March 12, 2014

Starr Hill Brewery Moves into Georgia

Good Spirits

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With the excitement of two new breweries opening up in Athens later this year, it can be easy to lose track of beer developments happening outside of the Peach State. The latest brewery to expand sales into Georgia is Starr Hill, out of Charlottesville, VA. Its lineup will be available only on draft at first, with bottles arriving later this spring. 

The founder and brewmaster of SHB, Mark Thompson, is a rather enthusiastic individual. He discusses his beer and brewing with the same gusto that he used onstage at the Melting Point to sing an impromptu rendition of “I Am the Walrus” with Abbey Road Live. 

Flagpole: How did you get your start in brewing beer?

Mark Thompson: Well, I got a biology degree from James Madison University and moved to Portland [OR] after college. This was in 1992, just as the craft beer scene in the Northwest was exploding. I've always loved the science behind beer, so it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

FP: You've brewed a lot of award-winning beers, but have any of your recipes turned into disasters?

MT: Sometimes things don't go quite as planned, and the flavors in a finished product might not be quite what you expected. I've never quite had a beer turn into a disaster, though. The difficulties usually happen on the labeling side—since the beer industry is so highly regulated, the government has to approve everything that we do. It can be difficult to get a new product to market when every step has to be approved. It's much easier on the brewing side. If something is truly awful, we can always try again.

FP: When you're not drinking Starr Hill, what's in your glass?

MT: Well, SweetWater just launched in Virginia, so I've been drinking a lot of their stuff. Terrapin's always been another favorite of mine. I like Bridgeport's beers as well; I trained under their brewmaster back in Portland.

FP: You've got a collaboration in the works with Terrapin. What kind of beer will you be making?

MT: It's a great opportunity to work with (Terrapin brewmaster) Spike Buckowski. We've been friends since 2001, but we've never had the chance to brew together until now. We've decided to make a Belgian espresso stout called GAVA  Joe (pronounced “java”). It's more than just a collaboration between Starr Hill and Terrapin, though— Jittery Joe's and Shenandoah Joe Coffee Roasters will each provide 50 percent of the coffee we use in the stout. In addition to the coffee, we're going to flavor the beer with rye grain. Spike has had a lot of success brewing with rye, and I've been interested in using that grain for a while.

GAVA Joe will be brewed in Virginia, with a release date on draft in early April in both Athens and Charlottesville. The medium-bodied stout will be 6.9% ABV.

Starr Hill's flagship beer, Northern Lights IPA (6.5% ABV), is solid overall. The aroma is pleasantly hoppy, although hopheads might be disappointed. (The hopheads should instead check out Double Platinum, Starr Hill's double IPA, for a dose of the hops.) The taste of Northern Lights is more balanced than the aroma. Definitely a good beer to drink, but not an earth-shatteringly good one. 

The same can be said for their Grateful Pale Ale (4.7% ABV). It's well made, with a golden color and is quite quaffable. Think Terrapin's Recreation Ale, but lighter in color and less hoppy. This beer would go well with Georgia summers: barbecue, a baseball game and warm, sunny afternoons.

While less swigable than the Grateful Pale Ale, the Taste of Honey (8.5% ABV) is much more interesting. A dark Belgian dubbel brewed with honey, this beer packs layers of flavor in a pint glass. There's Belgian candi sugar, yeast esters, roasted malt and notes of honey that don't overpower the palate. On the opposite end of the spectrum lies Starr Hill Pils (4.6% ABV), a cleansing, calming pilsener. It's bright and happy, but definitely a pilsener. It'll get the job done if you're a fan of pilseners.

The clear winner of Starr Hill's lineup is its hefeweizen. The Love (4.7% ABV) is remarkably well done. It's nicely effervescent, with hints of clove and other subtle spices. The Great American Beer Festival agrees, awarding the Love a silver medal in 2008. It's more reminiscent of a true German hefeweizen than most American wheat beers and definitely worth checking out.