King of the Hill: Brewer gets on-the-shelf acclaim

By Mythili Rao

In just three years, Starr Hill brews have taken five medals at the Great American Beer Festival and at the World Beer Cup. And now, the local restaurant/brewery has earned the honor of honors: shelf space.

On July 12, Harris Teeter and Whole Foods grocery stores began carrying bottles of Starr Hill amber and pale ale.

Whole Foods employee Chris Defries estimates that the store has sold six cases of the beer a day in the past week.

"It's just disappearing," he says.

The man behind the suds, Starr Hill's Mark Thompson, grew up in Charlottesville, and graduated from Western Albemarle High School. He studied biology at James Madison University before moving to Oregon to pursue a master's in biology at Portland State University.

When a friend working at a Portland microbrewery brought by a case of free beer, Thompson got a taste of the perks of the brewing business. He was soon employed at the brewery himself. "I was flipping bottles onto the bottling line for eight hours a day," he says of his early job.

The experience proved inspiring. "What I saw in the brewmaster was me in 15-20 years," he says. Quickly ascending the ranks, Thompson rose to keg-washer, seller, brewer, and then master brewer.

Intoxicated with the beer business, Thompson, now 36, abandoned his graduate studies in biology to enroll in Ciebel Institute of Technology, a brewing university in Chicago. In 1999, Thompson returned to Charlottesville to take over the state's first brewery, Blue Ridge Brewing Company (opened in the 1980s by two grandsons of William Faulkner).

"Everyone rallies around beer," says Thompson. "I make something that makes people's lives better."

Thompson enumerates the three components of brewing a good beer: mechanics, science, and mojo. Having made Starr Hill Charlottesville's hometown beer, Thompson has his sights set on going statewide within three years– and later covering the East Coast and the nation. If all goes as planned, the Starr Hill label, Thompson says, will be "as synonymous with beer as Starbucks is with coffee."

Part of Thompson's approach includes grassroots efforts. "Cultures across the world ask brewers to help celebrate," he says. So it's no surprise that Starr Hill beer is present at events such as the Bonnery Music Festival in Tennessee, and at events at Virginia Beach's GTE Amphitheater, the Nissan Amphitheater outside Washington, D.C., and others.

Thompson says that it helps to have friends in the music industry– like Dave Matthews Band manager Coran Capshaw because of the "synergy" between music and beer.

"It's a win-win situation," he says. Capshaw "helped out immensely" by backing Starr Hill and helping Thompson's brew get exposure at big venues. In September, Starr Hill will co-sponsor Floyd Fest, a World Music festival in Floyd, southwest of Roanoke.

Celebration, like mojo, is essential for Thompson. "Beer is a beautiful thing," he says.

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