Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Starr Hill Brewing Co. and Tasting Room

Starr Hill Brewery, founded in 1999 in the now papered up Charlottesville location, moved to the old Con Agra building in Crozet in 2005. The grand opening of the new tasting room was July 21 of last year. Viscerally preferring beer to the more intellectual wine, even though they're both so damn good, making the drive west on 250 to 240 had been a long time coming. Heading west, the parking lot is on the left after passing the plant. A short ramp leads to a small side door which enters a storage room for kegs. From there you get a glimpse of the tasting area and the bottling machinery (pic above). The place was busy but it's only open for tours and tastings from noon to five on Saturday. The four staples (Amber, Jomo, Dark Starr, Pale Ale) were on tap, as well as a couple seasonal brews. The six packs are on sale, cheaper than retail, and they'll fill up a growler for $7. That's the real deal. I prefer the Jomo but there's something for everyone. Overall, I expect more taste from a craft beer. Starr Hill's a winner alright: there's a six-pack in my fridge. It's not clear what's missing. Blue Mountain Brewery hits closer to what I want and expect from a microbrewery. (future post to come)

Half of the appeal of the place is the industrial digs. West Main Starr Hill could brew 1,500 Barrels annually. The Crozet home can make 10,000 barrels a year with room for expansion. Help with that expansion will come in part from a distribution deal recently signed with Anheuser Busch. This news, the marriage with Big Beer, and the large shiny plant make it hard to think of Starr Hill as a microbrewery. The amazing thing is that the brand has only existed for nine years. In nine more years it might be the next Sierra Nevada as founder Mark Thompson hopes.

The Con Agra plant has a history that involves one of my favorite subjects, the Albemarle Pippin. The Crozet Gazzette, Feb 2007 edition, which is available online, offered a history of the cold-storage plant, and an article about Starr Hill. Crozet is a small place after all.

Cold storage warehouses on the site go back as far as the first decade of the 20th Century. It rose out of the need to store all the surplus apples coming out of western Albemarle County, such as all the ugly Pippins. Apple storage evolved into slicing and packaging in 1946, but by this time the large-scale apple growers were a thing of the past. A savior for the building and local workers came with the arrival of Morton Frozen Foods in 1953. In 1965, Morton was bought by Continental Baking. At that time there were 1,600 employees and it was Albemarle's largest employer. In 1981, it was sold to tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. In 1982, it became a unit of RJR's San Francisco-based Del Monte. It joined Con Agra in 1986. Still in 1994 with 732 employees, the plant had the capability to produce 15,000 pounds per hour of pot pie filling and 25,000 pounds per hour of gravy and pasta sauce. Corporate cuts closed the food processing operations in 2000.

A sign next to the tasting room bathroom brings back the old days.

Starr Hill Brewing Co
5391 Three Notched Road
Crozet, VA 22932

Some more info on the local beer scene.

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