Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Some people look at Washington, DC’s flourishing craft beer scene, replete with more and better choices than ever before, and see an oasis. Dave Coleman sees the jungle.
“This business has become so competitive, so busy, so clogged,” the 3 Stars Brewing president tells me on an early evening in his tasting room. “Four or five years ago, a brewery could release a beer and be like, ‘Meh, we like it enough.’ Now, you fuck around like that and you’re gone. You’re done. Just go ahead, call the bank, and tell them to take possession of your house, because you’re not going to survive. You gotta come out of the gate with a banger every single time.”
The banger I’ve met with the animated co-founder to discuss is Two-Headed Unicorn, a sour blonde ale brewed with honey and aged in bourbon barrels. The unconventional undertaking is the product of collaboration with an unconventional partner: Baltimore’s Charm City Meadworks. It also marks the third barrel-aged release to emerge from 3 Stars’ Funkerdome, a structure within the brewery that’s dedicated to the fermentation and packaging of sour ales.
The first such offering was Ricky Rosé, an unabashedly tart ale fermented in Chardonnay barrels with blackberries. That bright pink elixir was followed by a saison brewed with Brettanomyces (a type of wild yeast commonly referred to as “Brett”) and aged in wine barrels. Unlike Ricky Rosé, the wild ale was distributed only to members of the 3 Stars reserve society, the Illuminati, though a small amount was sent to the Great American Beer Festival under the name Bretta Got a Big Ole Brux.
And now there’s Two-Headed Unicorn. Only three-and-a-half months have passed between the releases of Ricky Rosé and it, but behind the scenes, both beers were the product of almost two years of planning, experimentation, aging, and a whole lot of patience. They’re the product of a lofty if indefinable goal: To establish 3 Stars as force to be reckoned within the sector of sour beer production. They’re the product of wanting to make bangers.
“Sour beer is something that a lot of breweries are trying to get into, but they’re kind of limping into it,” Coleman shares. “We’re coming at this hard. I’m not gonna go out and say that we’re a sour producer and then release shit sours. It’s just not going to happen.”
But quality control is one thing; the production of complex, innovative sour ales is another, far trickier proposition. For starters, barrel fermenting and aging with wild yeast and bacteria is a slow and expensive process. More importantly, it’s frustratingly unpredictable.
“At the outset, you know when you put an investment into a barrel that you have no control,” Coleman says. “You have control over choosing the bacteria and setting the temperature, but those are just factors. It can all go to shit anyway.”
The bearded co-founder leans in.
“Or it can all go to awesome,” he continues, a big grin creeping across his face. “It can all become a unicorn.”
If you’re going to start a sour program (and move beyond kettle or “quick” souring), there are a few things you’re going to need.
First, you’ll need barrels – several dozens of them. They’ll need to be designated exclusively for sour and wild ales, too, because once wild yeast and bacteria inoculate a wooden vessel, there’s no getting those “bugs” out. Of course, you’ll need racks to store these barrels. Maybe you can spring for a foeder – an oversized wooden vat that allows oxygen to seep in – but you’ll need some regular fermentation tanks regardless. Don’t forget another tank to blend the liquids from various barrels, either. And if you’re going to package these beers, you’ll need a separate bottling line.
Then, once you’ve amassed all of these things, you’ll need to place them within a separate, insulated room or a different facility altogether. That’s the only ways to sufficiently minimize the risk of contamination that comes alongside working with these organisms. Lactobacillus – the type of bacteria most often used to convert sugars into lactic acid and tart flavors – can wreak havoc on your system, turning otherwise “clean” beers sour.
If you’re a start-up brewery in an urban environment, a sour room is probably the more feasible option. Even then, in addition to building a room big enough to house everything, it has be retrofitted and configured to be a self-contained, functioning “fermentorium.” As Coleman says, “You can’t just take a walk-in cooler and call it a sour room.”
So, you’ll need a door big enough to drive a forklift through. You’ll need to run CO2 lines to carbonate beer prior to packaging, and glycol lines to control the temperatures of tanks prior to that. And we haven’t even mentioned the separate instruments that are required to test gravity, transfer beers, and keg them.
In case it’s not abundantly clear at this point: Constructing a sour room is a painstaking process and a significant financial investment. That’s why not many breweries have them, and it’s why it took Coleman and co-founder (and head brewer) Mike McGarvey two-and-a-half years to start building theirs – even if having one was a goal that predated the existence of 3 Stars.
“Mike and I wanted to start a sour program when we were still homebrewing in his basement,” Coleman remembers. “It was always part of the design of the brewery that we wanted to open.”
Erecting the Funkerdome took longer than expected, though. 3 Stars had hoped to launch a sour program as part of the brewery’s initial year-one expansion, but its available capital was quickly consumed by more pressing needs, namely the expansion of production capacity for clean beers.
“We were selling every drop of beer week in and week out,” Coleman says. “When you’re turning down accounts, you can’t really say, ‘Hey, we should start brewing beer that won’t be ready for six months to a year.’ Your first expansion has to be to satisfy that demand.”
But by the time the brewery had raised the resources for a second expansion at the beginning of 2014, it was ready to begin planning its sour program. After scouring the secondhand market for months, McGarvey was able to source the materials that would become the structure of the Funkerdome: configurable foam panels with sheet metal on the outside.
“It wasn’t an easy task because it’s a very tall room, and as is par for the course with 3 Stars, we weren’t buying brand new, plug-and-play equipment,” explains Coleman, who notes that the multi-week process of assembling those panels was even worse. “It was a nightmare. After about a day, I stopped participating because it was wrecking my nerves. I was really convinced that the whole room was going to collapse.”
The Funkerdome didn’t collapse, and once it was standing, the brewery set out on the journey of filling it with beer, barrels, and microbes.
3 Stars wasn’t exactly a stranger to sour ales.
Years earlier, it had brewed a rye gose with Baltimore’s Oliver Brewing, but Coleman jokingly calls the sharply acidic final product “pretty much vinegar,” and considers the beer more of learning experience. The next time 3 Stars ventured in sour production, though, it would produce a particularly well-received dry-hopped rye Berliner called Dissonance.
What changed? In the space between those two beers, head brewer Mike McGarvey had been studying up, attending seminars at the Craft Brewers Conference, reading existing literature like Michael Tonsmeire’s American Sour Beers, and talking to other brewers familiar with mixed fermentation like Nathan Zeender of Right Proper.
But for all the research 3 Stars could do, nothing would be comparable to hands-on experimentation. “It’s the same thing as working with new hops,” Coleman explains. “You gotta see what the different ingredients are gonna do and what characteristics they build.”
To those ends, McGarvey filled twelve 55-gallon barrels with the same base beer, and added different blends of wild yeast and bacteria to each barrel. Then 3 Stars waited, and sampled, and waited, and sampled, and on and on.
“We identified some clusters that we liked, and some that we didn’t,” Coleman recalls. “Some of them got crossed off the list for future potential. Some of them it was like, ‘I’m never using that blend again.’”
As with any brewery, there are a range of tastes and preferences within 3 Stars. Notably, Coleman is less enamored than McGarvey with the funky, “horse blanket” characteristics that Brett can bring to a beer. He prefers his sour ales to boast what he calls “yahoo” tartness.
“I’m just a tart-head,” Coleman explains. “I was the kid that used to crush five-pound bags of Sour Power, and if it didn’t make my mouth and tongue hurt, it wasn’t good. If you give me sour ales that are all raspberry and cherry and fruited, and they’re tart as hell, that’s my wheelhouse. If you give me stuff that super funky shit, that’s just not really my thing – I like that in my cheese.”
Still, the palates within 3 Stars were able to find common ground.
“The hits were definitely the hits across the board,” the president continues. “Some blends of bacteria strains just hit the notes that we want. It’s all about balancing tart, sour, and funk.”
McGarvey says the brewery continues to learn about the production of sour ales, but it’s “a-ha moments” are perhaps behind them.
“There are insights that we pick up where we’re like, ‘Huh. I never would have thought of that,’” the head brewer shares. “But these days, it’s more about tweaking and less about core knowledge.”
Upon that core knowledge, 3 Stars has built a sour program it is immensely proud of. With the release of another Illuminati-exclusive, barrel-aged sour last week, 3 Stars is up to four such releases, but more are on the way: a hop-forward Brett pale ale, a 100% Brett blonde ale, a Flanders-style Oud Bruin. And those are just the beers that fit in categorizable buckets.
“Mike and I have wanted to do this shit for seven years,” Coleman says. “We’ve been drinking and seeking out sour ales for so long, it’s nice to finally be drinking them and the bottles have our name on them.”
Of course, in the case of Two-Headed Unicorn, there’s another name on the bottle.
There’s a common perception of mead, and Andrew Geffken knows he’s fighting against it.
“Most people drink mead at the Renaissance Faire,” the Charm City Meadworks co-owner says. “And that’s great, but the approach we’re taking is that there are 364 other days of the year that you could drink mead, when you don’t have to dress up. It can be in a totally normal way, like, ‘I’m going to a party on a Friday night, and you know what? I’m gonna grab a four-pack of mead.'”
Launched in 2014, Charm City puts a particular type of mead into its four-packs. Technically honey wine, they’re carbonated like a cider or a beer, they sit at an unintimidating 6.9% ABV, and they’re infused with ingredients like elderberry, basil lemongrass, and even hops.
“What Andrew is doing right now is really interesting,” McGarvey says. “The mead that he’s producing is not your run-of-the-mill, 17% ABV mead that’s been fermented for a year and a half. That’s what a lot of people traditionally thinks of as mead. He’s going with something that’s more drinkable and accessible. You can drink many cans of his mead versus that one sipper of mead that older drinkers might be used to.”
The challenge for Geffken comes in getting that word out. He wants to reach new audiences – craft beer fans, in particular.
“We’re always looking for ways to push our style of mead towards a beer drinker,” says, Geffken, who defines his role at Charm City as “whatever needs to be done on a given day.”
One way to get beer drinkers’ attention is through collaborations.
The first came late last year when Charm City teamed with Port City to produce a fortified version of the brewery’s winter seasonal, Tidings. For that project, the meadery drew Tidings when it was nearing the end of primary fermentation, then it put the liquid into mead barrels, added 24 pounds of Pennsylvania wildflower honey each, and let it go through a secondary fermentation that sent the liquid’s ABV skyrocketing to 11%.
“That was a big beer,” Geffken says with a chuckle. “The yeast stalled out, so we repitched it, and then that yeast crushed through the honey. We ended up making it a little bigger than we intended.”
Its second effort, Bunches, was a more delicate beverage, but also a more adventurous one. Produced with Denizens Brewing, the honey oat farmhouse ale was open-fermented with a mixed culture of yeast and bacteria, and then aged for three months in Sauvignon Blanc barrels.
For Geffken, these collaborations are about much more than raising brand awareness. Projects like Bunches (and Two-Headed Unicorn) allow him to delve into the interplay of wild yeasts, bacteria, and honey – all of which produce distinct layers of sweetness and aroma. It’s an intersection that Charm City can’t explore at its own facility, which isn’t set up to mitigate the risks of those pesky microbes.
Beyond that, Geffken also feels a certain kinship with breweries. “Even though we’re technically a winery, we enjoy hanging out with the breweries,” he says. “In general, they’re a very adventurous and open-minded group, so when I show up and say that I want to do a barrel-fermented mead-beer combination, they’re all usually game to do that.”
If Charm City wanted, it could probably take an existing beer, throw it in a mead barrel for a few months, and pass it off as a collaboration, but it has consciously avoided doing so.
“If we just show up and drop some barrels off on the dock, that’s not too much of a collaboration,” he shares. “When we do collaborations, we want to really explore things. If there’s not a 50-50 shot that we have dump something, then I don’t think it’s necessarily worth doing.”
In Coleman and McGarvey, Geffken found like-minded collaborators.
“3 Stars is definitely a pretty adventurous brewery,” he observes. “There’s always pushing experimental things, trying different stuff.”
Geffken has been watching 3 Stars from afar for a while. He started keeping tabs on the brewery when it commenced production in 2012, seeing a connection between his mead recipes and 3 Stars’ initial offerings.
“They were doing these 8% or 9% beers – different, aggressive stuff,” he says. “From a business standpoint, those beers were bigger and a little more expensive, and our meads are as well, so I wanted to see how were people reacting to a brewery like that. It made me think, ‘Would those people possibly be ready to consider the next jump towards mead?’”
At some point, Coleman and Geffken crossed paths at festival. Or maybe they ran into each other at Meridian Pint. Nobody’s sure. Wherever it was, a friendship was struck up, and soon enough, 3 Stars was helping Charm City troubleshoot issues it was experiencing.
“They were incredibly supportive of us and helpful as we got going,” Geffken says. “They’re just really great guys.”
It’s a relationship that’s continued to this day, often over drinks at the aforementioned Columbia Heights bar.
“We talk about the shit that only the people who do what we do really understand,” Coleman says. “Eventually, it was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got an interest in doing something different, and you definitely have an interest in doing something different, and we all like each other, so let’s put something together.’ And it snowballed from there.”
But for all he knew about 3 Stars, Geffken couldn’t have anticipated one thing: meeting someone at the brewery who was also an expert in honey.
Before he brewed professionally, Nathan Rice studied bees.
At an Agricultural Research Services lab in Beltsville, Maryland, he was a beekeeper that monitored and maintained 100 colonies, and when he wasn’t there, he was often in North Dakota, running experiments on an additional 500. This was just under a decade ago, when a phenomenon known as “colony collapse disorder” sent ripples through the scientific community, and the USDA was trying to get to the bottom it.
“Our lab was kind of at the forefront of that,” he states matter-of-factly. “We did a lot of the work on bee diseases and potential treatments for those problems.”
In early 2015, Rice left that post to become the lead brewer at 3 Stars, where he was often tasked with researching and developing recipes. So, when Coleman and McGarvey approached him about building a beer with honey in it, the former beekeeper was unsurprisingly enthused.
“I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is perfect,'” recalls Rice, who has since relocated to Texas and recently assumed the position of head brewer at New Braunfels Brewing, a small operation that specializes in sours and barrel aging.
3 Stars and Charm City wanted to make a sour ale with honey as a fermentable. To take an Booze 101 timeout: In mead production, yeast converts honey to alcohol, much like it does with malt and grains in beer. With this project, they wanted to combine wort and honey in a barrel, and then let brewer’s yeast, wild yeast, and Lacto go to work on both, creating a liquid with aroma and flavor components of both sour ale and mead.
But before they could get to that fermentation, the parties would have to settle on the right honey.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about which honey we should use in this project,” Geffken recalls. “It wasn’t just, ‘OK, stop at Giant on your way into town, and grab a couple bears of honey.'”
“Commercial honey is commercial,” Coleman adds. “It’s meant to be widely approachable and boring.”
One afternoon in late winter, Geffken stopped by 3 Stars with ten different types of wild honey. He and Rice immediately connected.
“Andrew and I sat down, and talked honey and beer and bees for a long time,” the brewer shares. “Each kind of honey has a different flavor, so we tasted a bunch and tried to figure out what we liked best.”
3 Stars had envisioned the beer as summer release, so it sought a honey that would translate to a light, bright, and crisp final product. They wanted something that would be refreshing on a hot afternoon in July. On those grounds, some honeys were quickly ruled out. They were too dark, too resinous, too earthy. One honey, Buckwheat, still sends a shiver up their collective spine.
“Buckwheat was very intense,” McGarvey remembers. “It smells more like foot than anything else.”
Geffken acknowledges it’s perhaps an acquired taste. “It’s just like licking a sweaty horse,” he shares. “It’s a really intense honey.”
The most appealing was Golden Rod, a slightly citrusy honey grown on the border of Pennsylvania and New York.
“It’s the honey that had the most depth of character,” McGarvey recalls. “It struck a good balance of being there with the aromatics that you really associate with honey and having a nice finish flavor.”
“Golden Rod has a whole bunch of things going on,” Geffken explains. “It has a little bit of spiciness to it. There’s none of the straight sweetness that you would get from, say, a Clover honey.”
With Golden Rod queued up, Rice set about developing a malt bill and a mixed culture yeast strain to compliment it.
“I built the recipe around the honey,” he shares. “I really thought about what I could use to make all of these flavors sing together. That’s my approach to making any beer: How are we going to make four or five disparate ingredients come together and tell a cohesive story?”
This story starts with Pilsen, a malt the brewery favors for the crisp, neutral base its provides lighter beers. To accentuate the honey’s character, Rice added honey malt and Melanoidin, a caramelly German grain. If you had taken this grist and fermented it with just a traditional brewer’s yeast, it would have ended up something like an amber ale – a little sweet with a full body. But predicting where this beer would end up wouldn’t be so simple.
“A lot of times when you’re building a sour beer recipe, some of the flavors on the front end can get a little bit lost,” Rice explains. “You can give it a very good starting place, but the beer is going to go where it wants. The Brett is going to be constantly eating the sugars. The bacteria is going to change the flavor compounds. So, I built the beer knowing that it needed to be fuel for those things, and I kind of knew which flavors were going to remain after the Brett had interacted with everything.”
This particular strain of Brett, Brettanomyces Claussenii, is one of Rice’s favorites on account of the funky – but not quite “horsey” – flavors that it throws off during fermentation. Barrel by barrel, twelve times in all, Rice pitched the wild yeast and Lactobacillus Brevis at the same time, denying the bacteria the head start it would need to give the beer a more acidic flavor. A few days later, 3 Stars added its house saison yeast strain to each barrel to aid the process.
“Brewer’s yeast is only going to get things so far,” McGarvey explains. “Your hope is that the Brettanomyces finds other things and builds its own body. Sometimes, Brett can ferment things down to 0.0 depending on the yeast strain. You’d imagine those beers would be really thin, but a lot of the time sour flavors can add a lot more body to them. With this project, we wanted to be sure that we were leaving a dry beer, but one where we could smell, taste, and feel the honey as part of the overall beer.”
That honey went into the barrels after primary, where it would help fuel the second stage of fermentation for months and months to come.
All the while all 3 Stars could do was wait and hope.
When it comes to barrel-aged sour ale, there are donkeys and there are unicorns.
According to Coleman, you put a base beer, wild yeast, and bacteria into an oak vessel and you hope for a unicorn –a liquid that’s been transformed into something unique and delicious.
But sometimes you end up with a donkey – a barrel where the liquid has veered into unsavory territory.
A donkey can be a donkey for any number of reasons: unexpected off-flavors, an infection, under fermentation. Whatever the cause, it’s usually the case that the 55 gallons of beer and investment contained within that barrel is going down the drain.
After 3 Stars and Charm City’s beer-mead love child went into twelve barrels this March, they would pull samples from all of the barrels every four weeks to see how the liquid was progressing.
“It was interesting to see how all of the flavors were moving back and forth,” Geffken shares.
“Every time we tasted that beer, it was like, ‘Woo, it just keeps getting better and better,'” Rice remembers.
Come August, the brewers realized they had ten unicorns and two donkeys.
“Any time you’re dealing with sours, you’re going to have individual barrel character,” Rice says. “And one of the barrels had this weird, roasted peanut flavor. Sometimes you get a barrel where the biology goes a little awry.”
“We ended up having to dump a couple,” adds Geffken. “That’s just the beauty of fermentation: It’s the same base we’re starting from, but the bugs are reacting differently in each barrel.”
Coleman chooses to embrace the unpredictability of such “beauty.”
“I’m not frustrated,” he says with laugh. “You can be the guy who puts ten barrels aside, tastes them all, likes four, and is pissed that he has six dumpers. Or you can be the guy who puts ten barrels aside, likes two of them, and is like, ‘Hey! I like two of them! That’s great!’”
These losses are one of the unseen costs of sour ale production. The other is the amount of time a brewery has to wait on its beer while the wild yeast and bacteria work their magic.
Two-Headed Unicorn was slated for July release. It was bottled in middle of September. Another beer, a Brett pale ale brewed in collaboration with Maryland’s RAR Brewing, was supposed to hit the DC market in time for the start of Savor in late May. It’s still not ready.
Coleman admits it’s frustrating to have plans for a release – whether it be for an event or the Illuminati reserve society – foiled by biology, but he’s learning to live with the realities of what he calls “the barrel aging game.”
“At some point in your life, you have to let it go,” he shares. “When you’re getting into sour stuff, you know it’s unpredictable. You know it’s not going to be ready on a set schedule. It’s not like brewing Peppercorn Saison, where I can look at the day it’s being brewed and know the day it’s going to be in bottles. When you don’t have control over something like that, you really should try not to get frustrated, because you’re going to spend a lot of your time being frustrated.”
“That’s one of the trickiest thing about collaborations,” Geffken says. “It’s why we’re generally pretty quiet about them: We never know how long one is going to take.”
Once 3 Stars and Charm City were satisfied that the ten barrels had reached their final destination, McGarvey set about the process of formulating an appropriate blend of them.
“The interesting thing is just how different each barrel can be,” the head brewer shares. “We can have one barrel that’s fermented down really low and really dry, and another that quit somewhere in between. You can have some that are higher gravities and finish out. They’re all fermenting in the same room. In theory, they’re fermenting with the same yeasts, the same bacteria, and the same beer. It’s the same quantities. It’s all been brewed at the same. But you still have things that finish out drastically differently, just because of the circumstances in the barrel.”
In calling the collaboration Two-Headed Unicorn, 3 Stars is acknowledging the mercurial nature of this entire process and celebrating what can sometimes result from it.
“It’s the high risk, high reward scenario,” McGarvey observes.
“Hard to admit that I used to draw,” the San Francisco-via-Brooklyn emcee raps on it. “Portraiture and the human form / Doodle of a two-headed unicorn.”
Joy. Happiness. Rainbows.
These are the first words that come to Coleman’s mind when I ask his reaction to tasting Two-Headed Unicorn.
“It’s really well-balanced,” he adds, more seriously. “It’s not over the top or one dimensional. I think it has a lot of complexity. I think the honey really left its mark here. I love the sour tartness on the back end, and the nose stands alone – I don’t know if I’ve ever smelled anything that smells like this.”
Sitting in the tasting room with us, McGarvey isn’t afraid to offer a slightly different opinion.
“I don’t know if it is quite balanced,” he chimes in. “The honey really does shine through, and for some, it might be too much. What I do like is that on the finish you can tell it’s fermented. It’s dry. You’re not left with a cloying taste. I think if there was more residual sugar, it might be a bit too much, but what we ended up with a really strong honey finish.”
“Craft beer: It’s subjective,” he says. “Everyone has a different palate.”
Rice moved to Texas before the beer was bottled, but his wife was able to snag him a bottle on a recent trip to DC.
“I’m really pleased with where it came out,” the brewer tells me. “The tartness is right where I want it. There’s not a lot of acetic character to it, which is always a concern when you leave things in barrels for a while. I think that honey really pops out. I think you get that first rush of tartness, but then there’s a really nice floral and slightly sweet character that comes through on the back.”
“There’s definitely the essence of honey, which as a mead guy, I was excited to see,” Geffken agrees. “It’s not sweet or viscous, though. It’s also got this restrained sourness to it that I like. It’s not full-on, aggressive, making you pucker up, but there’s a little bit there.”
The Charm City owner credits Rice for being able to translate the ideas from both the meadery and 3 Stars.
“Some of the time, the problem we run into is that we have a pretty good understanding of honey but a very limited understanding of the beer and grain sides, whereas with brewers, it’s usually the opposite,” he shares. “Having someone like Nathan who could bridge that gap for the actual process of the beer was very cool.”
Two-Headed Unicorn is one of several Funkerdome projects that 3 Stars hopes to release in the not-too-distant future. In a revealing sign of where the brewery sees itself headed in the coming years, 3 Stars recently took its 12-head bottle filler and moved it into the sour room. From now on, the brewery’s primary bottling apparatus handles sour and wild ales. Most everything else will go into cans.
“The decision is: Sour is going to be the big focus,” Coleman says. “Now that we’ve put two years of investment and time into the Funkerdome, you’re going to start seeing drops. Product that’s been in there for a year is ready to go.”
“The whole idea – the brewery, the sour room – is to put an emphasis on constant, continued creativity,” he continues. “It’s something we strive for.”
3 Stars is already planning sour collaborations with other breweries in anticipation for the Craft Brewers Conference, which will be held in DC next April. The goal is to have each of those releases ready two months before the conference. But as with Two-Headed Unicorn, they won’t come out until McGarvey and Coleman are satisfied – if they come out at all.
“Andrew understood going into this collaboration that we were going to brew all of this beer, and that the end of it, if the beer wasn’t perfect, we we wouldn’t put it out,” Coleman says. “You gotta come come correct in this market and in this time. If you come out with bullshit, people are going to call you bullshit.”
“And nobody wants to be called bullshit.” he adds.