By Jeff Maisey
Ready for a new Starr Hill?
By July 1, the well-established Virginia craft brewery will have a completely revamped logo, package design and tap handles. These changes – and others – have been in the works long before the surprising announcement that founding brewmaster Mark Thompson was abruptly retiring from the beer business.
In a bombshell statement posted February 16 on Starrhill.com, Thompson wrote, “I have enjoyed being in the craft beer business for 23 years ever since I first went out west to learn the trade as a brewer. In 1999, I founded Starr Hill and the brewery helped to pioneer the Virginia craft industry. Starting out in the Starr Hill Music Hall, the brand never strayed far from our love of craft beer and live music. After 16 years, I have now decided to retire from Starr Hill Brewery to pursue other opportunities in my life.”
Recently, Thompson had been quietly managing fewer of the day-to-day operations of the brewery.
Just over three years ago he hired Brian McNelis, a former Anheuser-Busch management guy with 30 years experience.
In 2011, McNelis began his Starr Hill career as Vice President of Brewing Operations while working side-by-side with Thompson. He progressed to Managing Director and is now the President and CEO of the brewery.
Prior to Starr Hill, McNelis worked all over the United States and Europe for Anheuser-Busch. He retired as the Senior Plant Manager of the Williamsburg facility after the merger with Inbev prompted layoffs throughout the company.
While at A-B, McNelis also served on the Board of Directors of the Virginia Manufacturers Association. Brett Vassey, President and CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, knew McNelis as “the beer guy.”
“Brett had an interest in growing niches of the manufacturing business community,” recalled McNelis. “One of those was the craft beer community. He thought I could help them as a retired beer guy.”
That was in 2010. McNelis knew craft beer owners to be entrepreneurial and independent-minded multi-taskers. McNelis and Vassey wanted to approach the leading brand in Virginia – Starr Hill.
“When I walked in the door, Mark was unloading a truck,” said McNelis. “He was doing a little of everything.”
The Virginia Craft Brewers Guild was soon born after further discussions included Mad Fox’s Bill Madden, Steve Crandall at Devils Backbone and others.
A camaraderie was established between Thompson and McNelis.
“I was at home watching TV and I got a call from Mark Thompson,” said McNelis. “He said, ‘Hey, I know you’re out of the beer business, but would you like to get back in the game?’”
McNelis agreed to join Thompson at Starr Hill and quickly focused on the supply side of the brewery, building capacity and highlighting quality. This included building an in-house lab with analytical equipment, a larger brew kettle and gigantic fermenting tanks.
“I also started hiring some new talent,” said McNelis. “I hired our new brewmaster Robbie O’Cain in late 2011. Robbie started winning medals and doing well with brand development. That’s when Mark realized, hey, this is in pretty good hands now.”
McNelis views his time working for Big Beer as a distant memory. He identifies with the spirit of craft brewers.
“It has been rejuvenating for me,” he said. “I love it. I like the creativity here.”
According to McNelis, 90 percent of Starr Hill’s brewing staff is comprised of college graduates with science degrees. Their passion inspires McNelis. The quality shows in their work.
“I think we’re producing liquid that’s on-par with anybody in the country right now,” he said.
McNelis also realizes a brand can become stale at some point, especially a craft beer company that’s been on the market for 16 years. That’s about to change.
“When you’ve been around all these many years and then all these very talented craft breweries are popping up all around you, the consumer’s almost dizzy because they are looking for what’s new,” McNelis said. “That’s a very hard thing for a brand to sustain itself in all of that choice. We realized we have to revitalize our brand and get consumers – even though we’re not the new kid on the block – attention with new imagery. We’re doing a complete brand refresh.
“There was some realization that perhaps our imagery and look was appealing to too narrow a market. If you weren’t attending a live jam band concert perhaps you weren’t getting some of the imagery. We will always have our DNA in music, but we need to change our image. We want this to be a lifestyle brand. Live music is part of that, but it’s not exclusively all of it.”
Starr Hill’s new packaging will highlight specific beer styles. The imagery will be noticeably different.
“When you’re now competing in grocery stores with 100 different craft brands you’re stuff’s gotta work. The consumer now wants to walk down that aisle and see IPA.”
Get ready for the new Starr Hill.