Tap Takeover: Three Stars Brewing Co.
The exterior of 6400 Chillum Place could not be less remarkable.
The industrial structure is all tired and off-color bricks. It sits next to an autobody shop, and it looks like an autobody shop, because that’s exactly what it once was. Grizzled concrete leads the way to a pair of dark grey doors, which stand adjacent to a cavernous loading dock.
Above those doors, though, a few feet to the right, is a sign that hints that this drab building might be something more. It’s a modest sign. It could comfortably be four or five times bigger; no one would miss the sight of those bricks. Its white print rests on a black background, the antithesis of the kind of neon beer signs that keep dive bars aglow. It reads: “3 Stars, Brewing Company, Washington DC,” each bit of information in successively smaller font.
If you happened to be driving down this street, just south of Takoma and the Maryland border, 3 Stars Brewing Company and its understated sign wouldn’t even register a head tilt. If you were seeking it out for the first time, you might check your smartphone a few times to make sure that you were indeed in the right place, or at the least, using the right entrance.
But if you are in this place; if you have sought it out, then you probably know that within those nondescript and weathered walls, some of the most exciting beer in the region is being brewed by Dave Coleman and Mike McGravey.
Dave Coleman and Mike McGarvey are an odd couple.
Tattoos peak out from underneath Coleman’s shirt. He sports an Old Dutch beard, which when paired with a freshly shaved head, appears to orbit around his face rather than grow out from it. When we first meet, he’s wearing a flat-rimmed red baseball hat, tilted slightly askew. He looks more like a bouncer than the president of a company, and you get the feeling that he enjoys that. He’s boisterous and excitable and displays a distinct swagger when discussing 3 Stars.
In contrast, McGarvey is more reserved. He comes from a background in management IT consulting and business intelligence, and he carries himself as such: He’s unflappable, direct, even-keeled. It’s hard to imagine him starting a sentence without knowing exactly where it will end. His beard is full and peppered. He has the aura of a ski trip dad.
But when it comes to discussing their vision for 3 Stars, the two are in lockstep. I ask them what kind of beer they want to make, and they literally answer in unison: “Big.”
“We want to make big, bold beers,” McGarvey continues. “And ‘big’ doesn’t necessarily mean high in alcohol, although a lot of our stuff to start did. It means stuff that knocks you in the mouth. A lot of time, people either love our stuff or they absolutely hate it.”
“We want to deliver a drinking experience,” Coleman says. “So many beers are forgettable. I’ve had thousands of beers, and I can remember maybe twenty that had an impact on me. The rest of them were just like, ‘Eh. It’s beer. It’s fine.’ That’s something we never want to happen with our beer. I would never put our name on something that’s fine.”
To some degree, this is probably how every young brewery sounds. No one says that they want to make safe beers. No one strives for boring. But the thing with 3 Stars is that it’s backing up this talk in remarkable ways.
Look at its pillar offerings: peppercorn saison, imperial American porter, imperial brown ale, old stock ale. These are complex beers. These are heavy hitters.
Absent are any traditional light beers, and Coleman won’t even entertain the concept of 3 Stars producing them: “Pilsner and kolsch and lager? God, fucking boredom. Look, I could sit down and taste a hug run of pilsner and kolsch, and tell you about all the different malts and how there’s a real nice biscuit quality here, but why do I want to drink something that’s so motherfucking boring? I want to drink something that’s like, ‘Boom. Wow.’ And I would challenge any of these pilsner brewers to brew a pilsner that makes me say, ‘Wow.’”
“They’re just kind of plain,” McGarvey says more diplomatically.
He continues: “We see breweries that open up with this nondescript list of pale, brown, lager, and pilsner. I question how they’re going to survive over time, but I also didn’t want to have a list of beers that felt pedestrian. We didn’t want something that begged the question, ‘Why are these guys doing this?”
Survival wasn’t always a sure thing for 3 Stars either. Looking back across its six-and-a-half year history, it’s no small wonder that the company even made it.
The two had no background in commercial brewing – something that’s not unheard of, but also something that’s certainly not the norm. Coleman had spent a decade at Dupont’s the Big Hunt, building up its reputation as beer director, general manager, and the general “go-to.” McGarvey, meanwhile, worked in the corporate halls of Accenture and Sirius XM.
Neither was satisfied.
“Bartending didn’t have long term promise for me,” Coleman admits. “It was a lot of late nights. The wife can only deal with you coming home at 4:30 a.m. for so long. It gets old.”
McGarvey tells a similar story: “It was good work. It paid very well. But it was a grind, and the fulfillment at the end of the day just wasn’t what I wanted.”
He began homebrewing as a hobby, an interest sparked by a kit that he received from his fiancé. “Dave and I were good friends,” Coleman remembers. “He was getting access to all of this great beer at the Big Hunt, so I started bringing him into my homebrewing, though he mostly he was just critiquing stuff.”
Things escalated. McGarvey got more serious about producing his own beer, launching recipe development and brewing up to five simultaneous batches. He and Coleman discussed the rise of craft beer culture in the District and the absence of DC breweries. They started putting business models to their ideas.
Eventually, they had to make a decision. “We said, ‘We’re never going to feel more comfortable that this is a good idea, so either we’re going to do it or we’re not going to do it,” Coleman recalls. “We were like, ‘Let’s chase the dream. Let’s do it.’”
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” McGarvey says.
The problem was that they weren’t the only one in the area chasing that opportunity. “We realized that were several other breweries in the planning stages at the same exact time,” McGarvey tells. “It was a perfect storm. You had Port City, DC Brau, Mad Fox, Devils Backbone, Chocolate City – all of these guys opening up breweries within a year of each other. It was where the all the forces were driving us.”
While a swarm of breweries looking to set up operations is indicative of a healthy scene, it also put a squeeze on resources: equipment, input suppliers, property, investors. “There were so many people trying to dip out of the same well,” Coleman says.
3 Stars raised a fraction of the money in its business plan. And soon enough, it was on the hook for a massive lease to boot. “You can’t raise money without a location, but location is your most substantial cost and commitment for years,” McGravey says. “We had a ten-year lease before we had the money to really pay for it. But we had to execute on that strategy.”
“It was a battle,” Coleman recalls. “Mike and I were thinking, ‘We don’t have a dollar of investor money, and now we have a 15,000 square-foot warehouse, and we don’t have a brewhouse, and we don’t have any investors calling, but this has to happen. Behind us is just failure. In front of us is every opportunity that we’ve been striving for. We’ve just got to keep pushing. And so we did.”
A tipping point came once 3 Stars had acquired the space, a used brewhouse, and minor fermentation tanks. McGarvey remembers: “Investors could see that we were going to make it happen regardless of whether they were a part of it, and so people that were on the fence started to actually write checks.”
Another milestone came a year into operation, when 3 Stars attained a Small Business Administration loan, which allowed them significantly scale up operations. Being further legitimized by a financial institution brought more investors too. But, at this point, after teetering on collapse, the two aren’t taking any deals that might compromise their independence.
“Mike and I were able to maintain control,” Coleman says. “Control is something that we wanted from the beginning. Why bother chasing the dream if it’s going to be driven by somebody else? Mike and I are driving the bus, and we’re taking it where we want to go.”
Control is important, because McGarvey and Coleman don’t always make decisions that conform to a conventional or strictly bottom-line focused approach. 3 Stars only makes the beers that McGarvey and Coleman want to make, and those beers are often time and cost intensive. There are no shortcuts.
“We’re trying to make beer with fresh ingredients wherever we can,” Coleman explains. “I take short cuts when I’m going from my house to the liquor store. When you’re going through a process, taking short cuts gets you an inferior product.”
Almost all of the exotic ingredients that make their way into 3 Stars’ beer are prepared on site: “We don’t use any extracts. We don’t use any artificial shit. We take pounds and pounds of cranberries, chop em up in-house, and put them in a fermenter with a saison. Citra and Lemon Peel Saison is the same way. For the Peppercorn Saison, Mike mills green, white, and pink peppercorns and dry hops with them. For Southern Belle, he toasts the pecans himself. Ebony and Ivory? He toasts the cocoa nibs and splits the vanilla beans. That’s our M.O. It goes back to integrity.”
It’s also about product differentiation. 3 Stars considers itself a boutique brewery, and as such, its reputation rests in large part on habitually pushing the envelope.
Take 3 Stars’ 2014 Brandy Lyn, for example. It was a graff that combined brandy barrel-aged saison and bourbon barrel-aged apple cider, and it required six months of aging. In the end, it yielded just ten barrels of product. “You look at all of the work that went it, and the volume that we ultimately yielded, and the question that I get is: Why? Why for such a small yield would you put in so much work?” Coleman says. “Well, when you position yourself in the market as the boutique brewery, you better deliver. We have to continue to do the very unique stuff, and the stuff that takes a lot of fucking effort.”
“Some people put us in that esoteric class,” McGarvey says. “So be it. I’ll be esoteric.”
It’s hard to overstate how far 3 Stars has come since it acquired the warehouse space, or the degree to which everything was accomplished on the backs of McGarvey and Coleman. The grays in Coleman’s beard and the bags under McGarvey’s eyes tell the story of long days and nights.
“For multiple years, it was just this for Mike and me. If we weren’t here, we were at his house, crunching numbers or brewing all day,” Coleman reminisces. “Once we were here, we had to turn this place from an autobody shop into a brewery without any money to pay contractors to help.”
For the first two years that the brewery was operational, Coleman also personally sold and delivered every drop of beer. He hasn’t forgotten this: “I’d walk into restaurants with kegs in my hand, like, ‘Where do you want these?’ And people would frown and ask, ‘Wait, who owns this company?’ And I’d say, ‘I own this company. What do you need?’ And they’d be like, ‘But you’re a crazy guy in shorts with tattoos who looks kind of homeless.’ And I’d be like, ‘I haven’t slept. Where do you want the fucking kegs? And, yes, I do own the company.’”
3 Stars may now boast 25 employees and a few distribution partners, but Coleman ties the brewery’s success to those early days of perpetual hustle. “It worked because we were hand-selling every account,” he says. “In our first year, we were broke. We were constantly looking at bills and going, ‘That much is going out, and only this much is coming in.’ But I’d be like, ‘I can get you ten grand right now. I’m going to sell this whole batch today.’”
All the while, McGarvey, strapped by resources and capacity constraints, was uncompromising in executing 3 Stars’ esoteric vision. “One of the hardest things when we started was continuing to do variety,” he recalls. “When I look back, I’m amazed at how many different things we did, because we had such a limitation on the amount of fermentation that was available.”
“It was crazy. But it was awesome,” Coleman says, safely from the other side. “I hated it at the time. I thought it sucked. Lifting kegs all day is backbreaking work. But every one of those accounts is still an account of ours.”
He’s not joking: 3 Stars anticipates a 300% increase in production this year. Its expansion is fueled largely by the addition of several tanks, which were added in the third quarter of last year but are just now getting filled and worked into the rotation. The brewery has also invested in “tons more barrels” for barrel-aged recipes. As you might expect, the two will continue develop new beers, which will require continued enhancements at the facility.
3 Stars also plans to ramp up its bottling. “We just started getting packaged product into the market in late 2014,” McGarvey shares. “2015 is going to see a serious shift in the packaged product that’s out in the market.”
What exactly that will look like remains to be seen. Currently, the two beers commercially available – Pandemic and Peppercorn Saison – come exclusively in 750 mL bottles. “We’re looking at some other packaging options,” Coleman says. “We’ll be looking at the investment and cost of going into a smaller format, be it 12 ounces bottles or cans or whatever it might be. But we haven’t nailed all the numbers down yet.”
Still, 3 Stars remains a fan of the large bottle format, especially for beers with a higher alcohol content and a certain profile. They call these beers “cellarable” – that is, something you might store for a few months or longer.
Not everything lends itself to that format. “Something like Ghost or Two to the Dome – our hop-forward beers – they don’t age well,” McGarvey explains. “So we’re looking at a smaller format, something that people can just pound or drink soon after buying.”
Ghost (a white IPA), Citra Lemon Peel Saison, and Southern Belle (an imperial brown ale) are the top of its list. Today, it rolls out a 750 mL bottle of its old stack ale, Madness, with 50 cases hitting the market next week.
But for a brewery of 3 Stars’ size, bottling can be a drain. “It’s very hard” McGarvey says. “It’s very manually intensive. But it’s the best way to get stuff out so people can take it home.”
On the other end of the spectrum, 3 Stars plans to use the brewery site to prototype new recipes. Thanks to the passage of DC’s “Pint Bill” this past summer, 3 Stars can serve full glasses of beer on-site. “It gives us an opportunity to engage people differently; to have people hang around and have a few beers, not just have a few tastes and get out,” McGaarvey says. “There’s some recipes that we want to take back to a lab size and just work on them. Now that people can come here and enjoy beers, it allows us the opportunity to start getting feedback directly on them. Maybe those releases aren’t ready for prime time, but they’re ready for people to start tasting and engaging with.”
To a degree, 3 Stars’ Illuminati Reserve Society has also provided an audience for some of the brewery’s wildest experiments. The annual reserve society supplies its members with five releases – all barrel aged – over the course of the year. In 2014, Illuminati membership was capped at 200. This year, 3 Stars raised it to 400. Both years, membership sold out.
The loosening of serving restrictions has additionally opened the door for more on-premise events. In December, 3 Stars held its third “Artists and Artisans Holiday Extravaganza,” which brought 900 people through the brewery that day. Tonight, it’ll host 30-piece avant garde marching band Mucca Pazza. “I don’t even know what the word avant garde means,” Coleman jokes. “Other than that it’s going to be crazy.”
These events are a point of pride for him. “When we visit friends in different towns, they’re always like, ‘I gotta take you to my local brewery.’ It’s an old town hall type of feeling,” he explains. “You get people in here and they’re camped out with their neighbors, and they’re having a beer and talking about the week and current events. It’s a lot of about community. That’s part of the reason that we opened the brewery.”
When I ask Coleman and McGarvey whether all of 3 Stars’ long-term dreams and aspirations can fit inside this warehouse, the two exchange a knowing glance.
“I think that we have different opinions on this,” Coleman says. “I think that this space can be maximized so that we would never have to leave it. My personal goal is to not be a humongous, crazy, 200-person company.”
McGarvey smiles. “I don’t think that I’m that far off from you, man,” he tells his partner. “I think that there’s still growth here for a while.”
Coleman is less interested in the sheer number of people that will consume his beer and more concerned with what people think of it: “I want to be a mid-Atlantic powerhouse. I want to have our region on lockdown, and some key satellite markets throughout the U.S. and Europe. I want to walk into a bar in Belgium and find Pandemic on tap. I think that we can do that in this space.”
“At the root of all things, Mike and I are businessmen,” Coleman continues. “Our business is making beer. Why wouldn’t we strive to make the best beer? I want to be the beer that when you’re in a circle of beer nerds and somebody says 3 Stars, everyone says, ‘Oh shit. You’ve had that? I haven’t had it. I’ve got this 10 year-old bottle of Cantillon that I’ll trade you for it.’”
Later, Coleman takes a moment to put everything in perspective.
“The thing that I remind myself on the rough days is that this is the opportunity of a lifetime. How many 38-year-olds do I know who own a brewery with their best friend? Who gets to come into work at a brewery in the beer business – something that they love and are passionate about – every day of their life? That can usually get me out of any funk that I’ve got. That, or a beer.”
Every beer has a story, 3 Stars walks through the history of its most notable and favorite brews below.
Coleman calls Pandemic “the light bulb.”
After batches and batches of recipe development, the imperial porter was the beer that convinced them that they had something worth distributing. It was “the first big one.”
“3 Stars is a reflection of what Mike and I drink,” Coleman says. “I’ve had people tell me that it’s a reflection of who Mike and I are as people. We’re brash. We’re like, ‘This is the way that we do it, and if you don’t like it, get out of the way.’”
He recalls the early planning for Pandemic: “We wanted it to be big and boozy. We wanted it to be malty, and yet chocolatey, and yet sweet. We wanted it be 9.6% [ABV]. Every other porter in the market is 6.5%, but I’m not worried about the market. I’m not worried about the past. I’m not worried about the traditional. That’s a history book. I don’t want to keep reading the same old book. I want to write a new book.”
Of course, not everyone shares an appreciation for that approach.
“When we get judged by professional judges [at festivals], we’re terrible. We get, ‘Your beer is awesome, but there’s no way that it fits in this category,’” Coleman shares. “And it’s like, ‘Right, it’s because you don’t have a category just for awesome. If you just had awesome, we’d have all the medals.’ But instead, it’s like, ‘You put a 9.6% imperial porter in the porter category. Well, 9.6% isn’t in the porter category. The porter category must be under 6.8%. So, fail.’ I’m like, ‘Why? Because I don’t fit in your box? Well, fuck your box.’”
3 Stars has made much of its name on the saison.
Which begs the question: Why the saison?
“To be honest, not a lot of people were doing them and doing them well,” Coleman says. “We knew that we wanted something that would be complex yet light – and very unique. The reality was that, at the time, there was next to no one in the United States doing them. The saisons that people drinking were Dupont and Belgiums.”
Coleman says that they looked out across the “hop-focused” landscape and saw something missing. Plus, the two were fans of the style as both beer drinkers and brewers: “Working with saison as brewer provides a very blank slate. A saison comes in and it has certain characteristics: it’s light; it’s effervescent; it has higher carbonation; it has a yeast character; it’s fairly dry. But beyond that, you can say, ‘Fuck convention Let’s put our spin on it.’”
“That’s one of the beauties of the style,” McGarvey jumps in. “Historically, it was water for the workers. It was what the farm served, because water was not potable at that point in time. They would store up saisons with whatever they had – rhye, wheat, two-row pilsner type malts.”
McGarvey views saisons as a canvas and a puzzle: “I love that it’s a blank slate to say, ‘What do I want to make? What ingredients do I have? How do they all fit together?’”
The style is also easy on the palette. It’s approachable. “Saison is a gateway drug,” Coleman says, sounding like someone who’s sold a few beers. “You don’t have to be a beer nerd to enjoy it. You give it to someone who’s a newbie, someone who thinks craft beer are overwhelming and hoppy, and you can change their perception.”
The decision to make a peppercorn saison ties back to the first beer that 3 Stars ever released: The Syndicate, a black peppercorn saison made in collaboration with Maryland’s Evolution Craft Brewing Co.
“When we got to the point that we were doing our base beers and thinking about a peppercorn saison, we wanted to do something that wasn’t as harsh as the black peppercorn,” McGarvey explains.
Originally, the resulting saison was called Urban Farmhouse. “It’s still the most awesome name,” Coleman says, more than a hint of bitterness in his voice. “It literally describes what we make.”
But after 3 Stars brought the beer to market and was a month into production, Coleman got an e-mail from a homebrewer in Oregon. “He was a dank bro,” Coleman remembers. “He didn’t hit us with a cease-and-desist. But he begged us not to use the name.”
“Urban Farmhouse” wasn’t registered or trademarked or even mentioned on RateBeer.com – Coleman had done due his diligence. “I could have just been like, ‘Bro, enjoy your Urban Farmhouse out in Idaho or Utah or wherever the hell you are.’ But I was like, ‘OK, we’re just getting started at this. I’m not trying to create enemies or be a dick.’ Despite my persona, I’m really actually not a dick. I can be. But I gave it to him.”
Coleman continues: “So we started calling it Peppercorn Saison. At that point, we already had the perfect name. We might as well just call it what it is. It’s a peppercorn saison.”
“Southern Belle was a beer that we never intended to brew,” McGarvey says of 3 Stars’ imperial brown ale.
The impetus for the beer’s creation sprung from a baked goods event organized by the brewery’s landlord. He asked 3 Stars to make a brown ale for it. Coleman recalls the interaction: “We told him, ‘We don’t make a brown ale.’ And he was like, ‘You’re not hearing me. I really want a brown ale.’ And then we realized, ‘Oh, we get it. You’re our landlord. OK.’”
But Coleman and McGarvey were less than enthused at the prospect of making a brown ale. “Our reaction was: ‘Brown ales? Brown ales suck. Brown ales are 5%. They’re just malt. They’re just sweetness. They’re very one dimensional. Of all the things that we have to make, we have to make that bullshit,’” Coleman remembers. “So we decided to make a brown ale that we like. We decided to come out swinging.”
Working on a small scale, they began concocting a beer with toasted pecans and a hearty 8.7% ABV. “By the time we brewed it and tried a test, we were like, ‘This is awesome!’
From that initial 15 gallon order has emerged one of 3 Stars staple brews. “There are so many different malts going into Southern Belle that you’re developing layers of complexity,” McGarvey says of the beer, and how 3 Stars avoids the usual shortcomings of brown ales. “It’s not just malt sweetness. It’s not one-sided.”
As for the origin of the name?
“Southern Belle is a shout-out to our women,” McGarvey shares. “They’re both from the South. Dave’s is from Atlanta. Mine is from North Carolina.”
Southern Belle is a tribute to their patience, counsel, and understanding. McGarvey says it was essential: “With the effort that it takes to start something like this, you gotta have a partner at home that will lick your wounds at night.”
“We’d come home broken, day after day, just trying to get this going,” Coleman says. “Some days we were getting told to our faces, ‘No. There’s no money. There’s nothing.’”
“We couldn’t have done all of the work without them.”
Two to the Dome is another beer that 3 Stars initially shied away from making.
“Almost every brewery makes a pale ale and a double IPA, so, honestly, when we were in the basement doing recipe development, we didn’t brew either of those beers,” Coleman recalls. “We were going to steer away from that market. But the reality is that Mike and I both really enjoy those beers too.”
The 3 Stars spin on the IPA is an 8% double IPA. “We wanted to make something big and boozy,” Coleman explains. “It’s more approachable and less bitter than a lot of big IPAs. The goal was to not make it the same bitter beast that’s already out there.”
McGarvey slips right into brewer speak: “We accentuate the aromatics in the hops, as well as the flavor, so that harsh, bitter backbone isn’t really there. It certainly has some bitterness, but it fades relatively quickly.”
“The problem with the really bitter stuff is that you can’t pound it,” Coleman weighs in. “When I’m drinking something really bitter, it’s like beer, water, beer, water, beer, water.”
It’s not a problem that he encounters with Two to the Dome: “I mean, take it down. Shit, take two of them to the dome. Get it done.”
The beer’s name is a big-up the capitol building, and like the brewery’s name, a nod to Coleman and McGarvey’s adoptive hometown. “We are a DC brewery. We never looked at Virginia. We never looked at Maryland. We wanted to open a brewery in DC,” Coleman explains. “A lot of what we do is based on our experiences in DC, and what makes this town so cool and unique.”
He’s quick with one side note: “I’m talking about DC. I’m not talking about Washington. There are two sides to this town. DC is the counterculture. It’s the entrepreneurs. It’s the small business owners. It’s the killer chefs. It’s the people creating drinks and cocktails. It’s all the culture. Washington is just the place over there where the politicians don’t do shit. We live in DC.”
“Ooh, girl!” Coleman says arriving on Ebony & Ivory, a variation of Southern Belle that’s conditioned with cocoa nibs and vanilla beans.
Like a lot of recipes, Ebony & Ivory started as an isolated cask project. With casks – which carbonate without additional carbon dioxide or nitrogen pressure – McGarvey adds special ingredients to condition the beer, such as additional hops.
Coleman and McGarvey had initially thought that the appeal of Ebony & Ivory might be limited – that given the sweetness of the vanilla and malt, people might consider it a dessert beer of sorts. But when an early version of the beer was released at one of 3 Stars events, Coleman says the response was immediate and overwhelming: “Everyone in the crowd – guy and girl – was like, ‘What the fuck is this? This is amazing.’”
3 Stars has responded to that reaction by making the beer a full-on annual release.
“Last year, we did a bunch of casks of Ebony & Ivory, but we only made a small batch of kegs to go to market,” McGarvey shares. “Well, this year, we decided that we’re going to do more than even a full batch of it – we’re going to do multiple batches of it.”
“A cranberry saison?” Coleman asks rhetorically. “Who does that?”
The answer, it turns out, is people who are less than enamored pumpkin beers.
“We hate pumpkin beers,” McGarvey says flatly.
“We really don’t like pumpkin beers,” Coleman concurs.
Why does that matter?
“We wanted a seasonal that we could do in the fall and winter,” Coleman continues. “So we thought, ‘What else is a fall and winter seasonal ingredient?’ Well, you can’t get cranberries before October.”
Thus Nectar of the Bogs was born, balancing the yeast character of a saison with the natural tartness of cranberries.
The challenge of making a fall seasonal with a main ingredients that’s only available beginning in October is that fall seasonals are typically expected to arrive in late August.
“We learned that the hard way,” McGarvey says.
Still, the beer has been a wild success for 3 Stars, much to the bemusement of Coleman.
“One of our previous beers, [the pale ale] Sea Change? I loved that beer. I thought it was great. But the market was just like, ‘Eh. It’s a pale. Whatever,’” he remembers. “So we focus on making cranberry saison instead, and the market is like, ‘Cranberry saison? Hell yeah!’ And we’re thinking, ‘Wait, I have this whole history of seeing Pale Ales just knocking out every market, and absolutely no track record of cranberry saisons.’”
Coleman shrugs. “The mob is fickle.”
No beer gets Coleman and McGarvey as excited as Madness.
When it comes up in our tasting, the two just repeat the name to each other a few times.
“Madness was always meant to be big and bold,” McGarvey says.
“Sheer madness,” Coleman chimes in, a little like a rap hypeman.
McGarvey continues: “Madness is meant for when you’re home for the holidays and you need to forget what’s going on.”
The food pairings for Madness – as written on the 3 Stars website by Coleman – list the following: shopping, family dinners, mass holiday greeting texts, travel, airports, caroling, house cleaning, tree trimming, and shoveling.
They’re not messing around, either. The first year that 3 Stars made a Madness, it was a winter warmer that clocked in at 10% alcohol. This year, they’ve kicked it up to 12.4%, and transformed it into an old stock ale.
Much like Nectar of the Bogs, Madness is 3 Stars’ twisted version of a seasonal. “We wanted to be in the seasonal market, but I don’t like Christmas spices – cinnamon and nutmeg and all of that bullshit,” Coleman puts bluntly. “That’s not a flavor I want in my beer. I want it in a piece of cake.”
Coleman and McGarvey set about tasting all variations of Christmas seasonals, and experimenting with test runs of its own spiced beers.
The conclusion? “We decided that we hated all of them,” Coleman says.
McGarvey elaborates: “At the very end, we realized that the best stuff is what accentuates the malt. You get that residual sweetness, but the booze is there. Fuck all of that other shit. It wasn’t helping to make the beer better.”
3 Stars will continue to brew Madness as an annual release. In fact, this Friday it will be rolling out bottles of it.
“Some of the best years that we’ve released have been barrel-aged version of Madness,” McGarvey says.
Of particular note is the last Illuminati Reserve Society release of 2014, a version of Madness that blended 2013′s rye barrel-aged winter warmer with this year’s old stock ale.
The story of 3 Stars’ Ghost is the story of the Samsquanch.
Years ago, when Coleman and McGarvey first developed a white IPA – a lighter, atypical style of IPA that relies on a fair amount of wheat – the two fell in love with the name Samsquanch.
It was a nod to Canadian television show “Trailer Park Boys”, on which the hapless character Bubbles referred to the mythical Sasquatch as “Samsquanch”. And like a Yeti, 3 Stars’ Samsquanch was big, white, and mischievous. “Think about the IPA that you can drink and drink and drink,” McGarvey explains. “What gets you in the end? The Samsquanch gets you.”
Unfamiliar with Canadian stoner comedy? Well, you’re partially to blame for the death of 3 Stars’ Samsquanch.
The problem was that the majority of people got the reference and fewer could pronounce the name. McGarvey estimates that one in five people on a tour recognized the name.
“One in five?” 3 Stars’ Director of Sales Mike Dee chimes in from a nearby table. “I was going for one in a hundred.”
“Renaming that beer was the hardest thing that we ever had to do,” Coleman says. “It’s a white IPA, so inherently, you want to put white in the name, something to reference to that. But it was just a debacle. There was so much back-and-forth. Finally, I was like, ‘Look, we’re calling it Ghost, and I don’t give a shit. This beer has to go to market.’
In addition to the beer’s spectral complexion, the name nods to Clevelanders’ term for disappearing from a bar. Some call it the Irish Goodbye. They call it “ghosting.”
The flavor profile of the beer experienced an odyssey of its own too.
“Samsquanch was a roving beer,” Coleman tells. “It started as a Southern Hemisphere Samsquanch, but we ran through those hops and our access to them. Then we had access to North American hops, so we did the North American Samsquanch, but the hops that went into that beer dried up also.”
The solution was to give the Samsquanch a recipe makeover with a hope profile more tropical and bitter, and to rebrand the whole thing as Ghost.
“That beer is…” Coleman says at the mention of Brandy Lyn, struggling to find the right words. He laughs to himself: “It’s so crazy.”
It also isn’t technically a beer – it’s a combination of cider and beer, otherwise known as a graff. In the case of Brandy Lyn, the beer is brandy barrel-aged saison, and it’s mixed with apple cider that’s been aged in bourbon barrels. At 65% beer and 35% cider, this is a combination that will make even the most articulate beer turn Keanu.
The hybrid is a product of the collaboration between 3 Stars and Millstone Cellars, an “American Farmhouse Cidery” thirty miles north of Baltimore. Millstone provided 3 Stars with barrels to age the cider, which the brewery in turn fermented and conditioned on site. The saison, meanwhile, is brewed specifically for Brandy Lyn, using Nelson Sauvin hops that skew towards a wine profile.
“It’s an extremely delicate but complex beer when the whole thing is done,” McGarvey says. “There are only a few places that have done the style, at least on a scale where they’ve released it in the market.”
The scarcity is attributable in large part to the rigorousness and the length of the process required to make a graff. “It took six months of aging time,” McGarvey estimates. “And for that batch, it resulted in about ten barrels worth. That’s only 310 gallons.”
Now that 3 Stars has familiarity with the process and ingredients, it plans to make it again in the future. Maybe.
“It’ll be interesting to see if we do it bigger, or if we just do something different,” McGarvey says. “It’ll also depend on what Millstone wants to do.”
Coleman guesses that if 3 Stars had made Brandy Lyn later, with its current distribution muscle, the brewery would probably be bottling it, and giving it a wider distribution, and spreading the word. “It’s just crazy shit.”
“After we were operating for a while, one thing that we felt we needed in the portfolio was something that was more of a session beer,” McGarvey says.
The exact definition of a “session beer” is a little bit slippery. Beer Advocate defines it as such: “Any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters and, typically, a clean finish – a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability. The purpose of a session beer is to allow a beer drinker to have multiple beers, within a reasonable time period or session, without overwhelming the senses or reaching inappropriate levels of intoxication.”
Or, to quote McGarvey, it’s more of a mentality: “It’s hot. It’s summertime. I’m gonna pound some beers.”
3 Stars spin on the session beer is its Citra and Lemon Peel Saison.
“We were thinking about what would be refreshing and light, and so we decided on a saison, where we could bring the ABV down and combine it with the brightness and freshness from lemon,” McGarvey shares. “It’s dry-hopped with citra hops, which are also blasting you. But as the beer ages and conditions, it still maintains that really nice freshness from the lemon.”
The Citra and Lemon Peel Saison is a bold session ale in light of what’s become de rigueur in the industry: the session IPA. With a few exceptions – notably Founders’ All-Day IPA – Coleman is unmoved by the style.
“Bringing down the alcohol content in an IPA makes it less balanced. The malt that you’re typically adding in order to raise your alcohol is balancing the bitterness and the character of the hop,” he says. “A lot of those session IPAs are just hops and bitterness. There’s no malt backbone to counteract it. What you’re left with is a pretty one-dimensional flavor.”
From Coleman’s perspective, the session IPA is an example of the trend-chasing and groupthink that brewers can get caught up in.
“A lot of craft breweries just listen to beer nerds and act according to what they say,” he shares. “Five years ago, all the beer nerds said, ‘I want all the hops in the world, and I want them to punch me in the face.’ Boom, done. Four years ago, they said, ‘I want everything to be 10% [ABV] and aged in a bourbon barrel.’ Boom, gotcha there. A year later, they said, “You know what? I want a Kolsch.’ Boom, we got you there, too. Then, two years ago, all of the beer nerds were like, ‘Man, I really love my IPAs, but I wish I had a sessionable one that I could sit down and have ten of.’ And, sure enough, the craft beer market responded. Everyone is releasing one. Every year, it’s something else that’s supposedly important.”
With Citra and Lemon Peel Saison, Coleman takes pride in being both ahead of the curve and outside the latest craze. “We were making a session summer beer two years ago, and it’s still one of our best brands,” he says, smiling. “It gets crushed all summer long all over town.”
“We always made a coffee porter in recipe development, and we thought it was great,” McGarvey remembers. “But then we met Joel [Finkelstein] from Qualia,”
For the unconverted, Qualia is a coffeehouse in Petowrth that roasts all of its coffee beans on-site and has attracted a cultish following. It’s not hard to connect the dots on how these two enterprises were able to get along.
“We started talking to Joel, and I realized just how much I don’t know about coffee,” McGarvey continues. “He’s been a great partner in educating me on coffee and roasting.”
3 Stars had dabbled in combining its Pandemic imperial porter recipe with coffee – a cask here and there – but it decided to return to the format more seriously. It just so happened that it connected with Finkelstein at a time when he was exploring barrel-aging Qualia’s coffee. Here, 3 Stars was able to be of assistance.
“We gave Joel a barrel, and he did that as a release out of his store, and attracted a great buzz,” McGarvey shares, pun unintended. “So we said, ‘Hey, let’s apply that barrel-aging process to a batch of beer, instead of how we’ve traditionally done it, which is use cold brew as a beer addition. Let’s take those barrel-aged beans and let them condition the beer in a dry-hopped type way.’ And, shit, after five or six days it was so intense and so delicious.”
The coffee imperial porter – which 3 Stars has dubbed Desolation – has attracted a buzz of its own.
“You’re about to see a lot more Desolation,” Coleman shares. “We have beans aging right now.”
With high alcohol content and a rich, sipping character, it’s another Coleman sees as ripe for bottling: “I’m probably going to have to end up getting a label made for that.”
“There’s no reason that we haven’t done a traditional stout,” says McGarvey, who admits that he’s personally a big fan of the style. “But the lines between stout and porter can be so blurred that it’s just not something that we’ve looked to add.”
Instead, 3 Stars opted for a Russia Imperial Stout, which, much like its arsenal of porters, doesn’t pull any punches: From Russia With Love weighs in at a healthy 8.5% alcohol.
The annual release was initially brewed in collaboration with Columbia Heights beer haven Meridian Pint, but has since been taken entirely in-house.