Starr gazing: Longest tenured local brewery makes big change at the top

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What will a new brewmaster mean for Starr Hill? Photo: Rammelkamp Foto What will a new brewmaster mean for Starr Hill? Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Mark Thompson, Starr Hill Brewery’s founder and brewmaster for a decade and a half, dropped a bomb on the craft beer world when he announced his retirement on February 16. Since then, he’s pretty much disappeared. He didn’t respond to multiple phone messages and according to Starr Hill management, left no forwarding e-mail address.

“I don’t know what he’s planning on doing,” said Brian McNelis, the brewery’s managing director and VP of operations. “He didn’t talk to me about all of that. But in my experience, when someone steps down from something after that many years, they’re going to take a little downtime.”

In an open letter to Starr Hill customers, Thompson said only that he’s retired to “pursue other opportunities in [his] life.” He indicated he’d be available to the brewery as an advisor but said for the most part he was content to “sit back and watch the new team” run the business he founded in 1999 and which he grew into a regional brewing powerhouse.

Thompson, who chairs the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, will remain part owner of Starr Hill but will not be on its board of directors. And while the reasons behind his departure are a mystery, many have taken to social media to express thoughts on what his absence will mean to the local craft beer community. Both Blue Mountain owner Mandi Smack and Devils Backbone proprietor Steven Crandall took the time to wish Thompson luck on Facebook and point out how much they’d learned from him over the years.

McNelis is more inclined to look to the future than dwell on the past. He has good reason. Replacing Thompson at the Starr Hill brewhouse helm is Robbie O’Cain, who despite being only 29, has already earned industry accolades.

In truth, McNelis said, O’Cain has been transitioning into his new role for at least a year and a half, as Thompson’s made a slow move away from day-to-day operations. The first Starr Hill offering on which O’Cain led product development, Whiter Shade of Pale, has already made an impact. The white IPA won gold at the World Beer Cup last year and has been a well-received addition to Starr Hill’s limited-release lineup. King of Hop, an imperial IPA also released since O’Cain began heading up development, was named Best IPA at the 2014 Virginia Beer Cup.

“He’s already started proving his bona fides,” McNelis said. “This guy I think is going to be a rising star in the craft world. We got a good one, and I think Mark saw that and that made him feel comfortable leaving.”

The move to a new brewmaster after 16 years makes some sense for Starr Hill. When Thompson launched the brand back in ’99, he operated like most fledgling micro-breweries, taking on whatever jobs needed to be done to push the business forward—sales, marketing, packaging, distribution, quality control, the list goes on.

Now a member of the old guard in the current beer revolution, Starr Hill operates with clearly defined employee roles and responsibilities. The brewmaster these days is a focused position, and O’Cain is tasked mainly with product development and the intricacies of the brewing process.

Those are two roles O’Cain is exceptionally suited to, McNelis said. The Asheville, North Carolina, native came to brewing from a background in science—he earned a chemistry degree from Hampden-Sydney College—and excelled as quality assurance manager when he was promoted to the position within a year of joining Starr Hill. O’Cain attended the World Brewing Academy Master Brewer Program through the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago and the Doemens Academy in Munich, Germany, graduating at the top of his class and earning a master’s in brewing science.

“Coming out of the gate, I would say that Robbie brings with him a little more academic credentials,” McNelis said.

O’Cain agreed the role that’s been defined for him is a good fit. “There are all these different kinds of brewmasters, so it’s not easily defined,” he said. “I’m much more focused on the technical side of things.”

Starr Hill is always moving forward, McNelis said, describing the brewery’s consistency these days as better than it’s ever been, in no small part due to O’Cain’s expertise. The company has also been launching products at a faster pace than ever before, bringing 16 new brands to market in the last two years.

From a stylistic point of view, neither O’Cain nor McNelis are willing to pin down how or if Starr Hill might change course under the direction of a new brewmaster. O’Cain admitted he has a penchant for IPAs because of their versatility and the fact that “we have the greatest hops in the world growing in the Pacific Northwest.” He’s also currently into Belgian beers, but he said he’s comfortable working in any style.

“It’s hard to choose a single style because anyone that’s true to the science can’t play favorites,” O’Cain said. “Every time you go out, you are going out to make the best possible beer you can.”

Thompson, who also has a background in science, would no doubt agree with that sentiment.