Sometimes being a visionary doesn’t look so good.
Like when you walk into a bureaucrat’s office to get a license to distribute beer from your fledgling brewery, your wife is nine months pregnant and she’s the one who’s going to be making the deliveries.
“So the guy says, ‘Let me get this straight. You’re going to make beer — in a bathtub, basically — and you’re going to sell it to her. And she’s going to get in a van. And she’s going to drive it around town and sell this beer.’ And we said, ‘Yessir.’ And you could just see him laughing off his chair. He signed her document, shoved it to us and more or less said, ‘Good luck — it will never work.’ ”
Well, of course, it has worked. Starr Hill Brewery, the company Thompson co-founded, is now Virginia’s largest craft brewery, making a little more than 22,000 barrels a year of nearly 20 varieties distributed across a swath from New Jersey to Georgia (but not by his wife, Kristin Dolan, anymore).
Thompson’s vision and stature recently led his peers to elect him chairman of the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild. There are nearly 70 craft breweries in the state, and a lot has changed since Starr Hill’s launch 15 years ago on Main Street in downtown Charlottesville.
Thompson cracks another joke, this one about their first beer. “I used to say, ‘You can have any flavor of Starr Hill you want, as long as it’s amber.’ ”
Now, when you walk through the narrow hallway into the brewery in Crozet, you’ll see 19 framed medals and awards. In the tasting area, soon to be expanded, a chatty bartender offers samples of Starr Hill Saison, a fruity Belgian-style farmhouse ale; Northern Lights, the brewery’s flagship IPA; Taste of Honey, a super-smooth Belgian-style dubbel; and more. T-shirts and silvery stars hang from the ceilings, and nearby you might hear the rattle of bottles soldiering along the filling line.
More than maybe, you will hear music, all kinds of music that’s an essential part of Starr Hill’s choreography. Grateful Pale Ale (think Deadhead). Dark Starr Stout (think Stephen Stills, not Darth Vader). Whiter Shade of Pale Belgian-style IPA (don’t think – “just call out for another drink and let the waiter bring the tray”).
As Thompson takes me through the sprawling facility — a 32,000-square-foot former frozen food plant with a beer “library,” a sophisticated grain mill, a row of 100-barrel fermenters, a “hop cannon” used for dry-hopping and a lab for quality control — we reminisce and trade exclamations about how much has changed since those Main Street days.
“I think the explosion in the number of breweries is what has surprised me most,” Thompson said. “The pace at which the number of breweries is opening is something I would not have suspected.”
That pace creates synergy, he said, and helps bring attention to craft brewers’ role in boosting the economy. The small businesses create jobs, enhance tourism, manufacture popular products and contribute to the community.
“In many ways, our industry is the poster child for what every politician wants to see,” Thompson said.
The role of the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild is to facilitate the jobs-tourism-economy connections and address legislative priorities. For example, a bill before this year’s General Assembly defines farm breweries, a benefit for Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery in Goochland County and others.
“It’s hard to generate good-paying jobs in agricultural areas,” Thompson said, adding that Virginia’s boutique wineries provide a model. “In many ways, our chemistry is very similar. … The wine guys have a proven track record of success in that field.”
Thompson’s success with Starr Hill also propels his leadership role. Not that he could have foreseen it when he and Kristin moved to Portland, Ore., after he got a biology degree from James Madison University. He was pursuing a master’s degree until a part-time job at a craft brewery led to a career change.
Now Starr Hill is well-positioned as a leading regional brewery in a burgeoning market. Opportunities in the Southeast also have drawn the likes of New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues and Green Flash. Other regional breweries, such as SweetWater of Atlanta, are expanding distribution — brewery officials gathered recently to celebrate their launch in Richmond.
Growth means some elbow bumping. Lawsuits over similar beer names have popped up more frequently. Space in tap houses and retail outlets has become more dear. But Thompson stresses that competition is less among craft brewers than it is for greater overall market share.
“The share of local craft has a lot of opportunity to grow,” he said.
And these days, nobody is saying, “Good luck — it will never work.”