The Brews of Summer is a series spotlighting the area’s best summer beers.
Today, our beer is 3 Stars Brewing’s Trouble in Paradise, a 6.5% sour ale with guava and mango.
The reaction is the same whenever it’s mentioned within 3 Stars Brewing.
“Oh man,” says co-founder and head brewer Mike McGarvey, letting slip an oversized, knowing laugh. “Trouble. We joke that giving a beer a name with character creates a beer with character. And that beer never disappoints.”
It’s a late July afternoon, and I’m standing with McGarvey in the Urban Farmhouse, the original and smaller of 3 Stars’ two tasting rooms. The topic of discussion, “that beer,” is Trouble in Paradise, a tropical sour ale that was supposed to have been released by now, just in the time for the dog days of summer.
The chalkboard draft lists mounted on the brewery’s nearby walk-in cooler haven’t been updated since March, but if they had been, if the Urban Farmhouse wasn’t closed to patrons on account of a pandemic, they would still not feature that troublesome beer. 3 Stars’ most anticipated seasonal offering is behind schedule, once again taking its sweet time to reach fruition.
“I think we jinxed ourselves with the name,” says lead brewer Meth Gunasinghe, who is dressed today in black cowboy boots, cutoff jean shorts, and sleeveless black T-shirt. “Right off the bat, we were like, ‘Oh, we shot ourselves in the foot.’ Pretty much every year, something happens.”
Brandon Miller saw this coming. In the summer of 2017, when the beer was first released, 3 Stars’ former head brewer had lamented the difficulty of producing it.
“It’s like making three beers at once,” shared Miller, who currently works for Manor Hill Brewing. “Each step along the way has its own hurdles. I think it’s aptly named Trouble in Paradise.”
Four years later, almost these exact words leave McGarvey’s mouth: That beer is aptly named, he tells me, the exasperation palpable.
As usual, though, Dave Coleman – the brewery’s other co-founder, in addition to its de facto creative director and resident hype man – has a sly retort.
“If it wasn’t so challenging,” he says, “it might just be called Paradise.”
The road to Paradise begins in 2015. That summer, the Takoma brewery initiated one of the area’s first sour and wild programs with a Berliner weisse called Cognitive Dissonance. (At the polite request of government regulators, its name was subsequently shortened to Dissonance.) By the end of the year, 3 Stars had erected the Funkerdome – essentially a massive, shiny box within the brewery, constructed from metal-encased foam panels and dedicated to the fermentation, aging, and packaging of sour and wild ales.
Through 2016’s back half, the Funkerdome would gradually yield bottles of 3 Stars’ inaugural barrel-fermented sours: the Charm City collaboration braggot Two-Headed Unicorn, the blended Funkyard Dog, and the instant classic Ricky Rosé – a chardonnay barrel-aged, blackberry elixir concocted with Other Half. Meanwhile, the brewery continued sporadic production of Dissonance and its fruited sibling Raspberry Dissonance, though only on draft in both cases because Coleman and McGarvey believed consumers would balk at cans containing 3.6% ABV beer.
As 3 Stars and its distributor Premium saw things, there was a gap to be filled in the brewery’s portfolio. The sour program had been an immediate source of consumer interest, but a true Berliner weisse like Dissonance only attracted a niche audience, and the barrel-fermented sours took too long to mature, cost too much to make, and yielded too little to be made widely available offerings. Perhaps there was a middle ground. And perhaps, as the distributor suggested, that sour ale could be brewed for summer, when people are increasingly inclined to reach for a bright, tart but refreshing beverage.
“We obviously do a lot of sours, but not a lot of people get them – and by ‘get them,’ I don’t mean understand them; I mean they’re limited in production,” Coleman explains. “What we wanted to do was create something that we could produce more frequently, so we could spread the gospel that sour beer isn’t just funky and acidic, as with traditional sours. We wanted something more fruit forward and summer friendly, because when you’re sitting out in the sun all day, you don’t want to be pounding imperial IPAs.” (He clarifies on the last point: “I mean, I do, but that’s just me.”)
When it came to choosing what fruits to showcase, 3 Stars would look south, towards the Equator, to sandy beaches with palm trees and cocktails with small umbrellas.
“We were thinking, ‘What do you want on vacation? When you’re in some beautiful exotic place, what are you drinking? Mango. Guava. Pineapple,’” Coleman recalls. “And it was like, ‘OK, we want to make a beer that reminds us of the tropics.’”
What the co-founder didn’t want to do was put those tropical fruits into a Berliner weisse. This decision was about more than alcohol content – it was about differentiation and innovation.
“At the time, there were a lot of people doing Berliner styles,” Coleman continues. “We wanted to do something that was a step ahead of that.”
At the same time, this decision was indeed also about alcohol content.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people still order and evaluate prices based on ABV,” Coleman states. “If it’s a 15% imperial stout, people have no problem buying a 4-pack for $26. But if it’s a 3.5% beer going for $7 a pint, people are like, ‘Well, this IPA is the same price, but it’s double the alcohol. I’m going to get that.’ I’m not necessarily trying to cater to that logic, otherwise I would have made a 9% mango-guava sour, but I wanted to find the sweet spot, and I really feel like we did with Trouble in Paradise. It’s not a Berliner. It has more oomph to it. At 6.5%, it’ll get you into trouble.’”
At 6.5%, the mango-guava sour ale has gotten 3 Stars into trouble, too.
This issue starts with pH levels. As you may remember from high school, pH is a scale that denotes the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution roughly between 0 (strong acidity) and 14 (strong basicity), with neutral water falling directly in the middle. According to All About Beer, conventional “clean” beer is still acidic, with pHs ranging from 3.7 to 4.1. With sour ales, however, that pH drops between 3.1 and 3.7.
3 Stars prefers its “quick sours” to land at a pH of 3.2, placing those beers decidedly on the sharper end of the spectrum. The problem is that Saccharomyces cerevisiae, otherwise known as brewer’s yeast, doesn’t take kindly to a low pH. It stresses the yeast out. And stressed out yeast slows down or can die out completely.
That becomes a bigger problem when that yeast has the formidable task of fermenting wort and fruit purée (added a rate of 44 pounds per barrel) all the way to 6.5%. In contrast with the 3.6% of a zippy Berliner, getting that high can be a slog.
Thankfully, as McGarvey has explained, 3 Stars was able to glean tips for fermenting higher-alcohol sour beers from past collaborator and friend J. Wakefield Brewing. If there is a direct precursor to Trouble in Paradise, in spirit at least, it’s the Miami brewery’s colorful, heavily fruited Florida weisses, the most popular of which clocks in at 7% and features mango, guava, and passion fruit.
“As we’ve been working on Trouble in Paradise, [Jonathan] Wakefield has been someone who’s been great to talk to because this is his wheelhouse,” MaGarvey told me in 2017. “This is what he does: fruited sour beers.”
In construction, however, Trouble in Paradise is far from a Miami Madness clone. While a Florida weisse – and certainly a Berliner weisse – is constructed almost entirely from wheat and pale malt, Trouble in Paradise features a hefty charge of the slightly darker Vienna malt.
“Vienna malt brings more complexity to a sour than just wheat,” explained Miller, citing his deconstruction of Allagash Brewing’s Monmouth Red, a Flanders red aged in brandy barrels, as pivotal to the development of Trouble in Paradise. “It’s slightly bready – that crust-of-the-pie taste. You need that because when you put the lacto souring in there, a lot of those beers can take just one direction. Layering in the wheat and the Vienna and the 2-row and the pilsner malt, you’re getting a nice mix of malts along with the mix of flavors, so when the lacto hits it, it’s not just, ‘Hey, I’m really sour.’ It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m sour, but there’s still a beer underneath here.’”
As McGarvey observes it, the appeal of Trouble in Paradise lies partially in how much it blurs the lines – not just between styles but between beer and other beverages.
“It’s kind of beyond beer,” he says. “There’s some level of beer in there; there’s a lot more fruit and sour. But you look across the segment, and people who were once crazy about craft beer are crazy about craft seltzer. So, every brewery is considering different things. Even the fruit beers have gone through some revision – some people are all about lactose in those beers and making them sweeter versus sour. We haven’t adopted that into our recipes, but it’s something we consider for other beers.”
These days, the production of all 3 Stars sours – whether quick or barrel-aged – is overseen by Greg Schmidt. It’s hard to imagine someone more enthusiastic about the role: Sour beer was the beacon that led him to a life in craft beer.
Almost a decade ago, Schmidt started homebrewing sours because he was going broke buying them. Then, he quit his day job because he was spending all his time making them. Schmidt would eventually enroll in the Siebel Institute’s Master Brewer Program, a 20-week course that split time between Chicago and then Munich. While still in Germany, he interviewed with McGarvey for an assistant brewer job. Almost immediately upon returning to the States in the summer of 2016, Schmidt started at 3 Stars.
By chance, the brewer had joined the company during a time of significant turnover. Lead brewer Nathan Rice, who had built 3 Stars sour program, was soon to move to Texas. Not far behind him, Allison Lange, his presumed successor, would take the head brewer gig at Old Ox Brewery. With Gunasinghe and Miller – who both started within months of Schmidt – more focused on the production of clean beer, a vacuum had been created.
“There wasn’t really anyone else at the brewery who was into the sour program, so despite the fact that I didn’t have a lot of tenure at 3 Stars, they said, ‘Let’s see what you can do with this,’” Schmidt remembers. “That was very exciting for me.”
The brewer proved up to the task, and for the past three-and-half years he’s handled the entirety of the sour program. When Miller departed in late 2018, Schmidt inherited the rest of the barrel program, too. Today, over 150 oak vessels, not including the Funkerdome’s foeder, are under his watch. (In addition to its one-offs, 3 Stars releases ten new barrel-aged beers annually between its Illuminati Reserve Society and Funkerdome Society bottle clubs.) And then there are his miscellaneous responsibilities, which at the moment includes serving as half of 3 Stars’ two-man production team.
“When Greg took over the sour program, he made a lot of changes,” says Gunasinghe, the other half of that duo and the author of 3 Stars’ clean beer recipes. “He’s streamlined the process. Before, it was like, ‘We’ll try this and see how it works out.’ Greg was like, ‘No, we gotta do this, and we gotta do this, and we gotta do this.’ Our quick sours are like clockwork now. It’s two days in the fermenter, then it’s down to 3.2 [pH], then it’s ready to boil. He’s just really talented.”
In the past, 3 Stars had bought pitches of lactobacillus (or “lacto,” the preferred brewer shorthand) from a commercial provider. The consistency of this bacteria had proven less than ideal.
When “souring” wort – that is, lowering its pH – the goal is to do so quickly, with minimal fermentation. While lactobacillus will inherently lead to a mild degree of fermentation over the course a few days, 3 Stars was detecting much greater metabolic activity. This could only attributed to one thing: The lactobacillus pitches were contaminated with wild yeast. In turn, that led to inconsistencies in flavor, plus variance in production time.
Schmidt circumnavigated this problem by cutting out the commercial yeast lab and building up his own lactobacillus. Not only does this house culture give him the certainty that he is souring with an uncontaminated pitch, it also contributes to a consistent flavor across all of the brewery’s quick sours. That flavor is bright and clean – the canvas that Schmidt wants to let fruit additions shine. On top of this, the house culture is more efficient too, lowering a wort’s pH down to 3.2 in approximately 18 hours.
The irony is that McGarvey doesn’t have to fret about that component of production time as severely as he once did.
Before construction of the Funkerdome, 3 Stars soured wort in its brew kettle, like the vast majority of American breweries producing Berliner weisse and gose. On a given Friday, McGarvey would add wort to the kettle, pitch lactobacillus, and hope that the bacteria lowered the pH to 3.2 by Monday morning, when the brewery could then boil the wort, kill the bacteria, and keep the liquid moving as if it were a typical beer. But if the bacteria hadn’t completed its weekend homework, McGarvey would have no choice but to wait. Sometimes, the brewery would lose two or three days of production.
Now, the brewery possesses a souring tank within the Funkerdome, where the lactobacillus can work on its own schedule. Additionally, this environment is more contained. Compared to a brew kettle, which was not designed to be a sealed vessel, the souring tank presents almost no threat of oxygen exposure or contamination via wild yeast or unwanted bacteria. Moreover, Schmidt can leave the house lactobacillus in tank between batches, pushing the next beer in and then racking off it.
“It just produces a much more consistent sour flavor,” the brewer explains. “Even if you don’t get the contamination or fermentation issues with the open air, it’s really difficult to develop a consistent product, and when you’re trying to develop a line of repeatable beers – not just one-offs – it’s really important to have consistency.”
Much of these procedural changes were made in the process of refining Trouble in Paradise, a beer Schmidt says he was quickly charged with dialing in.
“We’ve had some trial and tribulations, but it’s worked out really well,” he shares. “Trouble in Paradise is the beer that’s allowed the fruited sour series really to be much more viable for us. I don’t think Low Hanging Fruit would be around if it weren’t for we’ve gone through with this beer.”
Introduced at the beginning of 2019, Low Hanging Fruit is a series of sour ales conditioned on a rotating selection of fruits. Raspberry. Pomegranate. Blackberry and sage. Cherry and lime. Strawberry. Schmidt says he wants to showcase not just these fruits’ flavors but also their colors and textural consistencies.
“The last thing we want to do is put out a beer that tastes like we added mango and guava flavoring to it,” he says. “We really want to present the whole picture of the fruit.”
Before and after the series kicked off, Schmidt has used to the taproom to experiment with different fruit combinations – and, perhaps more importantly, with the sourcing of various fruit purées. Low Hanging Fruit: Strawberries, for example, went through several pilot batches before Schmidt found a source that didn’t taste artificial and plasticky. (To aid this exploration, the brewery hired a welder to convert a hop torpedo, which came with its brewhouse, into a fruiting tank that hooks directly onto a draft line.)
“That’s one reason why it’s so important to have consistency in the process,” Schmidt shares. “I can say, ‘I know it’s not the beer creating this off-flavor. I know this isn’t something from the outside air and effecting the kettle sour. I know it’s the fruit causing this. So, I’m going to try a different source of fruit.’”
While the fruits may vary, the base sour of the Low Hanging Fruit series remains the same. At 5% ABV, it’s a different beer than Trouble in Paradise – more versatile and, not uncoincidentally, one that’s easier to ferment. Schmidt considers that 5% ABV the sweet spot between protecting against contaminants and providing for a level of alcohol that the yeast can handle.
3 Stars has attempted to address Trouble in Paradise’s sluggish fermentation by using a more robust yeast strain. While the brewery initially deployed a California ale yeast, Schmidt switched to a neutral saison strain and calls the outcome a “game changer” across all his sours.
Still, Trouble in Paradise occasionally still gets stuck in mud.
This year, the culprit was the fermenter’s temperature probe, which broke during primary fermentation, allowing the beer to plummet to 56 degrees. As a result, the yeast became very sleepy. Even after 3 Stars was able to warm the tank back up, the damage had been done. All the brewers could do was occasionally repitch yeast and add nutrient-rich “energizer” to kickstart fermentation, hoping to stave off autolysis that can result in undesirable flavors.
When I talk to Gunasinghe in late July, a point when the beer had been projected for release, it still has two more “brewer’s points” to go.
“If we put that in a can, sitting out in 90 degree weather, it will explode,” the lead brewer shares. “We definitely want to stay away from that.”
I ask Schmidt if he’s a nervous wreck in moments like these, when the beer seems to be suspended in production limbo.
“I sweat everything on the sour side,” he admits. “It’s definitely stressful. It’s less predictable. Everything we’re doing with the Low Hanging Fruit line and the sour program is designed to reduce unpredictability, but this beer is unpredictable. It has a mind of its own. It’s ready when it’s ready.”
On the plus side, Schmidt knows he has the support of the brewery’s ownership.
“Mike and Dave are really good about saying, ‘We’re not going to rush this beer. Let’s get it right,’” he tells me. “All of the Low Hanging Fruit beers are important to us, but Trouble in Paradise is the most recognizable sour in terms of flavor. If it tastes completely different people are going to recognize that.”
While its production can be tortured, the end result is always worth it. Trouble in Paradise is one of the area’s very best sour beers. And it has been a unmitigated success since its first release in 2017.
“The response was a little overwhelming when we put it out,” says Coleman. “We thought we would do 60 barrels, and then the market just drank it all immediately.”
Over the years, I’ve gotten the sense talking with Coleman that the only thing more stressful than fretting over whether a beer will sell quickly is what happens when it sells too quickly.
“The last thing you want is a bunch of customers asking for something, and you have to go, ‘I don’t have it right now. Can you wait four or five weeks?’” the co-founder observes. “And they say, ‘No, I’m going to switch over to this other product that’s somewhat similar. It’s not what I really want, but I have to fill that line.’ From a business standpoint, you wind up losing lines. And you don’t like losing lines. That’s the whole reason you’re in business: Getting draft lines, selling great beer, and having people enjoy it around the city. Trouble in Paradise was a double-edged sword, and the first year it was one that stabbed repeatedly.”
In subsequent years, 3 Stars has taken steps to avoid any unexpected depletion. It’s secured adequate supplies of mango and guava well advance. It’s made sure to brew earlier in the summer. In 2019, everything went according to plan. The brewery released three 40-barrel batches throughout the summer, a fair amount of which went to Nationals Park. (And a fair amount of that was consumed by me within that ballpark.)
This year, of course, there were no National home games – at least, not that fans could attend. And like almost all breweries, 3 Stars is looking at depressed demand during the pandemic, with keg sales a shadow of themselves. Accordingly, 3 Stars will only produce one 40-barrel batch of Trouble in Paradise this year. Close to all of the sweet-and-sour liquid went into cans, which the brewery finally released on August 21.
In another change this year, one that will likely continue for summers to come, labels for those cans presented the beer as Low Hanging Fruit: Trouble in Paradise. Per McGarvey, the aim is to use the popularity of the mango-guava sour ale to draw consumers towards the fruited sour ales that it subsequently spawned.
“Trouble in Paradise has quite a following, and from it we’ve built a series of beers,” the head brewer shares. “We’re moving Trouble in Paradise into the Low Hanging Fruit series so people can associate them together. Our hope is that as we continue to grow the series that people will connect the dots – like, ‘Well, I love Trouble in Paradise, so it’s not a stretch that I’m going to like this other sour.’”
On a similar note, the recently rereleased Boyzen da Hood, a 4.6% boysenberry gose, has also been brought under the Low Hanging Fruit umbrella. In the mind of the brewery’s presiding sour guru, this consolidation makes sense beyond marketing considerations.
“Our house lacto brings such a unique flavor to our fruited sours,” Schmidt says. “That’s another reason we tried to incorporate Trouble in Paradise and Boyzen da Hood into the Low Hanging Fruit series, just to provide consumers with a clearer picture of what we’re trying to do.”
I wonder if he has a favorite of his quick sours. He tells me Boyzen da Hood, in part because of a strong affection for boysenberry. It’s also truly one of his recipes.
“Even though Trouble in Paradise has been redesigned several times and dialed in, I can’t really take credit for it,” he says. “But it definitely holds a special place in my heart, just because of all the blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into it.”
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.
Read other entries in The Brews of Summer on UNION Craft’s Old Pro, Bluejacket’s Pattern Skies, Crooked Run’s Coast, Astro Lab’s Fresh As, Ocelot’s Sunnyside Dweller, Port City Helles, and Wheatland Spring’s Good Days to Come.