- Bringing in the 20 BBL fermentor tanks for the first time.
- Mike McGarvey doing his best Hell Boy impression with heating coils.
- The typical crew for 3 Stars work days.
- The control panel build out.
- Walk-in cold storage build out.
- The original basement homebrewing set up.
- Capping sixtels in the walk-in while others are just in there trying to cool off.
- Tap handles right before getting powder coatings.
- Tom aka "Bottles" having us over and popping some bottles with 3 stars supporters.
- The 3 Stars family enjoying the first release party at Churchkey.
Last week, 3 Stars Brewing Company unleashed its first three beers upon DC's beer-loving community just in time for DC Beer Week, which kicked off yesterday. Local beer and spirits writer John Fleury was part of the team of volunteers that helped bring the brewery into existence amid a local production brewery boomlet. Here's his account of what exactly goes on behind the scenes in the launch of a brewery — from the home-brewing stages to the release party.
It isn't that he's an intimidating person. Sure, Dave Coleman, co-founder of 3 Stars brewing and former beer director at The Big Hunt is 6 feet tall, tattoo clad, with a shaved head and burly beard makes him look more like a bouncer than a president of a company. The book cover judgments end as soon as you speak to him, however. He is that bouncer who looks like he'll rip your head off, but then you see him reading Voltaire when no one is waiting to get into the bar. From barstool patron to non-blood family, never would I have thought I would enter the world of Dave Coleman and head brewer Mike McGarvey and be completely immersed in it for the next two years. This is my journey from barfly regular to name-emblazoned work shirt.
I had known Coleman for some time before this, but we had rarely gotten past the normal bartender/patron banter. So upon first conversation with him about his ideas for a brewery I was intrigued yet a bit apprehensive, as that is a common dream for us in our little microcosm of beer. "So what kind of beer are you trying to make? What kind of market you trying to get here in DC?" I said as he slid my Strongbow and Woodford Reserve over to me. "We want big beers. The kind that knock your socks off." Coleman said. He explained to me their lab set-up and how they did multiple batches in McGarvey’s basement to "zero in" on recipes they wanted to get down exactly.
I visited McGarvey's house and was impressed with the level of thoroughness they had for a homebrew set-up. McGarvey, originally an engineer, had created a miniature brewery in his basement and his attention to efficiency and operational flow was evident in the way the basement was set up. This was the first time I knew that they truly meant business and this wasn't some hobby destined to years of yearning without resolution.
Finally locked down a location for the brewery. For the next year, the majority of my Saturdays (and other random nights) are spent turning an old mechanic's garage into an operating brewery. This turned out to be way more than I had anticipated. From powerwashing mold off walls, to scrubbing countless iron grates of rust and 20 years of debris, to putting in drop ceilings; a complete transition was happening in both the building, in our friendships, and in me. Along the way I'm also learning about construction, operations, and tools.
The Three Stars boys went up to Delaware to do a collaboration beer with Evolution Craft Brewing and release it Memorial Day weekend. It was the first commercial release of a beer, a delicious peppercorn saison that was one of my favorites for the summer. Places that had it around town went through it so fast.
The volunteers were becoming a tight-knit crew of friends who believed in a vision of a brewery and what it will do for our growing beer scene. One of the first times I noticed we were getting to become close friends was the problem of "The Drain." The brewery floor has a metal drain running 125 feet through the main floor of the brewery. This is fantastic for drainage and was important in the choice of location. However, it was also filled with 20 years of sludge that had to be removed in order for it to be useful. This drain is only about two feet wide and we couldn't figure out how to clean it out. Coleman and I were brainstorming at Meridian Pint when our friend Jake walked in the door. As if lightning came down from the heavens and energized our comfortably numb light bulbs, the solution was had in a bearded Premiere League fan who was just svelte enough to fit in that quagmire of filth. Needless to say, to this day he is still called "The Drain." ??
August also saw the release of B.W. Rye (a collaboration with Oliver Ales of Baltimore) and 3 Stars being heavily involved with DC Beer Week. For us as the support crew, it meant being ambassadors for the brand and going to as many of their events as we could – livers be damned.
Fall and Winter, 2011
The brewery started looking more like a brewery: fermenters, tanks, piping, cold storage rooms, and various coopering finally came in and turned this building into an actual beer production facility. This is also the time when the 3 Stars family really bonded through a lot of time together. Post-workday barbecues, late-night sessions of popping rare bottles, and holidays together are becoming the norm. I decided to go to Paris through the end of December into January to visit a friend and was actually disappointed to miss Dave and wife Nancy’s annual New Years Day party. This is my family now.
The organization of the brewery was being put together. Our workdays were spent seeing where things go in order to create the best workflow, removing unneeded last remnants of the building, and getting things ready for trial production. Piping for waterlines, for transferring contents between the fermentation and bright tanks, and for kegging were being put in. Coleman's brother designed the tap handles and they came in. This tangible aspect was really exciting. Shirts, stickers, tap handles, sixtels (a smaller sized keg that many breweries use for larger abv beers or rarer offering that a normal keg wouldn't be needed for) and barrels (for aging beer) were all coming in. This was really happening. And soon.
McGarvey, who is normally as composed as they come, become more agitated as he was dealing more with lawyers, contractors, and regulation officials than the actual brewing. Which, in reality, is most likely the case with starting any small business. Just with a brewery, you have the added headache of ABRA and the antiquated (or non-existent) laws of brewing in the District. Couple this with health inspections, the right building permits, water, sewage, power, and gas line upgrades to get it to commercial specifications, and I could see the stress of paperwork issues taking a toll on him.
The release really snuck up on me. All of a sudden they got their Certificate of Occupancy and I knew they could, in Coleman’s words, "Do it to it!" but I didn't know how long it would take to get things up to their level of quality and kegged. The workdays have been getting a little shorter and I had been much more involved in organizing homebrewing events and tasting events elsewhere, so it was almost a surprise when the release parties went public. The first release party at ChurchKey was about as ridiculous as we could imagine. Completely packed with friends but also so many people we didn’t know. While the bar was full almost the whole night, for many it was "one in, one out" and we couldn't have been happier about the turnout. Coleman made a speech that was short, slightly crass, and incredibly heartfelt. The whole bar was electrified with fermented energy and the staff did an amazing job. The next night at Big Hunt was much more friends and family but equally amazing in terms of crowd and awesome staff.
August 12, 2012
I feel so lucky to have been able to be part of this rag-tag crew that had a belief in friends that went far beyond beer. For most of us, it was well over a year into sweating, bleeding, and nursing our sore muscles before we had anything other than homebrew. But we believed in our friend’s drive and passion. And that was enough. —John Fleury