WILMINGTON – The Front Street Brewery is a downtown institution – for Head Brewer Christopher McGarvey, that’s a blessing and a curse.
Despite seeing changes in management and ownership since opening in 1995, the Brewery has remained known as a place to get inexpensive food and beer brewed in-house. McGarvey said the Brewery’s status as “old reliable,” is something he is grateful for. It is also the shadow he is trying to step out of.
“The success of this restaurant, it’s amazing, and it’s afforded me the opportunity to have the dream job,” McGarvey said. “I can do pretty much whatever I want as a brewer. It’s 100 percent my ship to steer. But the Brewery is not Manna, we’re not Pinpoint. The kitchen makes great pub food, but – honestly – it is not on the cutting edge of cuisine. So, I’m not surprised that people don’t think of us as being on the cutting edge of brewing.”
As a Brewer, this could be a painful irony: Wilmington’s first brewery is not really known for its beers.
But for McGarvey is embracing the challenge along two seemingly opposite fronts.
First, McGarvey is overhauling the Brewery’s five flagship beers. Second, he’s ramped up the Brewery’ ‘Wort Shop,’ program.
The flagship overhaul is risky business, in no small part because the Brewery’s success is built on consistency. The kitchen has, for one example, served the same pulled chicken nacho appetizer for over 20 years. How would crowds react to changing the mainstay beers?
“Part of the problem is that I’m a perfectionist,” McGarvey said. “So, these are good beers, Kevin [Kozak, who moved from head brewer to operations manager] did a great job. But I knew they could be better.”
McGarvey, who was the Brewery’s assistant brewer from 2010 to 2013, returned last July to take the helm. He knew quickly that he wanted to tackle improving the flagship beers but also wanted to take a measured approach to it.
McGarvey said, “We’ve got a whole new approach to rating our own beers. We do a blind taste test against similar styles. We look at the beer itself, aroma, bitterness, color and the feel of beer in your mouth. For me, it’s about balance, no one thing dominates anything else. A perfect beer is balanced. We’re on version 2.0 for a lot of them, but we’ll keep going, version 2.1 or 2.2, until we get there.”
With help from his assistants and Brewery staff, McGarvey developed a tasting scale of one to five.
“A four is pretty good, a four is the point at which I’d put my beer up against other great beers in the same style,” he said. “A five is like a revelation, a perfect beer. Perfect balance, perfect feel, every sip just leads you right back into the next one.”
McGarvey added that most of the flagships were in the three range, “except the [Sinful] Stout, that one is the closest to being where it needs to be. We’re pretty close. Better than a four. We’re down to tiny little tweaks. We did a blind tasting against some other pretty good chocolate stouts and this one won.”
The new beers will be ready “when they’re ready,” according to McGarvey. “This is a very under-the-radar overhaul, we’re not going to rush it.” He added that he hoped the overhaul would be wrapping up by summer.
When McGarvey is not tweaking the classics towards perfection, he’s going in the opposite direction with the ‘Wort Shop.’ Started as a monthly experimental brewing when McGarvey was assistant brewer, the program was elevated to a weekly event as soon as took over head brewer duties.
Every time the Brewery makes a batch of beer, it produces 310 gallons of wort, the sweetened mixture of barley and water that gets fermented into beer. So, if the brewers are preparing a stout, McGarvey will take five gallons of the stout base and take it in a different, and often unexpected, direction for the Wort Shop.
Sometimes McGarvey aims his experimental brews at a particular flavor profile. In the coming weeks, he plans to brew a beer version of Borodinksy bread, a traditional Russian rye-bread sweetened with molasses and flavored with coriander.
In other experiments, McGarvey sees where the beer takes him. Lately, has been experimenting with different yeasts.
McGarvey said yeast is “like a translator. You could take our Kolsch and switch out the yeast with a Heffenweizen yeast and it translates those sugars into orange and coriander notes. Swap in a Saison yeast, and you get lemon and peppery spice.”
A different kind of experiment used natural yeasts, like those occurring on the Pindo or Jelly Palm. The hardy, fast-growing palm is native to South America, but has spread to the southeast coast of the United States. The palms grow wild, but their fibrous fruit makes them difficult to cook with.
McGarvey said a Brewery regular, a mailman who noticed the palm plans on his route, suggested them to the brewery staff.
Shortly afterwards, McGarvey said he was “driving all over town, harvesting these palms. It went in the kettle and away we went. It turned out to have some really great citrus notes, and a bit of sour, in a really pleasant way. We’re doing some other things with it and, as far as I know, we’re the only ones around doing anything like that.”
Finished beers from the Wort Shop get tapped on Thursday at lunch every week. The five gallon kegs are often kicked by Friday, according to McGarvey.
Of the Wort Shop beers, McGarvey said, “I see it as a chance to learn my ingredients better, to try out new ideas. They’re one of a kind, and when they’re gone they’re gone, but we retain what we learn.”
McGarvey said he hopes that customers coming in for the reliable comfort of familiar food will give his new beers a chance. But more than that, he said “I hope that people who came in here years ago, and maybe us wrote us off in terms of being a serious craft brewery, I hope those people will give us another shot.”