“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.
Three Stars’ brewers say they hope to begin releasing an almost comically large selection of India pale ales, the beers best known for showcasing the fruity, herbal and piney aromas and flavors of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus. Inspired by some of McGarvey and Coleman’s favorite examples of the style, such as Bell’s Brewery’s Two Hearted Ale and the Alchemist’s Heady Topper, there will be a standard American IPA, a spicy IPA brewed with rye, a higher-alcohol double IPA, an IPA brewed with Belgian yeast and a heavily hopped wheat beer — a close relative of IPAs — in the mold of Three Floyds Brewing’s Gumballhead.
The 3 Stars approach contrasts markedly with that adopted by its most similar competitor, DC Brau (not to mention the second production brewery to open in the District, Chocolate City Beer, with its focus on lighter, less hoppy products). Consider this: While DC Brau has released only a few beers that surpass 8 percent alcohol, six of the eight beers listed on the 3 Stars Web site cross that threshold.
Greg Jasgur, beer director of Pizzeria Paradiso, says 3 Stars “will definitely fill a niche in the D.C. beer community. I think what they’re trying to do is a little more on the experimental side. There’s definitely room for that.”
Three Stars emphasizes flavor enhancers such as pecans, peppercorns and single-origin, cold-brewed coffee, the last of which is sourced from Qualia Coffee in Petworth. The packaging, too, will send a different message. DC Brau uses cans and 22-ounce “bomber” bottles. 3 Stars is available only in kegs, but when the beer hits retail shelves in the coming months, it will appear in 750-milliliter bottles.
For now, McGarvey is still trying to perfect his IPA recipes. He recently launched a barrel-aging program, with Pandemic in bourbon barrels and plans for saison in chardonnay barrels. The Takoma Park brew house is configured so he can easily double production by installing four more fermentation tanks.
Yet McGarvey and Coleman stressed that quality and consistency are more important than expansion. “I’ve had a billion mediocre meals and beers, and I can’t remember where or what any of them were,” Coleman says. “I can tell you what knocked my socks off, and that is the kind of beer Mike and I want to make.”
He adds, “You’re going to remember the first time you had a Pandemic.”
Fromson, a freelance writer, lives in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @dfroms.