Southern Suds

Tracey Love tells the story of Starr Hill Brewery, W. Matthew Shipman tastes and grades the beers.

Beginning with a simple and straight-forward mission statement of “Sharing the Gift of Great Beer” and winning 16 Great American Beer Medals and 2 World Cup Beer awards, I’d say Starr Hill Brewery is doing more than they claim.

In the mid ’90s, Brewmaster Mark Thompson was drawn back to Virginia from Portland, Oregon where he was studying Biology and learning the craft of beer-making. After apprenticing with other master brewers he decided that making beer was a whole lot cooler than anything he’d ever done as a biology student and moved here to open Starr Hill. Initially the brewery was built into a storefront on Main Street in downtown Charlottesville, in a neighborhood known as “Starr Hill”. Above the brewery was a music hall with the same name—an intimate venue for music shows with no seating.

Starr Hill brews and live music have always coincided, and some of the names of the beers reflect this co-dependency. In 2005, the brewery expanded and moved to Crozet where they have continued to expand their marketing strategies and seem to create new beers all the time.

This month at Devil’s Backbone Brewery, at the base of Wintergreen the 2nd annual “Festy Experience” music festival concluded the outdoor music festival circuit this season around Charlottesville. The festival included many music acts from all over the country and a plethora of local food, beer, and wine. Starr Hill Brewery was a headlining brewery and has loyal beer swilling supporters at events such as these and around the country. They sell a huge amount of product at events such as this one, as well as at festivals as huge as Bonnaroo.

Last week the brewery also celebrated winning a Gold and 2 Silver medals in the Brewer Association Great American Beer Festival, a National beer competition that evaluates beers from around the country and recognizes outstanding beers being produced in America. They won the gold medal in the Vienna Lager category for the Jomo Lager, which is a smooth amber lager made with Southern German lager yeast and has a slight malty sweetness. They won 2 Silver medals, one for the Monticello Reserve Ale in the Indigenous Beer category, and the second was for Smoke Out in the Smoke Beer category. The Monticello Reserve Ale is an unfiltered American wheat style beer made with wheat and corn and is “inspired by what was produced and consumed regularly at Monticello.”

As if that’s not enough to be thankful for, more recognition is due next month as they celebrate their 11th anniversary with a party at the Jefferson Theater on Friday, November 11th. I’m sure there will be plenty of delicious beer for everyone to enjoy, and I’m also willing to bet there will be plenty of good music as well. It seems you can’t have one without the other.

Sampling Starr Hill

Matt Shipmans tastes and grades five Starr Hill brews.

I’ve heard good things about Starr Hill for years. My good friend, and beer enthusiast, DeJuan Brown is a big fan. And husband-and-wife food gurus Brian Campbell and Elizabeth Stark actually met there.

Alas, I wasn’t able to visit the brewery itself, which is a shame. I’ve been particularly curious about it ever since head brewer Mark Thompson described Starr Hill as a “lifestyle.” I have no idea what that means.

In the end, I had to judge Starr Hill based solely on its brews—which is what really matters. I sampled five of their beers over a couple of days, and they ran the gamut from wonderful to “no, thanks.”

The first beer I tried was the seasonal Boxcar pumpkin porter, which came in at 5.2% alcohol by volume (ABV). On pouring, it was the thin brown color of a cola, with some pumpkiny-orange highlights (naturally enough). It had a small, but long-lasting, head and a lot of carbonation – which contributed to its looking like a soda. It had a very thin, watery mouthfeel and a clean finish, with no after taste at all.

It said “Ale brewed with pumpkin and spice” on the label, but the pumpkin and spice flavor was very mild. So mild, in fact, that I couldn’t taste it at all – though my tasting partner said he caught a hint of it. All in all, a pretty underwhelming brew. Too bland for those seeking a pumpkin seasonal, and too thin for those seeking a robust porter. I’d give it a C-. But fear not, beer lovers, there were good suds ahead!

Next up was the Dark Starr Stout, with an ABV of 4.2%. This is a good one, folks. An almost opaque brown, with a thick head, it has a strong bready odor, with a hint of chocolate. And that chocolate is front and center in the flavor profile. It’s the first thing you taste, and it lingers long after you’ve swallowed. To be clear, there’s no cloying sweetness here. Just the full complexity of a dark cocoa, with a hint of whiskey in the finish.

And the Dark Starr has the satiny, slightly thick, mouthfeel that I look for in a stout. It’s a top-notch sipping beer, but it’s so rich that it would be a difficult session beer. In other words, it’s perfect for dessert. Its richness and depth of flavor would pair well with a stroganoff, a creamy butternut squash soup or any of the dishes that focus on root vegetables this time of year. This beer gets a solid A in my book.

The Festie amber lager, 4.8% ABV, was another winner. Paler than many amber lagers, it poured nicely and had a good head. Extremely smooth-drinking, with a very strong honey flavor that jumps out at the finish. Or, as my fellow beer-taster Rodney Hess put it: “Now that is a drinking beer, right there.” That said, it was a tiny bit too sweet for me. But it is a very good representative of its style, while retaining its own character. I’ve certainly never had a beer quite like it. I’ll give it a B+.

You know a brewer is confident when they name a beer The Love. In this case, The Love is a wheat beer in the German hefeweizen style with 4.6% ABV. How was The Love at first sight? It’s one of the prettiest beers I’ve ever poured – a crisp pale gold, with a shockingly white, foamy head. Not as cloudy as many wheat beers. It had a slight floral aroma, and a mild herbal flavor coupled with strong honey tones. Sweet, but not overwhelming. A lovely beer, but not one of the best hefeweizens I’ve had. I’d give it a solid B. Also, that mild floral sweetness would contrast nicely with the savory smoke of the grill. Maybe grilled asparagus or a spice-rubbed flank steak? Think about it.

The last beer I tried from Starr Hill was the best of the bunch. The Northern Lights India pale ale, at 6.5% ABV, was a treat. It’s a vibrant yellow, with a bright, hoppy aroma that really grabs you as soon as you pour the beer. Seriously, this beer smells great. And the first sip won’t disappoint. It has the hoppy flavor you’d expect from an IPA – but it is a crisp, spring-like hoppiness, not an “overwhelming tidal wave of bitterness” kind of hoppiness. It tastes fresh. I can’t think of another word for it. I give it a strong A. This was really a well-made beer—and one I look forward to having again.

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