“Just be careful,” Mike McGarvey told me on a recent Friday. “I don’t want you to get any acid on you.” Suddenly his partner, Dave Coleman, turned a valve, shooting fluid through a hose and into a metal beer cask called a firkin. Nearby, about 120 five-gallon kegs, each stenciled with their brewery’s logo — a shield and three stars — stood packed into two neat phalanxes, ready to be cleaned and filled for the very first time.
But the main attraction in 3 Stars Brewing’s Takoma Park warehouse was a gleaming tank of Pandemic Porter, the kegs’ future contents. This 9.6-percent alcohol beast of a beer smells like chocolate and vanilla and tastes like coffee and bitter cacao, with a smooth mouth feel and a whiskeylike, boozy warmth. It’s also a perfect example of the pleasurable havoc that 3 Stars is about to unleash upon the District: beers with big flavors, big alcohol contents and big aspirations to stand out in the increasingly crowded D.C. beer scene.
On Thursday and Friday, respectively, 3 Stars will officially launch its beers at Birch & Barley/ChurchKey and the Big Hunt. Soon after, 20 or so more bars and restaurants will carry its products. The Big Hunt is an appropriate venue for the beer’s debut because McGarvey, the brewery’s 39-year-old chief executive and head brewer, and Coleman, its 35-year-old president, met there nearly a decade ago. (Both are longtime District residents, and Coleman left the Big Hunt in the spring, having served as beer director for the past six years.) McGarvey got into home-brewing, and about three years ago the friends laid the groundwork for their brewery and delved into serious recipe development.
The process they adopted, unusually scientific for home-brewers turning pro, speaks to the pair’s methodical pursuit of jaw-dropping beers, despite relying more on five-gallon pots than on state-of-the-art brewing equipment. For each test batch, McGarvey simultaneously brewed a basic recipe and four variations. One might use entirely different hop varieties, another a different yeast strain. Assigning ratings to each iteration, McGarvey and Coleman identified their favorite, then repeated the process until they made something they considered truly special. Most 3 Stars beers have gone through three to five rounds, some even more. The first to emerge was Pandemic, which Coleman jokingly calls “the beer that changed the world.”
“It was the first beer and recipe that we developed on our own that we felt really is a differentiated product,” McGarvey says. “The beer industry is incredibly competitive, and I think if you’re going to go into it, you have to be serious about what you’re going to produce and what experience you’re creating that’s going to differentiate you.”
The other two releases 3 Stars is introducing this week are flavorful and offbeat as well. Instead of starting with more common beers, such as American pale ales and German styles, McGarvey and Coleman offer Urban Farmhouse saison, a Belgian-influenced ale brewed with white and green peppercorns and citrusy American hops, and the Southern Belle, a malty imperial brown ale finished with toasted pecans.