I visited Threes Brewing, one of the hottest breweries in Brooklyn, and found an irreverently reverent brewing team making world class beers with a philosophy of complicated simplicity. Intriguing? Read on.
Like Chicago or LA, New York City has traditionally been a bit of a spectator in craft beer. It’s so big, with so many people from so many places, that its predominant role in the craft beer revolution has been as a buyer of beer from other cities. Especially recently, it’s the showcase market that every brewer in the country wants to crack. Its bars and restaurants take pride in offering their customers the very best beer from around the country, and indeed the globe.
But the city is a hotbed of fierce creativity, so it couldn’t have been long before world-beating breweries began sprouting up in the artier, grittier neighborhoods in the Five Boroughs. And you win no prize for guessing that the borough birthing the most breweries is Brooklyn.
There is the small matter of the brewery that bears Brooklyn’s name of course, but in the last few years breweries like Other Half, Greenpoint and Sixpoint (not to mention ridiculously hot gypsy brewers Evil Twin and Grimm Artisanal Ales) have significantly evolved the Brooklyn legacy in beer.
In the past 12 months a brewery enigmatically named Threes Brewing has earnt itself such a reputation for high quality, innovative brewing that it’s already knocked out collaborations with Belgian-style heavyweight Brewery Ommegang and uber-creative Danish gypsy brewery Mikkeller.
“We strive to create beers that straddle the apex of complexity and simplicity” says brewmaster Greg Doroski when I met him and his fulsomely bearded assistant brewer Joel Ford at their brewpub on the border of Gowanus and Park Slope. “One of my favorite styles is pilsner for just that reason – it can be both simple and complex, its identity almost depends on the context and your mood.”
Greg is a thoroughly articulate fellow, and I can tell it won’t be hard getting his view on things. He continues on the “Why pilsner?” thread: “Though it’s not necessarily a style that will make you famous with the IPA-or-nothing crowd, the people I really respect get what I’m saying with Vliet, our pilsner. When I first started talking with my partners [and co-founders of Threes] Josh Stylman and Justin Israelson about getting this project off the ground, it was one of two beers I knew that we would make. (The other was Table Beer Saison).”
I asked Doroski about the Google-unfriendly name the brewery has, which seems like a brave choice straight out the Big Book Of What Not To Name A Fledgling Business. Is this a case of purposefully not creating an obtrusive brand, and letting the beer do the talking?
“If I could give any advice about starting a brewery, it would be think about the name far in advance of opening. Which is not what we did!” laughed Doroski. “Our address is 333 Douglass Street, and we were founded by three partners, so that seemed like a good enough reason to name ourselves Threes. Put another way, it was the least-worst name we came up with.”
I’m curious about this appearance of a non-marketing-based approach to brewing that Greg and his partners give off. Do they worry about how they will stand out in a crowded market?
“We see our brand – at least when it comes to our beers – as more of an ethos that will evolve over time. If we ran out the gate with a five year plan of what we were going to brew, how we were going to brand everything, I feel like we would be constraining ourselves. We prefer to take it one step at a time, which when you think about it helps you make sure your next step is your best one.”
Doroski, an alum of Greenport Harbor Brewing Co on Long Island, is as thoughtful and engaging a brewer as you’re likely to come across. And assistant brewer Joel Ford is not far behind. (“Although he studied engineering while I studied philosophy, which I’m thankful for every day” jokes Doroski.) When you ask the pair a question you get an interesting answer.
“We’re trying to make beers that draw you in without needing to bash you over the head,” commented Ford, “which to me means we’ve been building our brand with every beer we’ve brewed.” (Ford estimates they’re at about 30 different beers since opening their doors in October 2014.)
While at the brewery’s space – an effortlessly cool, minimalistic bar that is conjoined with an outpost of Ninth Street Espresso – we’re in Brooklyn, duh – I was treated to the beers currently on tap. All were impressively crisp and clean, though there were some truly funky flavors on show too. I tried both their aforementioned collaborations; and both were delicious. Was It Good For You? is a saison brewed “in parallel” with Ommegang (“We developed the recipe together then we made our version, and they made theirs – the only difference is the yeast” explained Doroski “And I won’t tell you which one I think is better!”) and Fruit Of The Canal is a dark saison brewed with oyster shells and colored with Sinamar that was brewed with Mikkeller.
But, in keeping with the Threes brewing philosophy, probably the standout beers were the simple (but complex) ones they brewed on their own. Funnily enough, my favorites ended up being the two beers Doroski wanted to make from the outset: Table Beer, a sharp, bright, 4.5% abv saison that makes up a good chunk of the brewery’s sales, and Vliet, a German-style pilsner that clocks in at 5.2%. The latter was as precise as a surgeon’s scalpel, and it’s pretty mind-blowing that a brewery barely past its first birthday is able to turn it out.
Threes is expanding their production in the next couple of months with a second brewing and barrelling facility round the corner from the current site. There will be a lot more creative, balanced and artfully named brews coming your way.
If you’re in New York and you haven’t yet tried their beer, the likelihood of you bumping into one will be going up soon. And if you’re outside New York, get ready. With the passion, skill and clear vision behind this confidently experimental outfit, I have a feeling you’ll be sipping their wares soon enough too.
10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classed with Greg Doroski & Joel Ford of Threes Brewing
- Can you describe what your company does in one short sentence?
Greg: We are a brewery, bar and event space. For the brewery, I’d describe our mission as making complete, well-rounded beer, that can appeal to many different types of people.
I’d like to think that you can see a common tread that runs though our entire portfolio. From the beginning, I’ve struggled to articulate the simple and complex nature of our beers but I do think it’s a useful framework to understand what we do here.
- How long have you worked here?
Joel: Just over a year. Since a couple of months before we opened.
Greg: I’ve been involved in the project for about two years. I managed the set-up of the brewery for about a year before we opened.
- How and why did you come to be here?
Joel: Well I was cutting down trees for a living before working here, so it was a pretty big shift! But I was an avid homebrewer too. And I knew one of the guys setting this place up and it sounded like it would be a lot of fun.
Greg: Joel’s being modest, his homebrews were famously awesome.
I came here by a slightly longer road. Way back I toyed with the idea of culinary school, but instead studied philosophy and history at college and grad school. As I was studying I was getting more and more into food and beer and homebrewing, so decided to give it a shot as a career. I was offered an opportunity as an intern at Greenport Harbor and stayed there for four and a half years, learning professional brewing.
A couple of years ago Justin [Israelson, co-founder], whom I’ve known for a long time, reached out to me seeking my help on this project as a consultant. But I got so involved that it made sense for me to run the brewing side of things full time.
It’s kind of funny moving here, because my wife and I lived in Brooklyn when we got married and had moved out to Long Island to have kids and settle down. It took a bit of a discussion to persuade her to come back to the city!
- What is your daily routine?
Greg: We typically start the day a little later than most breweries do – between 8 and 9. We brew two or three days a week, and after we get the brew going I’ll hop on the computer and take care of whatever logistical issues need looking at, while Joel will keep the brew going and make sure kegs and brewing vessels are washed and the place is in order. We just have to manage the cycles of our lagers, ales, Brett beers and special projects to stop us tripping ourselves up.
The bar opens at 5 and we won’t usually finish brewing till about 6.30, so we tend to have quite a bit of overlap between operations as a brewery and as a bar. It’s not uncommon for us to have barrels or kegs or even new tanks sitting all around the bar area as people walk in to order a beer!
Joel: I think customers get a kick out of the close space between the brewery and the bar – people know they’re in the place the beer is made. It adds to the atmosphere.
- What is the hardest thing about your job?
Greg: Logistics. Plain and simple. When it comes down to it, we’re managing a small scale manufacturing facility here, and we need to juggle all the elements involved in producing a consistent output of high-quality product.
Growth in a young brewery is hard to manage, you need to think about it holistically. You have to step back and think through all the elements involved – from ingredients, to man-power, to the kit you need to brew and package – and make sure everything will be available when you need it.
Joel: Right now for example we know we could brew and sell more beer, but we also know we don’t have the cold storage space or the even the kegs to do that. We’d be running at a brick wall.
Greg: Funnily enough, brewing is the easy bit. I know how to brew, and Joel knows how to brew, and I think we both do it well. The tough bit is making sure we have the ingredients and the available resource to brew the beer when we want to make it.
- In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?
Greg: To me, brewing is a series of compromises. To succeed in brewing, you have to figure out where you can and where you can’t compromise. For example, you cannot compromise your cleaning regime. But maybe you can alter your recipes on the fly to account for the ingredients you have to hand. You need to be able to look at the bigger picture and understand where there is and isn’t flex.
Joel: I’ll add that I think you need to play to your strengths and understand where you have competitive advantage. For instance, if you’re in New York City and you make a hoppy beer, your hoppy beer will be fresher than a hoppy beer brewed on the West Coast or even in another country, so that becomes a selling point. It’s the kind of stuff you need to think through and take advantage of.
- What is success for you?
Greg: We’re not looking to take over the world – we’re in this to make great beer that people will enjoy. As such, I’d sum up our vision of success as achieving the level of production and sales that can a) give us a level of normalcy in life, and b) enable us to make what we want to make. Right now we’re in full start up mode, which may be coloring my answer somewhat, but while everything’s going great, I’d really like to be established enough to avoid the mad scrambles and also to be able to brew absolutely whatever I feel like brewing. So I guess you could say success for us is freedom.
Joel: I second that. We want to be true, thoughtful innovators, and to do that you need to have a platform. I’ll be happy when enough beer is walking out the door without us needing to shepherd it that we can put all our creative energy into making genuinely new things.
- If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
Greg: It’s a hard one to articulate, but – with respect to all beer drinkers out there – I wish the craft beer “hive mind” could be a little bit more open-minded. Although there are people out there who are writing great stuff about beer and leading the craft drinker to a more educated place, right now it feels like tastes in beer are driven by powerful trends that pick up huge momentum and quickly favor extremes.
Like the IPA thing and the hops arms race, which made double IPAs the coolest beers to be seen drinking. [Note: Threes playfully named their Imperial IPA Super*uckingyawn as a nod to their “obligation” to brew it!] And now the same thing is happening with sour beers – you know, how sour and pungent can you get. We’re even seeing Imperial Goses! Where did that come from?
The short answer is, if I could change one thing, I’d change it so the next big trend would be the insane popularity of balanced, clean beers.
- Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?
1 – Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils. It’s just so perfect, so clean and so drinkable. I’m both happy and sad I didn’t keep a running total of the how many cans of Pivo I drank this summer.
2 – Orval was one of the beers that woke me up to non-mainstream, non-American beer. It’s a benchmark of a beer that makes you think. It’s kind of sad – and funny – that no Orval that I drink these days lives up to the imprint on my sensory memory of that first one. It played such a huge role in my development as a brewer.
3 – I think for most people, their favorite beer is one of the ones they’ve had most recently, and we had a bottle of Hill Farmstead’s Flora Cuvee a few nights ago. What an amazing beer.
1 – Tre Fonteinen Gueze is a landmark beer for me. Amazingly complex and flavorful. You can’t follow it up, it has to be the last drink of the night.
2 – I like balanced, hoppy beers and Hill Farmstead’s Edward is a great example.
3 – A curve ball, but Grainbelt Premium is a shitty, old school corn lager which has a lot of nostalgia value to me. It reminds me of quenching my thirst at the end of a long sunny day when I’m back home. I still drink it occasionally and it’s actually very well made.
- Apart from this brewpub, where’s the best place to get a beer in Brooklyn?
Joel: If I’m going to get a beer in between here and home I’ll probably just head over to Other Half. It’s nice to be at someone else’s brewery and not have to worry about what you’re supposed to be working on. And their beer is of course exceptional.
Greg: I’ve spent a LOT of time at 4th Avenue Pub. It’s a couple of blocks from here, they always have great beers on tap, and it’s a very laid-back, unpretentious atmosphere.