HOTSEAT- Super Starr: Thompson's brews go national

Mark Thompson

In September 1999, brewer Mark Thompson was driving from Denver across the country to move back to his hometown of Charlottesville, eager to establish his new company in the old Blue Ridge Brewing Company restaurant on West Main. He just didn't have a name for it. 

"Then I was driving through Kansas," he says, "and saw a Texaco with that star-in-the-circle logo. I thought about the name of the neighborhood where the brewery was, and it hit me."

Nearly eight years later, Starr Hill Brewery is on the verge of becoming the next American microbrewery to delight the country's taste buds. In December, Starr Hill struck a national distribution deal with Anheuser-Busch, with plans to ship the local suds everywhere from Seattle to Sarasota by 2013. For Thompson, it's the realization of his life's calling.

"God put me on this earth for this purpose," he says. "Every culture in the world has a fermented, cereal grain beverage that people use to sit around and talk. I'm a steward of the product that enhances this thing we call life."

Thompson's entrepreneurial spirit goes back to before his time in the beer game. A head for business was necessary for survival on the road when Thompson, as a rising JMU junior, spent the summer of 1988 following the Grateful Dead.

"I made 10,000 of these stickers that you could wrap around your beer can. They looked just like Mountain Dew cans, except they said 'Morning Dew' after the Grateful Dead song," he says. "I'd make enough money for gas and a ticket to the next show."

The tour also marked the beginning of a friendship another future Charlottesville business giant: Coran Capshaw. There was one difference, however.

"He was making a lot more money than I was," Thompson dryly notes.

Eleven years later, after Capshaw had parlayed his success managing Dave Matthews Band into a music empire, the friendship remained, and Capshaw began providing space in the restaurant/brewery building he was upgrading on West Main, as well as some seed money.

In 2004, after Capshaw purchased the former ConAgra food processing plant to house his MusicToday merchandising company, he offered to make room for Starr Hill.

"They don't make buildings like this anymore," Thompson enthuses of the sturdy poured-concrete structure that already has built-in floor drains from its days when scores of hair net-wearing workers diced chickens and washed vegetables for America's TV dinners. "We have all the room we need."

Good thing for Thompson that he feels right at home in Crozet.

"The other day I was at the hardware store, and this granny at the cash register tells me she made pot pies at ConAgra for 30 years, and she just loves that we're here," he says. "You know she doesn't buy any beer, but she loves what we do."

Age: 42

Why here? Born and raised in Charlottesville, I came back from Colorado to share the gift of great beer.

What's worst about living here? People who think they're important because of their Daddy's last name

Favorite hangout? Anywhere in Crozet

Most overrated virtue? Moderation. Drink as much as you can from the cup of life.

People would be surprised to know: I like to stay in more than go out.

What would you change about yourself? I'd like to be more organized.

Proudest accomplishment? It would have to be the 11 Great American Beer Festival medals Starr Hill has won for its beer.

People find most annoying about you: I'm like Waffle House hash browns– scattered, battered, smothered, and covered.

Whom do you admire? Leaders of the revolution across the world. Even Thomas Jefferson said that we need to overthrow the government every once in a while, and I think America is due for another revolution.

Favorite book? Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson. Long live Gonzo journalism.

Subject that causes you to rant? American politics and the loss of our personal freedoms in the name of a squeaky-clean democracy.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? American craft beer

Biggest 21st-century creep out? The "Man" all up in my personal business, tapping my phone without a warrant. It's hard to be a freak in America anymore.

What do you drive? 1983 Mercedes Benz diesel, powered with bio-diesel I make in some old brewing tanks

In your car CD player right now: The Warlocks, Hampton Coliseum

Next journey? New York City

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? In a parking lot outside Hampton Coliseum (see "In your car CD player right now")

Regret: No regrets

Favorite comfort food: Baarrrbbeeequue

Always in your refrigerator: Starr Hill Pale Ale and Virginia wine (for the wife)

Must-see TV: Anything on PBS

Describe a perfect day: Having nothing to do

Walter Mitty fantasy: I'm Buck Rogers of the 21st Century riding in my space ship saving the world from evil-doers.

Who'd play you in the movie? Steve Martin

Most embarrassing moment? This interview

Best advice you ever got? Live the life you love.

Favorite bumper sticker? Starr Hill sticker on someone else's car