Thursday afternoon, Dave Coleman and Mike McGarvey of 3 Stars Brewing, Washington’s third and newest brewery, stood by the windows at ChurchKey and debuted their first three beers. I had tasted only one of them before this official launch: Pandemic Porter, which is a perfect example of the big, bold beers that Coleman and McGarvey hope will set their brewery apart from the local competitors. (The porter was the focus of my profile of 3 Stars in this week’s Food Section.)
Now, I’ve tried all three beers — plus five variations, each a “cask ale” version of one of the original three, aged with additional flavorings and naturally carbonated with yeast rather than pressurized with carbon dioxide. More importantly, I can happily report that the beers are all not only big and bold, but also very good, with a couple of real standouts.
The lightest of the three is the Urban Farmhouse saison, an ideal drink for hot weather. Urban Farmhouse is the one 3 Stars beer that really surprised me — because it is so delicious, an unusual feat for an upstart brewery that doesn’t specialize in Belgian styles. Coleman, president of 3 Stars, likes to call the saison a “gateway drug,” more approachable for craft-beer neophytes than, say, bitter and hoppy India pale ales, but still complex and flavorful.
Urban Farmhouse, which will be available year-round, is a solid flagship offering that should have broad appeal. The aroma has some of the banana and clove notes typical of German hefeweizens, complemented by pepper, fruity Belgian yeast and citrusy American hops. The beer is full-bodied, with more spice from green and white peppercorns and a slight citrus-rind bitterness. A cask variation spiked with Cascade hops and orange peel was similar, with more citrus.
In contrast to the Urban Farmhouse, the Southern Belle — an imperial brown ale brewed with toasted pecans — is a heavy hitter, coming in at 8.7 percent alcohol. Coleman and McGarvey aren’t fans of regular brown ales (think Newcastle), which head brewer McGarvey describes as “nondescript beers that home brewers start with and move on from.”
But the Southern Belle is no ordinary brunette. Conceived as a beer to pair with cupcakes, it smells rich and sweet, like caramel and raisins. The taste is smooth — the nuts really noticeable — and the alcohol is well hidden (“sleight of hand,” Coleman says). Unfortunately for some, the elements merely add up to a relatively one-note beer. Instead, try a cask version, such as the one with vanilla bean, which adds a layer of complexity, or the one with toasted oak, which balances the sweetness with tannins.
Last but definitely not least — how could it be, with a name like Pandemic? — is the brewery’s imperial porter, a boozy burst of caramel, coffee and chocolate. Even better is Pandemic laced with coffee, which was available at ChurchKey on cask and will soon be put into kegs as part of the regular 3 Stars rotation. If you like coffee, this one’s for you, with cold-brewed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from Petworth’s Qualia Coffee adding a vivid java aroma and flavor.
Draft and cask versions of all three 3 Stars beers will be available tonight at the Big Hunt, starting at 5 p.m., with more events to follow next week at Boundary Road, Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle, Granville Moore’s, Scion, Smoke and Barrel and Smith Commons. (Detailed information is available on the 3 Stars Web site.) No two casks are alike: Future variations include Southern Belle with cacao nibs and Urban Farmhouse with Citra hops and lemon peel.
But be sure to try the regular Urban Farmhouse first. After all, it’s not only the lightest, most summery offering. It’s the gateway drug, and if Coleman and McGarvey are lucky, Washington will be addicted.
Fromson, a freelance writer, lives in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @dfroms.