A Brewer With Hope in the Hereafter

Virginia brewer Starr Hill's four year-round beers: Amber Ale, Dark Starr Stout, Jomo Lager and Pale Ale.
Virginia brewer Starr Hill's four year-round beers: Amber Ale, Dark Starr Stout, Jomo Lager and Pale Ale. (By Judith Brown)
By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Glory hallelujah!" shouts the figure at the podium, gesturing excitedly. "Can somebody give me an amen?"

Mark Thompson, owner and master brewer of Starr Hill Brewing in Crozet, Va., is doing his beer-evangelist shtick at a Brickskeller holiday beer tasting. The crowd, sipping on a copper-colored, intensely malty doppelbock that Thompson has dubbed the Gift, responds with an enthusiastic "Amen!"

The 42-year-old Virginian has lofty ambitions. He learned brewing in the Pacific Northwest and returned to his home town of Charlottesville in 1999 to operate a brew pub that had been founded 12 years earlier by two grandsons of author William Faulkner. He brewed beer for the pub on the premises, and he contracted out the kegged and bottled versions of his beers to Old Dominion Brewing in Ashburn. In 2005 he moved all of his brewing operations to a former Swanson frozen food plant in nearby Crozet, and last year he shuttered the restaurant to concentrate on beermaking. He says he aims to make Starr Hill a national craft brand, like Samuel Adams or Sierra Nevada, over the next 10 years.

That's a tall order, considering that he brewed 4,300 barrels last year -- and that his beers are available only in a swath of Virginia.

But Thompson will have the help of an influential partner: Anheuser-Busch. The nation's largest brewer recently acquired a minority stake in Starr Hill (how much, no one is saying) and will act as "master distributor" for Starr Hill brands, aiding their expansion into new markets. "That will help me focus on making great beer," says Thompson, who insists he will maintain complete creative control over his products.

Thompson calls himself a beer minimalist, limiting most of his recipes to "three malts, two hops, one yeast." No exotic herbs and spices, no intricate blend of a dozen hops. He views beer's primary purpose as that of a social lubricant that "helps people interact with one another." The way he sees it, beers that are too complicated or too strong or too bitter interfere with that mission.

Thompson's brews are true session beers, the kind you can sip all evening while jawing over sports and politics at your local pub. His Jomo Lager is a gateway beer, a malt-accented amber lager midway between Yuengling and Sam Adams in terms of body and flavor. Starr Hill Pale Ale is a well-balanced example of the style: Thompson uses Cascade hops with restraint to give the ale a delicate fruitiness instead of the bowl-you-over pine and grapefruit flavor that this hop is capable of. Starr Hill Amber Ale is more or less of the Irish red genre, with crystal malt lending a caramel sweetness and a dash of chocolate malt adding a roasty note.

The most distinctive of Starr Hill's four year-round bottled beers, Dark Starr Stout, is also its most decorated; it accounts for four of 11 medals the brewery has won in Great American Beer Festival competitions. Thompson developed the recipe for this Irish-style dry stout during a stint with Mile High Brewing, a short-lived Denver operation that he helped set up in 1995. He collaborated with Thompson Mambe, an African brewmaster who had worked at Guinness's St. James Gate brewery in Dublin. Mile High closed after one year, but the stout recipe followed Thompson back East.

Dark Starr has an aroma of freshly ground coffee, an initial flavor of bittersweet chocolate and a dry, espresso-like finish. It's a little more potent than a draft Guinness, although at 4.6 percent alcohol by volume, it's modest in strength. It's also noticeably roastier but still light on the palate, with a refreshing acidity. Like Guinness, it would pair well with most kinds of shellfish.

Thompson supplements his everyday drinking beers with a line of more assertive, draft-only seasonals. Next week, look for his doppelbock to yield to Northern Lights, an India pale ale.

Thompson's beer evangelist act can get a little loud, and he apologizes for his intensity. "Sharing the gift of great beer is my mission, and I believe in it fervently," he says. (He also brews a German-style wheat beer, available in kegs only, called the Love.)

The Bible teaches that a prophet is least likely to be accepted by his own countrymen. As Thompson begins the first phase of his expansion -- blanketing Virginia -- he hopes the opposite is true for brewers, even evangelizing ones.

Greg Kitsock can be reached

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