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Dave Coleman on Year One at 3 Stars Brewing Company

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Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.

[Photos: Rachel Eisley]

This month we sat down with 3 Stars Brewing Company co-founder, Dave Coleman. His craft beer is a fixture among the bar and restaurant scene in DC. And, it all started one year ago with the release of 3 Star's Pandemic Porter. Now, the brewery has almost two dozen beers on-tap, including new additions like their Lime Basil Saison and Zombie Date Night, a heavy imperial porter. While the operation may have started a year ago, Coleman said it took more than five years to go from homebrewing to their Northeast brewery location. Now, the brewery is about ready to ramp up production. With more and more bars requesting the brews, Coleman said this year will be about producing more beer.

Where did you think you would be one year out?
We exceeded our one year expectation. I didn't think I was going to be on tap inside Nationals stadium in year one. We are about to go through a 300 percent expansion, and we are struggling to keep up with demand. Which is a good problem to have in a lot of peoples' minds, but in mine, it's not. I love the fact that we can sell all the beer we make, but I would like to be making a lot more beer, so I can sell a lot more beer.

Take us back to a year ago. Did this whole thing start then?
This is a process that's about five and a half years old. My partner, Mike, got a homebrew kit from his now fiance. So we started homebrewing, and I was still working at the Big Hunt. Mike and I were sitting there — we're old friends — drinking great East Coast and West Coast beers, and we started asking, "Why [doesn't] DC have anything like what we were getting from these places?" So Mike started bringing his homebrews around and asking for my opinions, and eventually I started brewing with him. It was really an excuse for us to hang out once a week and brew beer.

But that question kept nagging us: "Why don't we have anything like this in DC." And we eventually decided to look at this like a business model . . . we knew craft brewing was super competitive, and we focused on how we were going to differentiate ourselves. We decided it would be on a strict recipe development program . . . So, we would iterate batches of beer with different hops, different malts, maybe different yeasts. We knew what we wanted in the end, but we had to get to it to there with each test batch.

So in the recipe development process, what was the beer that really established you?
The Pandemic Porter. When we finally dialed in the recipe for the porter, and we sampled it— that is when I basically looked at Mike and said I will take the Pepsi challenge on this one and challenge any brewery in the country.

How many test batches did it take to reach that point?
On the Pandemic, I think we got to about 12 or 13 different versions, which means you're talking about 65 or 75 different variations on the brew. And then after that, you just keep brewing the exact same recipe and making sure you can replicate it to keep it consistent.

Your focus from the beginning has been with working with a lot of bars in the area and establishing yourself in DC. How important was it that you started here?
For us, DC was always going to be home. There was never a question of opening a Maryland or Virginia brewery. Neither Mike nor I are from here, but we both call this home. So for us, we always knew that it would be in DC. Establishing your home market is always the most important thing. Even with our coming expansion, the most important thing was satisfying the great bars and restaurants in DC that we currently can't provide for. I've turned down some pretty big chains in the area, but I've had to turn them down because they would decimate our inventory. We will focus on satisfying all of DC, and then we'll start thinking about Maryland and Virginia, and then maybe satellite markets. We're looking at more of a spider web effect. We're saying, "Maybe we should be in Chicago, San Francisco, or some other major city." It's going to be a different kind of expansion model.

Walk me through your expansion plan, what does it mean from a production standpoint?
Our biggest inhibitor is our fermentation space. We currently have four fermenters, but our beers take three weeks in the fermenters. So even with a well executed rotation, you're still looking at maximum of two brew days a week. Now, we are adding six more tanks which will allow us to start brewing almost every single day, which will, like I said, help us increase our production by 300 percent. Right now, we meet our demand with our current accounts. But, this will help us open more accounts, more restaurants and start thinking about where we are headed next.

Talk to us about the challenges of being in a warehouse space?
If I ever have to clean another floor in my life, I'm going to pay someone to do it. One of the biggest challenges was that this was a former auto mechanic shop. As in any mechanic shop, the place was covered in grease, gas, oil and paint. And, we needed to figure out how to get this stuff out of the flooring, so we could seal the floor.

But another huge challenge was finding a space in DC that was zoned for commercial manufacturing. We're not in Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Erie. This is not a manufacturing town. Here, there's just not a history of it, so you have a limited amount of locations that even have the potential for being zoned right. Then you need to have high ceilings, open space, sprinkler systems, and it took us just about eight months to find our location and another eight months to negotiate our lease . . . We took the keys to this spot, and then it took another 14 months to get the building into shape and ready for brewing. But every Saturday, we would have a team of people who would come out and work from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m., just helping us clean. Without them, we would have never started this thing. We didn't have the money or investors. But through sheer willpower and hard work, we've actually pulled this thing off.

What's been the biggest mistake you've made in brewing?
We had a very early batch of Peppercorn Saison, where we noticed a smell and the the wort was scorching. Basically, we had to dump 620 gallons of beer down the drain. And, as a startup that's quite a bit of money. But again, adhering to our standards and having integrity, and not releasing that -- there are a lot of people who would have tried to dry hop it, or release it as a different beer -- but we didn't do that. We knew early on that our reputation is everything. It cost us many, many thousands of dollars, but you know, what's the cost of your reputation? What's the cost of your integrity? I don't think there's a number.

There are a bunch of new breweries about to open in DC. Are you ready for the competition?
My philosophy has always been: If you're always looking at what your neighbor is doing, you're going to lose sight of what you're doing. I try to take a head down approach. Our goal and our drive has always been to make the best possible beer. New breweries that are coming in, I say, "Welcome, come on in. Let's drink beer. Let's be family." But from a competitive standpoint, Mike and I have always been self-driven. We are not motivated by what DC Brau or Dogfish is doing. But, don't get me wrong I am a competitive person.

What's next for you guys?
We're always looking for new styles of beer. We are looking into some cellaring processes right now, and we plan to launch a bottling line this year too. We'll do 750 milliliter bottles with corks and cages. We're trying out bottling because with the exception of our summer sessions, I don't think our beers are meant for canning. It's not a preferred format for me. I'm into the big tall bottles that you can share with friends.

What would you say to someone who wants to go into brewing?
Pick a great partner. Pick a partner who can drive you, motivate you, tell you things will be all right, and can kick you in the ass from time-to-time.
—Tim Ebner
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3 Stars Brewery

6400 Chillum Place NW, Washington, DC 20011 (202) 670-0333