Major Mojo: Starr Hill lager wins big

With all the wineries popping up around here lately, it's almost expected that we'd bypass beer.

But local master brewer Mark Thompson, owner and co-founder of The Starr Hill Brewing Company, is making such a slight impossible. Thompson, who's from Virginia but studied the art of brewing out west, is still beaming from yet another sweeping victory at the 2005 Great American Beer Festival. This festival, which takes place in DenverР"the Napa Valley of beer"-­ each fall, is the Olympics of Beer. Going head-to-head at the 2005 competition were no fewer than 1,672 beers from 466 breweries.

Starr Hill garnered a gold medal for its Dark Starr Stout and two silvers for its Mojo Lager and Amber Ale. Last year both the Mojo and the Starr Hill Pale Ale took the gold.

"Winning any medal at the Great American Beer Festival is an honor, but having three of our four beers win this year is unbelievable," Thompson says.

His four "house beers" have won a total of 12 medals in six years, and Starr Hill has been declared the second best small brewery in the country for the second year in a row.

Next year, if Thompson gets his way, they'll be number one. Now that Starr Hill has moved operations from its original location on West Main Street to an enormous facility in the former ConAgra frozen foods plant in Crozet (which he leases from owner Coran Capshaw), they're perfectly poised to prevail.

"We call this our heart," Thompson told me as he gave me a quick preview tour of the vast warehouse, gleaming with shiny steel brewing, settling, and kegging tanks and bottling equipment that, as Thompson jokes, looks ready to re-enact that "proverbial Laverne and Shirley episode."

Starr Hill took hold of the space six months ago (they share the building with Capshaw's Music Today) and expect to be brewing in full force (24 hours a day!) by, or shortly after, the first of the new year.

Thompson says they'll continue to focus on their four A+ house beers (Stout, Mojo, Amber, Pale), but will continue to craft seasonal brews like last summer's Love (a German-style wheat beer), the just-released malty Oktoberfest lager, Festie, and their holiday Mocha Porter, made in collaboration with local roaster Shenandoah Joe and the South Street Brewery.

Thompson's vision for this new location includes a tourist-friendly tasting room as well as a roof deck offering views of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. Tour buses departing from and returning to Starr Hill on West Main Street are also a possibility.

In addition to their award-winning beers and potential-rich new facility, Starr Hill has controlled its own destiny in another way that deserves mention. Back in 2000, Thompson's wife, Kristin Dolan, founded the Starr Beverage Company to be the major distributor of Starr Hill's beer in the state of Virginia. Since brewers cannot sell their beer directly to retailers in Virginia, this business marriage has enabled Starr Hill's profits to remain in the Starr Hill family instead of going to a third party. They became their own middleman, if you will.

But as the new brewing facility allows business to expand beyond Virginia­ North Carolina and West Virginia are imminent target markets­ outside distributors will necessarily be needed.

"We want Starr Hill to be the next Budweiser," Thompson says in all earnestness. With craft beer sales up 7-8 percent this year and the big, "fat cat" breweries standing stagnant, this local Master Brewer just might stand a chance.

Stay-tuned to Dish next week for more news from Crozet– including the new Three Notch'd Grill and changes under way at Kokopelli's.

Award-winning Master Brewer Mark Thompson at Starr Hill's new brewery location in Crozet