Mark Thompson, Cofounder of Starr Hill Brewery

In September 2014, the Tom Tom Founders Festival launched the Founding Cville project which highlights local artists, civic leaders and entrepreneurs “whose groundbreaking and original work has impacted Charlottesville and the world.” Charlottesville Tomorrow is republishing the eighteen profiles of each of the inaugural Founders.

Mark Thompson, Cofounder of Starr Hill Brewery

Mark Thompson was one of the pioneers of Virginia’s exploding craft beer scene, building Starr Hill into Virginia’s largest and most award-winning brewery. The Crozet brewery boasts a capacity of 55,000 barrels and has won 17 Great American Beer Festival medals and 3 World Beer Cup medals. Thompson has supported the dozens of Virginia craft breweries that have sprouted up in Starr Hill’s wake through the Blue Ridge Trail of craft breweries, which includes favorites like Devil’s Backbone, Blue Mountain, and Wild Wolf. With broad distribution and a democratic vision of beer that enhances life, Thompson’s Starr Hill has helped pave the way for Virginia crafters arriving on the national scene.

What was the inspiration for Starr Hill Brewery?

I trace my start in craft brewing back to my Bachelor of Science Degree from James Madison University, and then being in the right place at the right time. After getting the degree, I moved to Portland, Oregon where in the early 1990’s craft beer was just getting started in this country. My biology degree helped me to understand the science behind beer, and being left-handed I have always been artistic. I was, and continue to be, inspired by the blend of art and science of beer. Making beer blends these two very natural things together for the final product.

What was the biggest setback?

My take is that most founders do not use words like setback. My definition of a setback would be that it was an opportunity. A quote that I use a lot, from Thomas Watson, the second President of IBM, is, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” Never be afraid to try.

When did you begin to suspect this could be a success?

I never doubted that Starr Hill would be a success. If I did, I probably would not have founded the brewery. I very often feel that I am so close to the trees that I cannot see the forest when it comes to measuring our success.

What has been the biggest positive impact you have observed?

The biggest positive impact that I have seen, is that beer is universal. Almost every culture on the planet gathers around a fermented cereal grain beverage called beer to celebrate their rights of passage. For me to be a small part in helping others to enjoy life over a beer is an honor.

It’s also pretty special to be able to go to C&O Restaurant, which bought Starr Hill’s very first keg ten years ago, and still find our beer on tap. Finally, our whole industry of craft beer creates living wage jobs that can’t be outsourced. As a small business owner, it is great to see that.

Have you founded other businesses or initiatives?

I founded a small company called Marble Magic just after college that made marbled (similar to tie dying) clothing. That company was more of a hobby than a business, but it did help to ignite my entrepreneur flame.

How do you define Founding?

I would define Founding in a couple of different ways. First, you have to have an inner belief in yourself and your concept even when all others do not. Secondly, I would say that you need to be able to handle both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows equally. Never getting too excited when things are going well or down when things are not.

What brought you to Charlottesville, and what keeps you here?

I was born and raised in Charlottesville. I graduated from Western Albemarle High School. Charlottesville has always been my home.

What’s next? For you and for your initiative?

Starr Hill’s vision is to be the East Coast’s most respected and sought after craft brewery. We hope to achieve this vision by delivering the freshest and highest quality beer available.

Founding Cville culminated in an award ceremony at Tom Tom’s Fall Block Party
with over 6,000 in attendance | Credit: Tom Daly Photography