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From Blank to Brewery: The Continuing Journey of 3 Stars Brewing Co.

There are few things with more potential than a blank space.  Creations of unparalleled success and undertakings of monumental failure all start at this exact same point, waiting to be driven in one direction or the other by someone brave enough to try.  George Orwell and the esteemed writers at Star Magazine both stared down at essentially the same nothingness at some point; obviously, the outcomes were quite different.  That is the terrifying story of creative artistry. It is also frequently the same thing that drives people away from taking risks and keeps them at the status quo.

Dave Coleman and Mike McGarvey aren’t really much for the status quo.  Maybe it’s a beard thing.

Dave Coleman and Mike McGarvey

Having visited several craft breweries before, I had some fairly strong preconceived notions about what a brewery should look like. I carried those ideas with me as I walked up the warehouse-lined street towards the address Dave had given me a few days prior.  As I approached the building, I saw the 3 Stars logo high above me and turned to enter through the large bay door into the warehouse.  Walking in with very little context about where 3 Stars was in the process of setting up their brewery, I was a bit shocked by what I saw: an expansive space with almost nothing in it.

A small testing area sat to my left, a 10 gallon brew kettle was to my right, and a few fermenters were on the far end of the warehouse.  Directly in front of me sat Dave, Mike, and a pair of volunteers helping to get the brewery up and running.  When Dave hopped up to introduce himself, I could tell this was going to be an interesting few hours.

3 Stars Warehouse-Turning-Brewery

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For those who haven’t met Dave Coleman when he’s behind the bar at The Big Hunt, you should know this: Dave doesn’t really do “small.”  Big beard, big tattoos, big personality, big dreams. He’s endlessly individual, with a boundless zeal for doing things “his” way.  Dave’s passion is appropriately tempered by his business partner and friend Mike’s decidedly more moderate persona and calculating, project-management-based business acumen. The blend between the two styles is apparent throughout the brewery and its portfolio.

Together, over the past two years, Dave and Mike have combined their strengths and distilled them into the space 3 Stars inhabits.  Nearly empty, the industrial warehouse stared blankly back at me and Dave as we spoke.  All that spaced pulled Dave’s voice along the walls in a confident echo as he described to me how 3 Stars got to this point and how they plan to move it forward.

You can read more here about how Dave and Mike met, but here’s the short of it:  they met at The Big Hunt while Dave was behind the pine, a perch he’s held a long time.  After sampling various craft brews, Mike and Dave decided to homebrew together. After making the move to all-grain brewing, Mike and Dave began to take their recipes more seriously and began testing and improving recipes rather than just brewing a variety of styles.

I asked the duo which of their beers they’d call their “light bulb beer,” the beer that flipped that “we can do this professionally” switch in their heads.  After some hesitation from Dave, Mike responded, “That’s tough…I’d have to say our Pandemic Breakfast Porter.”  Those words were barely out of Mike’s mouth when Dave jumped in, “Oh yeah.  It’d have to be the Pandemic.  It has to be.”

Three Stars Brewing Pandemic Breakfast Porter

After putting together a business plan and locating investors, Mike and Dave searched for a place to begin their operation.  At the same time, they worked on developing a surprisingly large beer portfolio, encompassing a range of styles and variations (check them out here).   After visiting a few places, they happened upon their current location, a slightly beat up warehouse just south of Takoma Park on the DC side of the DC-Maryland border.  If you ask them, it’s the perfect place to start up and to grow.

The warehouse and its surroundings accurately reflect the brewery’s founders.  “Mike and I are blue-collar guys,” Dave told me as we walked around the warehouse-turning-brewery. “We’ve been working all of our lives and have this mentality that says, ‘Why should we pay someone to do this stuff when we can do it ourselves?'”  That mentality has resulted in many long days of planning, cleaning, renovating, and hauling, largely accomplished with the help of volunteer craft beer loving friends.

The passion that is evident as Dave and Mike talk about their brewery contrasts with the equally obvious burden that a project of this size entails.  The space that they rent with hope of expansion is both exciting and suffocating; the pressure for success is palpable, but it’s mediated by a combination of meticulous planning and endless zeal that will define both brewing and business here.

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“Ask about how they got their brew kettle,” Bill told me before I showed up here.  He never told me why I should ask, but I knew there had to be some kind of back story.  “So, Dave…Bill tells me that I need to ask you about where you got your equipment.  What gives?”  Dave laughed and explained, “Well, we got them in the divorce.”  After seeing me staring incredulously back at him, Dave went on.

When Dave and Mike settled upon a location, they set out to get some brewing equipment.  They didn’t need it sparkling new, with all the brewing bells and whistles imaginable; it just had to be something that could, with a little love and care, get the job done for a reasonable price.  After more than a little research, they heard about a brewery closing about an hour’s drive south of Blacksburg, Virginia.

During the drive, Mike and Dave stopped in at a small general store in Middle-of-nowhere, Virginia where they bought a six pack from Shooting Creek Brewery.  As the diminutive elderly woman behind the counter rang up their purchase, she asked the pair, “You know this place is closin’, right?”

“Yes,” they responded. “We might buy their equipment.”

As it turns out, the owner of Shooting Creek Brewery had fallen on hard times due to, you guessed it, a divorce. This prompted him to close his brewery and sell off his equipment.  Included in that equipment?  A 10 barrel brew kettle…that had never been fired.  “We were pretty excited to find this stuff,” Dave told me. “I mean, it had NEVER been fired. We’d looked at some other places and their used equipment, and it was just awful. Fermenters with nasty buildup inside.  This was a great find.”  So, potential drinkers of 3 Stars, I can tell you confidently, having seen it, that your beer will be brewed inside of good equipment, even if it did grow up in a broken home.

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Obviously, in order to brew in a brew kettle of any size, you have to have recipes.  3 Stars has quite a few.  Nine beers grace their website, and they have many more in the pipeline.  Thanks to a fairly scientific recipe creation process, Mike and Dave have engineered a line of beers that represents their personal tastes.

3 Stars recipe development kitchen.

3 Stars develops recipes in an enlarged homebrew system, with five kettles going at once.  First, Dave and Mike develop a baseline recipe (for example, an American IPA).  That recipe will brew in the first kettle.  The remaining four kettles will brew with slight variations on the original recipe, such as varying hops, malt profiles, yeasts, etc.  After fermentation, Mike, Dave, and other tasters they trust will sit down and sample the five beers all at once, noting which factors they like the best about each one.  The best of the bunch will become the new beer in kettle #1, the new base recipe.  They’ll repeat this process, adjusting the base recipe until it transforms into the beer they wanted all along.

This is where 3 Stars diverges from the majority of the breweries that craft beer fans may be more familiar with.  For better or for worse, Dave and Mike want to make the beers that they want, not necessarily the beers you want.  Do they believe there’s room in the market for the beers?  Of course they do.  They wouldn’t open a brewery if they thought otherwise.  Are they right?  That story remains to be written.

If you take a look at the list on their website, there isn’t a really sessionable beer on it. This, at least to this writer, seemed worthy of concern.  All of these beers are big, bold, and boozy, with flavor profiles designed to provide a friendly assault on the taste buds.  I expressed my doubts to Dave as we strolled around the 3 Stars facility. He addressed my concerns by noting, “We think the market is ready for this kind of high-end product on a regular basis.  These aren’t meant to be inexpensive, session beers.  We like bold beers.”

I raised the issue of competing with DC Brau and Chocolate City, to which Dave responded, “We’re not really competing with them.  They’ve actually helped us get started.  I think that we’re delivering a different product to a different set of consumers.  The market in DC is mature enough to have a few different types of breweries.”  As the conversation continued, Dave compared the DC market to those in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston, and noted happily that those areas have a large distribution of these more intense products.  He also pointed to Founder’s as an example of what he and Mike are trying to do: “They almost folded when they tried to make the beers that everyone wanted.  Now they make the beers that they like, and they’re doing really well.”

If you peruse the beer lists at some of the better beer bars in DC, you’ll find plenty of bigger beers on the list.  It seems as though people are ready for these beers, and I sincerely hope that is the case.   The question remains, however, if they’re ready to support a brewery entirely devoted to the bold, imperial beers that Dave and Mike favor so much.

Their collaboration projects have already been quite well-received, with their Syndicate Saison (brewed in collaboration with Evolution Brewing) and their B.W. Rye (brewed with Oliver Ales) garnering praise in the local press as well as on beer rating sites RateBeer and BeerAdvocate.  They credit these collaboration ales with improving their familiarity with commercial brewing.  “We’ve learned a lot from our collaboration brews,” Dave said.  “It’s really been like a craft brewing family. Not competitive…helpful.”

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Housed in an environment ripe for expansion, 3 Stars waffles constantly between hectic action and  pregnant pauses, its future hinging both upon the efforts of its founders as well as the unpredictable whims of a developing market.  Regardless of the odds, the founders of this up-and-coming spot continue to think big.  With plans for an on-site tasting room, brewery tours, bottle-conditioned specialties, and much more, Mike and Dave aren’t letting the difficulties get the best of them; they’re taking them head on, and not alone.  Volunteers continue to assist regularly at the brewery, pushing it closer and closer to operation.

During our conversation, Dave mentioned, more than a few times, the idea of the brewery being like a junkyard dog. He and Mike think it’s a good metaphor for themselves.  Tough, blue-collar, genuine, and unabashedly bold, they have, both literally and figuratively, put this brewery on their backs. They’ve done that so far through the rough conditions and inherent uncertainty of a new venture. During my time at the brewery, I saw the steps 3 Stars is taking to fill their new blank space. They’ll keep filling in that blank with a hunger to make a high-quality craft beer, and their hunger is making me thirsty.

We will be checking in with 3 Stars periodically as they make their push towards opening their fully operating brewery.  Check back for more updates on fermenters, launch dates, launch line-ups, and more.

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