City Paper is not for tourists
It’s two days before their big party, and the founders of 3 Stars Brewing Company are a little unkempt. Mike McGarvey’s fingernails look like he just clawed out of a sinkhole. It turns out he was fixing a broken forklift critical to the brewery’s operations. His partner, Dave Coleman, is sweaty and has specks of spray paint in his dark beard. He was working on a technicolor mural that had to be finished in time for the brewery’s five-year anniversary bash.
Despite hiring a dozen full-time employees over the past half decade, the duo is still as hands-on as the day they brewed their first beer in August 2012 at 6400 Chillum Pl. NW. Since that moment, they’ve emerged as one of the biggest players in the local beer scene.
They’ve also springboarded to a national presence: 3 Stars beer is available in D.C., Maryland, Virginia, New York, Boston, and Miami and will be in more cities and states soon. At this critical juncture, Coleman and McGarvey pause to reminisce about how far they’ve come.
When 3 Stars debuted it wasn’t the only brewery in town. DC Brau, Chocolate City, Port City, and Mad Fox were already making beer in the area. But the local suds scene was still burgeoning. “From my background at The Big Hunt, this town was ready for local beer for so long that when breweries started opening everyone was really supportive,” Coleman says. “It was young and growing; it was like a newborn child—bright and cheerful.”
From the start, 3 Stars focused on differentiating itself from what others were doing. “DC Brau established themselves as an IPA and hoppy brewery, so we were doing more Belgian beers, higher ABV beers, and malt-forward beers,” McGarvey says.
3 Stars launched with a triplet of beers that are still available today: Peppercorn Saison (a Belgian-style farmhouse ale), Southern Belle (an imperial brown ale), and Pandemic Porter (an American imperial porter). Nearly 100 cool and quirky beers later, Peppercorn Saison remains the biggest seller.
“As we got a feel for people’s palates we started adding things to the portfolio,” McGarvey says.
Coleman adds, “We both got more into IPAs and Double IPAs and the market was also doing that.” After expanding their bitter profile with beers like Two to the Dome, they moved on to the next challenge: sour beers.
“Sours were something we wanted to do in 2012, but it requires capital, structure, and process and we didn’t have the bandwidth,” Coleman says. It wasn’t until 2015 that 3 Stars could devote space on the brewery floor to a sour room they call the “Funkerdome.” The tucked away space that has a disco ball on the ceiling holds fermenters and wine and whiskey barrels containing beers that age for anywhere from six months to three years.
The same year held another major milestone for the brewery. 3 Stars started working with a mobile canner, which allowed them to get their beer onto shelves at grocery stores and places that didn’t have draft lines. “It opened up a lot of accounts for us, but at the same time that was a big awakening—holy shit we’re going to need a bigger boat,” Coleman says.
To better meet the demand for canned 3 Stars beers, the brewery brought on its own canning line in 2016. “It makes us a lot more flexible, especially when it comes to one-off and speciality beers.” These often include chef or restaurant collaborations, an area where the brewery has the market cornered.
“We’ve always taken a culinary approach to making beer,” Coleman explains. Consider the Trouble in Paradise wild ale brewed with mango and guava, the Lime Basil Saison, or Ebony & Ivory, which calls for brewing Southern Belle with vanilla beans and cocoa nibs. This chefy creativity positioned the brewery to partner with chef-driven restaurants.
So many chefs have asked 3 Stars to create a special beer bearing their restaurant’s name that the brewery has become selective. They’ve created beers for Daikaya and City Tap House, for example, and are preparing one to be served at Mike Isabella Concepts restaurants. It’s a session saison with grains of paradise, coriander, and orange peel.
Fast-forward to 2017 and the modern 3 Stars brewery has a new tasting room called the “Urban Farmhouse,” a home-brew shop, and new machinery that can produce three times as much beer as their old gear. They’ll soon expand into the 7,000-square-foot building next door that used to be a church. It will hold additional fermentation tanks and also a fast-casual restaurant from a notable area chef.
The ethos of the local beer scene has shifted significantly since Coleman and McGarvey first started. For one, consumers are far more astute. “Education is a huge part of any consumable industry including food, sushi, and steak,” Coleman says. “The more people know, the more the supplier has to stay on its game.”
McGarvey theorizes that with the more educated consumer comes the less cantankerous beer drinker complaining about the price of a pint. “As it relates to some of these double IPAs, some of the price sensitivity has changed,” he says. “You get into these more complex beers and there’s a little more appreciation for how much time they take to make.”
Other facets of present day include snugglier camaraderie in an increasingly diverse local brewer community.
“I see increased diversity in terms of who you have working and what people are producing,” Coleman says. “It’s kind of screwed up that when you look around it’s all bearded white guys. It should be girls, minorities, it should be open to everyone.” A sign the needle is moving: Four of the nine people that run the DC Brewer’s Guild (DCBG) are women, including the guild’s executive director Kathy Rizzo.
McGarvey notes that the D.C. beer scene is a lot closer than it was before, especially with the creation of DCBG, whose mission is unification. “There was natural friction when we all started up at the same time,” he says. “That’s quieted down now because we all have our own things going on, our own personas. We coexist in a really tight space but we’re all thriving.”
Coleman agrees. “We went from, ‘We’re trying to win’ to ‘Let’s all win.’”