Gold Medal-Winning Starr Hill Opens New Tasting Room

From left: Brian McNelis, Josh Cromwell and Mark Thompson
From left: Brian McNelis, Josh Cromwell and Mark Thompson

Crozet’s Starr Hill Brewery opened a new tasting room April 18, dramatically up-scaling its sampling venue over the noisy industrial setting that used to introduce suds-lovers to its shifting variety of beers.

The new bar set-up opened just a week after Starr Hill won a gold medal in the American-Belgo-Style Ale category for its brew Whiter Shade of Pale, a white IPA, at the 2104 World Beer Cup in Denver. More than 4,750 beers from 31 countries were entered the competition. It’s the 21st medal the brewery has won in major competitions since it opened in 1999. The brewery debuted its summer seasonal Soul Shine, a Belgian-Style pale ale, at the opening.

The brewery also presented a check for $4,000 to the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation on the occasion.

The new tasting room, with an industrial warehouse look, has 1,500 square feet with large windows that give a full view of the production area and bottling lines. On the street side, two wide windows that roll up like garage doors make the room seem virtually outdoors when opened. The walls are covered in wide, sawn-wood planks with one section filled with mesmerizing posters of local music events. A stage is at one end and a rack of eight oak casks creates a partition separating the stage from the route to the restrooms. There are two large HD TVs mounted for sports fans. A track door was salvaged for another part of the former frozen food plant and the brewery’s star symbol, which used to hang on an outside wall, has been attached to it. A clock from the original Starr Hill music hall on West Main Street in Charlottesville is on one wall and tap caps decorate another side.

The 50-foot bar counter is concrete with a state-of–the–art drafting system that will supply 16 taps. Some of Starr Hill’s beers will be available only there. The tasting room will also handle package sales, growler refills and kegs.

Inside, the room seats roughly 65 people at tables, plus there is plenty of space at the bar. Outside is a patio with picnic benches and space for two food trucks to park. Potted landscaping will be added along the patio to screen it from traffic on Three Notch’d Road. Sal’s Pizza has agreed to deliver to the tasting room, which will be available for private events. It has a capacity of 100 and Starr Hill managing director Brian McNelis suggested it could be suitable for weddings, alumni events or HOA meetings.

“We knew we had to step up for our customers to enjoy our culture,” said McNelis. “We looked into downtown Charlottesville and in Nelson [County]. We decided to stay in the original building. We preserved our musical DNA in the posters from Charlottesville shows.”

“Live music is spiritual,” said Starr Hill founder and master brewer Mark Thompson. He described the typical bands that will play there as “jam bands. Like Bonnaroo or Lochn or Phish.”

“We really want Crozet folks in here,” said McNelis. “You can get food here. We want this to be a normal stop. We want to be part of the renaissance in Crozet restaurants. We are not a bar. We’re only open until 8 p.m. We’ll push business to other places in Crozet.”

“We’re a big part of Crozet now,” agreed business manager Josh Cromwell. “and we want to strengthen that. It’s fun to be part of a growing community.”

Starr Hill is currently producing 25,000 barrels of beer a year (a barrel contains 31 gallons) and distributes in 10 states from Georgia to New York. About 40 percent of its sales are in Virginia, Thompson said. It has 40 full-time employees and some 50 to 60 part-time workers.

Production could rise to 40,000 barrels in the existing plant and they expect to reach that level of demand within three years.

“We’re looking at whether to expand the present building,” said Thompson. “The number one thing is to produce high quality beer that is a cut above, day in and day out. There is still room for craft beers to grow. It is very competitive now. There are 2,700 craft breweries in the U.S. Consumers are going to make the decision about who is going to make it into the future.”

Thompson credited the gold award success of Whiter Shade of Pale Ale to lead brewer Robbie O’Cain, just 25, who has been with Starr Hill for two years. A chemistry major in college, he is a certified brewmaster who trained in Germany.

“What’s cool about American craft brewing is that we take styles from other countries and make them our own,” said O’Cain. “We can grow some of the best hops in the world in the Pacific Northwest.”

O’Cain said he makes small-scale test batches and then refines the recipes. “Craft beers can interrupt their production processes to try new things. I apply biochemistry to brewing. We use it to make all our beer better. We’re doing scientific method. It’s a blend of science and art.

“I’m really excited to have won,” O’Cain admitted. “We have a great bunch of guys working here. Beer is a sort of magical beverage. It’s older than nearly every other fermented beverage but wine. Sharing it makes the magic happen.”