Meet the Brewers is an ongoing series to highlight the individuals who make the beer at our Wilmington breweries. Check back every week to see the latest interview. All photographs provided by Brian Lantz Photography. Check out his instagram at @brianlantzphotography
Christopher McGarvey is the Brewmaster at Front Street Brewery whose journey with beer started homebrewing soda in college and has led him Front Street Brewery Brewmaster.
Where are you from?
East Peoria, IL
What first got you into brewing?
My college roommate and I decided we wanted to try making our own ginger beer soda because we were adventurous cooks. We bottled it in re-used IBC root beer bottles with corks, which proceeded to fire off spontaneously in the night with a loud bang as the bottles carbonated. I drank one of the open bottles I found the next day and got food poisoning for three days. So I guess that complete failure incited my stubborn perfectionist spirit, and I set out determined to get it right, but with beer, where no pathogenic microbes can live.
How long have you been brewing?
I started homebrewing in 2005 and quickly devoured every book on the subject. I used to sneak onto the Northern Brewer discussion forum during a summer internship in the engineering department at Nelson Sprinkler Company for hours at a time, and a lot of my early ideas came from exchanges there. I became an assistant brewer at FSB in 2011, and brewmaster in summer 2016.
What was the first beer you made?
The first recipe I concocted myself was a clone recipe of Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. The first beer I made as a professional brewer was Tomb Rocker, my special honey and heather Scotch ale that I’ve brewed every year since 2007 for Easter in the Orthodox Church.
What is your favorite beer to make?
I consider Tomb Rocker to be my magnum opus. There is no other beer like it in the world. If I were a monk, this would by my Trappist ale. It drinks almost more like a fine port than a beer, with layers and layers of complexity and a grapey, vinous tang, plus the cool, slightly minty flavor of Scottish heather flowers. It has won over a lot of people who thought that they would never like a beer at all, and they try it and find that they love it. And now that we are brewing it at Front Street Brewery every spring, we have my priest and my choir come in and sing and pray, and
we bless the beer with holy water for the joyful time of the church year. All that said, it’s a real pain to make, a really long, tedious brew day. So probably my favorite to actually brew is our English bitter, which smells wonderful in the mash.
What made you want to start brewing on a larger scale?
Not to sound too cheesy, but something like divine providence. I had no plans or ambitions to be a professional brewer, but when I graduated from seminary in 2010, my classmate Fr Peter Robichau convinced me to move here and be choir director for St. Basil Orthodox Church. I went to Front Street Brewery because I like good beer and it was the only show in town, and I ended up becoming friends, then roommates with the brewmaster, Kevin Kozak. I needed a job really bad and he got me one working at the host stand, where I was almost a decade older than everyone else. Eventually, I won the FSB homebrew competition and became the natural replacement as Kevin’s assistant brewer when the former one moved out to Hollywood. So I’m an accidental pro brewer, and I consider myself very blessed and very lucky to be able to do it for a living.
Is there anything you do differently in your brewing process that other places do not do?
Well, I’m pretty sure we’re the only brewery in town using holy water. Besides that, I hope people will recognize the finesse and nuance that we’re crafting into every pint we produce. It takes incredible patience and persistence to fine-tune the beers the way we have. We do an in-depth sensory analysis of every single batch of beer we brew, as well as blind tastings of our beers against the best examples in the style. And we tweak our recipe a little each time until we get it perfect. We’re about a year and a half into a revision of all our recipes, and many of them are on the 14th or 15th version. It’s really starting to pay off. But we won’t be done until they’re our perfect favorites in a blind tasting, and when that happens, we’ll do a big public reveal of Front Street Brewery 2.0!
What is one thing you want your consumer to take away after trying your beer?
A growler. Haha. Our philosophy here is completely dedicated to harmony, balance, and drinkability, whether that’s in a pilsner, an IPA, or a crazy experimental beer. If we’re doing our job right, you’re going to find yourself with an empty glass before you know it, and you’re going to want another. To me the sign of a truly great beer isn’t how much it bowls you over on the first sip, but how surprised you are to find yourself at the bottom of the glass. Where did it go? I need more. That’s a great beer.