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The Dark Starr Rises

Mark Thompson makes his mark after transitioning from Deadhead to brewmaster.
Mark Thompson of Starr Hill
Starr Hill Founder Mark Thompson (Photo credit: jmu.edu)

At every turn, Mark Thompson, the colorful, award-winning brewmaster and owner of Starr Hill Brewery plays life with deft ease.

Thompson merges his love for music and science into the Starr Hill golden elixirs he brews in Crozet, Virginia, where he and his wife, Kristin Dolan, developed their Music Lifestyle brand of beer.

“Historically, I came into craft when craft got started,” said Thompson, who has an interesting story to tell and doesn’t mind sharing it.

As a Grateful Dead head, he followed music acts through long, lazy summers in the late 80s, where he formed a friendship with a guy named Coran Capshaw. Capshaw would eventually become the guru of Red Light Management, aligning gigs for the likes of the Dave Matthews Band, Tim McGraw and Pfish. His notoriety at large music venues opened doors for Thompson’s Starr Hill beer. Capshaw partnered with him early on after Thompson moved into the defunct Blue Ridge Brewpub, shuttered by former owners Bok and Paul Summers, grandsons of William Faulkner of The Sound and the Fury fame.

While in Portland, Oregon, Thompson dabbled in the craft beer scene. He served a short tour-of-duty at Nor’Wester Brewing Company before moving to BridgePort Brewing, where he apprenticed under Brewmaster Karl Ockert, now technical director of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas. He cut his teeth as owner of Mile High Brewing Company in Denver, where he hired Freddy Bensch, who went on to become owner and brewmaster at Sweetwater Brewing in Atlanta. “I taught Freddy everything he ever knew about beer,” said Thompson with tongue in cheek.

In the Music Hall

But Mile High closed down and he moved back to his hometown of Charlottesville to open Starr Hill Brewery. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

Thompson had entered the Masters program at Portland State University en route to a career in medicine. With his course requirements complete, he had already begun work on his final thesis; but his life took an unexpected U-turn into brewing. In early 1992, Thompson placed that dreaded phone call.

“Hey Mom, I’m not going to finish my Master’s Degree. I’m going to be a brewmaster.”

His announcement was met by a long pause of dead silence. In the spirit of a true mother, she forced out feeble words. “Oh, that’s great.” Another pause. Here he was, dropping pre-med, a goal launched from James Madison University, to become … a brewmaster? She continued, “What exactly is a brewmaster? Does this mean you’re going to make beer in the bathtub?”

How could he possibly think it would work?

“I had a belief in what Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewing did and saw what my mentors at BridgePort were doing. In my entrepreneurial mind, a part of me just believed I could,” he said. “When you get fired up, you make it work.” He returned to his roots, in Virginia, where craft beer was barely existent. In that spirit, he could provide jobs that oursourcing couldn’t touch and build a brand that would be recognizable across the country.

In his first year serving as a beer judge at the Great American Beer Festival, he roomed with Garrett Oliver. “Here I was with Garrett Oliver,” he said. “He’s ironing his suit. I’m wondering where my next T-shirt is coming from.”

But Garrett had influence. So did Jordan, Jenny Tally (now at Russian River Brewing after more than 20 years of brewing), and his mentors at BridgePort – all key players in that early craft beer scene. They made good beer, and he knew he could, too.

Starr Hill Amber Ale was Thompson’s Model-T Ford. This was “the one” – sweet malts and just enough hops for balance. Starr Hill went after the giant, Bass Pale Ale, who had every tap in the area by the throat. The state of Virginia did not allow a brewer to self-distribute, but that didn’t stop the punk renegades. His problem-solving wife, Kristin Dolan, applied for a license as a beer wholesaler.

While the Bass rep laughed, she approached the ABC agent, determined, and 9-months pregnant. How could she be denied? It wasn’t long before Starr Hill was knocking off those Bass taps, one-by-one, until they had overtaken 80% of the market.

A standout logo

On one of the earliest systems made by JD Northwest, Thompson developed beers that worked in concert with the Starr Hill Music Hall that was above the original brewpub. It wasn’t hard to conjure up beer names like Northern Lights, Grateful, Little Red Roostarr, Double Platinum and Dark Starr Stout. Making beers that could live up to those names was the real challenge.

Thompson believed in stripping down the essence of a beer to expose its signature profile. He built an identity so fans understood who they were. Ingredients are locally sourced, when possible, but for consistent quality, long term contracts with hop producers cannot be ignored.

In brewing The Love Hefeweizen, he used a proprietary yeast strain wrangled from Germany by another punk renegade homebrewer, whom he hounded for 10 years to “share the love.”

His most decorated beer, Dark Starr Stout, was developed while rocking Denver at Mile High Brewery. Pulling together ideas with Thompson Mambe, an African brewmaster who had worked at the legendary Guinness Storehouse at St. James Gate, he developed a dry, espresso-like stout with clean mocha notes and a 4.6% ABV. It has won five medals at the Great American Beer Festival, and a silver in the World Beer Cup.

Starr Hill Jomo Vienna Lager took nearly as many awards, raking-in four GABF medals. Gava Joe (pronounced like Java), a collaboration with Spike Buchowski of Terrapin Brewery in Athens, Georgia featured local coffee from Jittery Joe’s Coffee of Athens blended with Shenandoah Joe Coffee Roasters of Charlottesville. They “spiked” it with rye in honor of the visiting brewmaster, and used a Belgian yeast strain to add spice.

Thompson’s beer culture is driven by one he learned to appreciate while following the Grateful Dead, which he calls “the first open source type of band.” He recognizes the lifespan of a beer, and understands the markets that propel craft beer drinkers to seek out the next shiny penny beer. But he is careful not to muddle his beer with an over-abundance of slipshod ingredients.

Whiter Shade of Pale Ale won a gold medal at the 2014 World Beer Cup against 55 entries in the Pale American-Belgo Style category. Breweries were permitted only 4 entries in the 2014 WBC, so this gold was particularly sweet for Thompson. Whiter Shade merges Belgian Wit with IPA, drenched in flavors of orange-rind fruitiness and light wheat. The creamy head lies soft and foamy in the mouth, making a marked contrast against the crispness of the body.

Currently in 10 states, Starr Hill is worth seeking out, with its no-nonsense logo – a gold star imprinted on scarlet red, encircled by rings of black and gold. Without words. The logo, like the beer, speaks for itself. Thompson is happy to speak up, too, about what makes the Little Red Roostarr crow.

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