DC Beer recently chatted with Dave Coleman, co-founder of 3 Stars Brewing Company,
about their upcoming seventh anniversary and the history that led to this milestone.
DC Beer: Congratulations on seven years! We know every craft beer fan in the area appreciates what 3 Stars has done for beer in this area, and we all have a favorite. You’re having a party to celebrate. Tell us about it.
Dave Coleman: We are extremely excited to celebrate our 7th Anniversary with a mega-bash this coming Sunday, August 11. This year we took a deep dive into our cellar and are going to be pouring some vintage and rare kegs, as well as doing bottle pours of beers that have never seen the light of day.
We will have a couple of live bands and some hot DJ action. Timber Pizza and Swizzler are coming out to provide the food truck attractions and we will have a can garden featuring some collabs and all sorts of other tasty treats. If folks go for the “Jackpot” VIP Experience, they will get early entry at noon and exclusive access to the VIP Pavilion, where we will be pouring beers not available anywhere else in the event.
DC Beer: Sounds like a blast! But let’s go back seven years. How did you and [co-founder] Mike [McGarvey] meet, and when did you first talk about opening a brewery?
Dave Coleman: 3 Stars really got its start many years before it was even a concept in our minds. Mike and I met during my tenure at The Big Hunt, where I was the beer buyer and GM for 10 years. We eventually started homebrewing, strictly as a hobby, but eventually, that escalated and we moved our setup out of his kitchen and into an unfinished room in his basement where we set up “The Lab”.
We were brewing on a weekly basis and brewing 5 different beers at a time. Each brew day was dedicated to a certain style and recipe, with alterations across the 5 different vessels, whether that was different hops, malts, or yeast.
This was our R&D period where we were refining our process, tweaking our recipes and producing what would eventually become our starting lineup of Peppercorn Saison, Pandemic Porter and Southern Belle. In parallel, we were beginning to sample friends, bars, and restaurants around the city and gauging peoples response and interest in a locally brewed beer from here in The District.
We received such positive input that we started talking to potential investors and looking for a property. We found that property at 6400 Chillum Place NW and signed our lease in June of 2011.
Over the course of the next year, we worked with a team of our friends and volunteers to renovate the space and source our brewhouse and our first two fermenters. We began brewing in early July of 2012 and launched our first beers on August 12th around the city at such spots as The Big Hunt and Churchkey.
DC Beer: What were the biggest challenges you faced between deciding to open and getting it done, and what challenges did you face in that first couple of years after you opened?
Dave Coleman: There were a lot of challenges in getting the brewery opened, but I think the largest was the fact that the financial climate in the US was not very confident, so fundraising was exceptionally challenging. We were forced to open with a fraction of the capital that some of the other breweries in the DMV had when they started.
This made our model very different from the other breweries in the area at the time and we focused our efforts on a boutique model, providing new and innovating products and delivering them by hand from the back of Mike’s Tahoe. We self-distributed for the first couple years before eventually deciding that we didn’t want to run a logistics/distribution company, we wanted to continue to focus our efforts on the beer and where we were heading with that aspect of the biz.
The beer has always been our passion and we have stayed true to that with an ever-changing portfolio and a dedication to creativity.
DC Beer: I remember when we could only get three tasters in the taproom — and I still tried to come by every weekend! How did the changes in DC law that let you start selling beer directly to consumers change your business model and/or your plans for 3 Stars? Or were you always counting on that to happen, and just working on getting the laws changed?
Dave Coleman: We had always planned on making the on-site experience a huge part of what we do here. It is a way to engage with your community and bring people in to show them exactly what you are all about.
There is no replacement for the experience of being in the place where the beer is made and talking to the people behind the products. Customers love to engage with producers and this was a major component of what we wanted/want 3 Stars to be in our community.
DC Beer: You were an early local pioneer of beer Societies to deliver specialty style brews like barrel-aged beers and mixed fermentation funky and sour beers before those were common in the area. What drove that innovation? Are you planning new creative ideas in the future?
Dave Coleman: Mike and I have always had a taste for big bold beers, and we got a taste for sours long before they had much of a presence in this market. Before the brewery, we would seek these beers out in our travels, and we wanted to make sours from the start.
Unfortunately, creating proper space for souring is a big financial commitment, and we just didn’t have the capital at the beginning to set that in motion.
Very early on, we identified a strong amount of demand in those segments and decided to start working on those types of projects. Problem was, we couldn’t make enough of it for a full market release, so we took a different approach and decided to set up the Illuminati. The name came from the idea of a very exclusive club that would have exclusive access to some very limited beers.
A couple of years into the program we mixed in some sour and funky beers into the Illuminati and got some mixed response from members, many who loved them, and some that preferred the straight (clean) barrel-aged beers to the sours. So we split it into two different groups and the Funkerdome was created.
We are always planning new things in both of these programs and constantly challenge ourselves and our brewers to try new things and continue to push the envelope of creativity.
DC Beer: Seven years into your adventure and a lot has changed in the craft beer industry. What changes have you seen – specifically for regional distribution-focused breweries like 3 Stars – and how have those changes helped or hurt your business?
Dave Coleman: One of the largest changes in the craft beer industry we have seen is the rapid growth of breweries in the area. This has enriched the beer scene and brought a lot more options to our market. It has helped make DC a more vibrant beer town and increased the reputation of our area in the craft beer community. This has obvious challenges that come with it as far as sharing market with more breweries, but I think the benefits outweigh the increased competition.
DC Beer: A lot has changed for consumers as well. What are some of the changes you’ve seen in what consumers are looking for in their beer?
Dave Coleman: Everybody is always looking for something new. There is a huge part of the market that is just one and done with a beer, once they have had a special release, they are on to the next.
We do a balance of core brands and have a wide distribution with those, as well as a large focus on DIPA and sours, and specialty brands to continue to grow our portfolio and explore new brands and styles.
Some of our recent favorites have been Trouble in Paradise (a Mango Guava Sour), our Low Hanging Fruit Series (we recently did both a strawberry and pomegranate versions), and Diamonds Are Forever, our new Hazy Pale that is now available year-round.
We have been doing a constant rotation of taproom exclusives which we have been brewing on our pilot system and really letting our team explore creativity and new styles. This has yielded some truly awesome beers like our rotating taproom sours, Pickup Limes, Lemongrass Gose, and Porch Swing, our new New Zealand Pilsner.
I am a huge fan of DIPA and we have been killing that game all year. Highlights for me have been The Power of Love (a collaboration with Ocelot Brewing Company), 808s, and #ultrafresh.
DC Beer: A couple of years ago you expanded your space. What were the factors that led to that, and how did it impact what you’re producing and how you’re engaging with your customers?
Dave Coleman: We have been constantly expanding since day one and are excited to open our new beer hall space in early September. We will have an expanded draft system, a huge private events space, and an expanded Funkerdome which will allow us to continue to grow the development of that part of our portfolio.
This space will allow us to further engage with our customers and increase our onsite attractions with live music, special events and more.
DC Beer: What’s next for 3 Stars? What are your goals or ambitions for the brewery? Are there any challenges you see in the industry, or in local laws of federal regulations? Are there any opportunities you’re willing to share?
Dave Coleman: We are about to go on the European fest circuit this fall. We just did a fest in Berlin, we have Sweden at the end of this month and then on to Barcelona.
We have found the European markets and customers to be extremely receptive to our beers and its a good excuse to do some travel and hang out with friends in new markets. Plus the beers – with so many awesome breweries from all around the world, it’s fun to see what other breweries are doing and how they are using creativity and different perspectives when designing and brewing their beers.
The buildout of the Funkerdome is going to be epic and we continue to lean in our efforts in this segment and continue to develop and explore new aging techniques and styles.
There are always challenges in such a competitive industry, especially one that is growing exponentially every day. You have to continue to look at what you are doing and assess whether things need to be adjusted, changed, or totally go in an alternative direction.
DC Beer: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Dave, and hears to another seven years and many more for 3 Stars.
Dave Coleman: Cheers!