It’s the middle of the afternoon, and Dave Coleman and Mike McGarvey are in McGarvey’s basement in Columbia Heights, thinking about beer.
Not in the usual, “Gee, I really wish I could knock off work and go drink one,” way, either. Coleman, who took over the Big Hunt beer program four years ago, spends most of his days thinking about beer, anyway. He’s already turned what used to be the prototypical dive bar into one of D.C.’s top craft beer destinations. But what he and his friend-turned-business partner McGarvey are up to now involves a whole new level of sudsy thoughts and dreams: They’re set to open a full-scale production brewery, one of the first to call D.C. home in more than half a century.
Why would someone intimately familiar with the travails of the craft beer industry want to get into a business fraught with high overhead and low expectations of success? Last month, I got a glimpse into their motivations, when I visited Coleman and McGarvey as they brewed test batches. Coleman tells me he’s been at the center of D.C.’s beer world, tasting as much as he can as the city experiences an explosion of craft beers at local bars, restaurants, and stores.
McGarvey continues his partner’s thoughts: “We were tasting all these new beers and appreciating them and just thinking, ‘Why don’t we have this in D.C.? Why can’t we have our own brewery?’”
“We built our lives here,” Coleman adds. “We met our girls here. This city birthed the idea for the brewery. We are looking forward to giving D.C. something back.”
Soon, they’ll be giving D.C. the 3 Stars Brewing Company, one of four breweries set to start producing beer within the District in 2011. Each will be a craft brewery, which the Brewers Association, the industry’s trade group, defines as one that produces less than 2 million barrels, or 4 million kegs, a year. (Of course, given the market share of the commercial beer heavyweights, some drinkers define “craft beer” as almost anything not associated with Bud, Miller, or Coors.)
“We’re really looking to push the envelope. That’s what American craft beer is all about,” Coleman explains. On my afternoon visit, the two partners were brewing a regular Porter and four 10%-ABV Imperials, one an Imperial Breakfast Porter made with oatmeal and coffee that would be fermented with cold-brewed espresso.
McGarvey, the director for marketing and business intelligence for Sirius Satellite Radio, has been homebrewing since he received his first kit from his girlfriend three years ago.
He and Coleman have since upgraded to a complex, meticulously organized basement brew space. Coleman calls their setup “a homebrew system on steroids… and more steroids.”
No kidding. Coleman and McGarvey’s innovative system allows them to brew five different three-gallon batches of beer simultaneously—perfect for testing new recipes. The pair has already invested about $10,000 in the business.
Their homebrew system is just a start, of course. The partners are searching for a permanent space for their brewery. They had hoped to locate it in Columbia Heights, where McGarvey and Coleman own homes.
“We want to be embedded in the neighborhood,” says McGarvey, a native of upstate New York. “We want to be part of the reason that some of these neighborhoods do better.”
But zoning laws have made that difficult. Production breweries need a special type of commercial manufacturing zoning, which doesn’t overlap much with residential neighborhoods. “The majority of the right zoning is in Northeast, where all the production is on your way out of town,” Cleveland native Coleman says. “D.C. in recent history, like many other cities, hasn’t had that much manufacturing, so the amount of spaces that are zoned for it are very limited.”
The three stars in 3 Stars Brewing Company are borrowed from the D.C. flag, but they also represents three partners: Coleman, McGarvey, and a friend who introduced them but decided not to make the full commitment to the startup. As president, Coleman will be in charge of marketing and sales. As CEO, McGarvey will manage operations and strategic planning and oversee the brewing process. They’ll soon look for a third star—an experienced head brewer to reproduce their beers on professional equipment.
3 Stars will have two flagship brews: an IPA and a saison. The founders are considering a porter, stout, and wheat as seasonal releases. These will be on draft and in 12 oz. bottles in D.C. restaurants, bars, and shops, while other limited-release experimental beers, like the Imperial Breakfast Porter, will be on draft and in 750ml bottles.