringing to Atlanta? Our Grateful Pale Ale, Northern Lights IPA, and our Hefeweizen, The Love.

Let’s pop some tops. Okay, Grateful Pale Ale: We introduced this last year, it’s very sessionable at 4.7 percent alcohol. We dry hopped it with Centennial, Cascade, and Chinook. We think consumers really enjoy the hop aroma and flavor more than the bitterness and alcohol that’s associated with IPAs. The perceived bitterness you get when you smell it tells your brain it’s going to be bitter, but it kind of mellows out and finishes very smooth.

The Love: This is our German-style Hefeweizen, a silver medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival in 2008. We do a lot of cool things around breast cancer with this beer. In February we donate a dollar per case to different foundations. It seemed to fit with the name and the packaging. Breast cancer touches everybody—my mother is a survivor.

And a lot of ladies like their wheat beer. Now for the Northern Lights IPA: This is our best seller, it’s about 40 percent of our volume. The name is a reference to a Phish song called “Farmhouse.” It’s balanced—the beer has a bit of malty sweetness on the end, so it’s not screaming bitterness or hop aroma.