A Conversation with Josh Stylman from Threes Brewing

Just four years ago Brooklyn was sparsely populated with breweries, and thirsty wanderers had limited options to choose from. Fast forward to 2018 and there are over 40 breweries in New York City. Threes Brewing was one of the craft breweries that helped lead that rapid growth, and they have been making delicious beer in Gowanus since late 2014. We sat down to discuss their evolution with co-founder and all-around great dude, Josh Stylman. 

BKBR: Why did you start Threes?

JS: I was doing startup stuff for like 20 years and was always interested in doing stuff in physical space and manufacturing. I was particularly interested in starting something that I had never done. I naively thought I wouldn’t stare at a computer all day but the joke’s on me. Beer felt like the intersection of manufacturing and a community hub, particularly our brewpub model. I knew I didn’t know enough about either of those things, so I partnered with Justin Israelson  who ran a bar and flower shop in Ditmas Park called Sycamore which sounds really goofy but it really works.

Photo thanks to Matt Furman. 

Photo thanks to Matt Furman. 

BKBR: Did you plan to have coffee and other events when you opened?

JS: Yes, the coffee shop (Ninth Street Espresso) has been here since we opened and broadly speaking we’re at our best when we have this cacophony of stuff and chaos theory and a hodgepodge of stuff that really clicks and at our worst it’s all just a distraction and vanity. We knew we wanted to do a lot of things and things we didn’t think we could do extraordinarily well on our own, we partnered up with people. Coffee is a great example. We working in the building during the build-out and drinking shitty coffee, and we basically just had this conversation and said, “What’s your favorite coffee?” We both decided that we love Ninth Street Espresso, and coincidentally they were looking to open a shop in Brooklyn around that time. It’s a lovely relationship and it activates our space and contributes to that notion of community, they open at 7 a.m. seven days a week and there are always people here. We trade them beer for coffee and it really helps feed the always-on thing.

BKBR: What about your restaurant concept?

JS: On food we knew we were in way over our heads so we initially had the rotating kitchen and on a marketing level it was cool because people who may not have heard of us heard that Roberta’s Pizza was going to be here. It was lovely on the one hand but on the other hand it was really tough for people who worked here because we were effectively opening a new restaurant every two weeks. It was really hard on the team day-to-day and for planning events. If people wanted to get married here, they would ask if we did pizza or tacos and we couldn’t give them an answer. We started thinking about the people we liked working with and who were really versatile and the Meat Hook really stood out in both those things, so we’ve had them in permanently starting in July 2016.

BKBR: So with the music, and the coffee and the food, is it accurate to say you wanted to be a community space as well as a brewery?

Matt Furman for Threes.

Matt Furman for Threes.

JS: Absolutely. The plan was always to grow the manufacturing part of what we did and we’re still learning a lot every day. We’re learning that some of our assumptions about what would resonate with people really did resonate with people and some of our economic projections were totally, totally wrong. There is some indictment of capitalism in this but we definitely have to grow a lot to self-sustain. Year one was always going to be an R and D thing and get the recipe right and see if the space worked. As we evolved the idea we hoped there would be this change in perception from “there is this cool bar that happens to make their own beer to “there is this cool brewery that happens to have a bar.” We think that transition is maybe not yet complete but certainly on its way in that we’re making a lot more beer than we ever have. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

This is home base, it always will be, don’t quote me on the number but there is something like 407 breweries in New York State now which is up from 40 ten years ago. We hope the beer stands on its own but we need something else to stand on in the midst of all that and we think our space is different. We love a lot of New York breweries but we are definitely one of a kind. We need it to not feel like a one-dimensional thing and that was kind of the idea from the beginning, to reinvent the brewpub, hopefully that comes across in programming, the design.

BKBR: Do you think the canning that you’ve done recently has been helpful in turning more toward this idea that you’re a brewery that has a bar?

JS: I think so, I think it resonates more that we’re a manufacturing company, when you put something in aluminum. We joke that we didn’t package any beer for the first year and a half, and that was as much about getting the recipes right as anything else and you know quality control and figuring out what the portfolio  was going to look like and how the market was going to resonate to something. We wanted to see if there was continuity and a holistic sense of the brand before we slapped a label on it but we joked that we looked at some of our ratings on Untapped and other sites and as soon as we put stuff in a package the ratings went up. We were like, this is ridiculous, we’re definitely honing our recipes over time but you put a nice label on something and it’s validating.

BKBR: Is it a scarcity thing?

JS: We’ve kind of rejected the notion of lining up for beer, which I think has hurt our business in some way. Beer should be a ubiquitous product, not a scarce one and we’re trying to keep up with demand as a small brewery. It’s just not our business model and it doesn’t work for our business model. The first day we did a canning release there was a line here out the door and we were like, oh my god this is so weird. Our general manager came up to me and was like, “Is this what I have to look forward to every week guys?” We were like, no, it isn’t. We can just do a pre-sale online so people don’t have to wait. I actually think there is some portion of the population that wants to wait on line and our friends at Other Half, who make amazing beer, have really figured out the community aspect of that. It isn’t a judgmental thing, it isn’t us or them and it is just different. Some people just want to wait on line, it’s like tailgating. For us that is just not our flavor, for better or for worse. I get thank- yous from plenty of dads who roll in with their kids.

BKBR: We were super stoked about the pre-sales.

JS: I know I wouldn’t wait online for beer or anything. We’re trying to be more of an accessible and convenient product for people. We’ll see-- maybe that isn’t the right business strategy.

BKBR:  Tell us about your expansion to Greenpoint.

JS: So we have some friends that had a restaurant in Greenpoint and were using our brand as a pop-up. It’s a little bit of a test for us, we’re seeing how it plays out for us. We’d like to stay and initially we were going to do it for a month but it’s been a year and we’re still there. For us it’s just a way to make our beer a little more accessible and have a spot in north Brooklyn. We’re starting to do some more programming and private events there. I won’t say it’s permanent yet but it’s this pop-up that’s not ending. The bigger news is that we’ve expanded our manufacturing with Industrial Arts Brewing.

Franklin+ Kent by Liz Clayman. 

Franklin+ Kent by Liz Clayman. 

BKBR: Tell us a bit more about your partnership with them.

JS: So we’re going to be making our Pilsner Vliet, which rhymes with fleet and is Dutch for canal, up there with them. We are busting out at the seams here and we can’t make enough beer here. We had a big expansion planned on Long Island but there were a bunch of reasons we pulled the plug on it. One being that the company that was fabricating our steel tanks went out of business. That sucked. They were making tanks for a bunch of breweries, us, Other Half, Barrier and we all referred each other and sunk a bunch of money and we were just out of luck. Furthermore the planning board for the town didn’t want us there. It was this comedy of errors where we would show up and they would say stuff like, you widened the road already, we need to do a traffic study and we were like we haven’t even signed a lease! What are you talking about? We have been joking that we’re going to do a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary about the planning board. We sort of looked at each other, especially after the tank company went out of business. and said something’s not right here. So we moved on but we were pretty bummed out and it thwarted our ability to keep up with demand for a while.

BKBR: So that’s where Industrial Arts came in?

JS: We were discussing our struggles to keep up with demand and they make amazing beer and are amazing people. So we were taking to Jeff [O’Neil], the co-founder there, How are we going to make more beer and we just asked, do you have room in your brewery? It’s out of the city [in Garnerville]so you can do all kinds of things. He has a massive facility that can make around 25,000 barrels of beer, don’t quote me on that number but significantly more than we can. So we bought a couple of tanks from them and we’re making Vliet there now. We still do one tank here in Brooklyn for a few reasons because it is foolish for us to make beer there and ship it here and it’s also a really good quality check. One of our tanks here will always be Vliet which we’ll serve at the brewpub and the Vliet we’re serving everywhere else will be made in Garnerville at Industrial Arts. We’re really psyched-- we just released the first batch and it will come out in about two weeks. Overall it will be about a 25 percent increase in production for us this year with more to come next year. Eventually it will double the size of our brewery. TBD if we’ll make other styles there. They have an incredible state-of-the- art brew house and Jeff used to be the head brewer at Peekskill, and our brewer used to work at Peekskill so it feels very familial. We’re all really good friends and it feels like the same company. It’s a lovely relationship. I think there’s really a larger commentary about the camaraderie in the craft brewing community.

BKBR: We’ve heard that from just about every brewery we’ve spoken with.

JS: There are a lot of categories where it’s very cutthroat. But in our experience whether it’s with Industrial Arts and this partnership or trading ingredients with Other Half and Interboro or sharing notes with Finback and some of the other breweries, [there is] just this open book thing in the beer world that’s really, really impressive. Intuitively we sort of feel like it’s the rising tides thing where if we help each other we’re all going to do well together. You can see on our draft list we have lots of local breweries on tap. We have Hudson Valley and Suarez right now and we usually have some Other Half or Interboro. 90 percent of the time we have beer from local breweries and we really like that model.

We take our craft really seriously but it’s only beer. While we take the craft very seriously and we’re trying to make world-class beer here, it’s only beer and you could step back and say that about any industry, really. This is not curing cancer here and we’re keenly aware of that, implicit in that should be some fun. This is a fun job. Beer is at its best bringing communities together, for us whether it’s the relationships we have with other brewers, or it’s 12:30 on a Saturday and it’s crowded with people. Hopefully they’re into the beer and maybe they’re talking about flavor but ideally in our mind they’re talking about art or ideas or politics or their families, you know, whatever the hell they’re talking about, that carries a lot more weight than sitting around just talking about the hops.

BKBR: Back to Vliet for a minute, how did you decide that was the beer you wanted to make more of?

Photo by Alex Bohn.

Photo by Alex Bohn.

JS: It’s because we’re terrible business people and I’m mostly not joking. IPAs still outsell everything we do two-to-one always. We could make a terrible IPA and it would sell. The short answer is it’s the beer we like the best so we’re going to make the most of it. It doesn’t make the most economic sense and we know that. From day one, our head brewer Greg Doroski, who is a brilliant, visionary dude, said, “I’m going to make a Pilsner” and we were like “okay.” He was like for real, I’m going to make one because there is no great Pilsner in New York and there should be.

We love IPA and about half of our beers are IPA, Double IPA or hoppy pale ales but we like a lot of things. Everything is context dependent. If I’m hanging out on the beach or it’s Saturday afternoon at Threes I don’t want to drink 7 percent  IPAs, I probably want to drink a lager and specifically our Pils. For us it is the most accessible of our styles and is arguably the most versatile. It has its place in fine dining or Madison Square Garden or chugging beers on the beach with your buddies. We just decided we were going to go big with it. It also meant a lot that our friends from all the breweries we’ve mentioned came in, it was all they wanted to drink. They were saying stuff like “We wish we could make beers like this, they don’t sell.” So for us it’s a little bit of a test. We think we’re doing this goofy thing and we’re seeing if there is a market out there for a premium Pilsner. We’re kind of seeing if we can invent a new category, the premium Pilsner and we’ll see if it works out for us. If not, we’ll see a lot more double IPAs.

We’re also doing some really cool stuff with foudre- fermented lagers, Definition of Insanity and Kicking and Screaming, which is my favorite beer we’re doing right now; we have another batch canning this week. We’re really digging these foudre- fermented beers, it just adds a little something to these beers. I had never tried one before we made one and we’re starting to see a few around the country. Bearded Iris from Tennessee is actually coming tomorrow and we’re going to make a beer with oyster shells, which we’re really excited about. This will be different than the Fruits of the Canal we made with Mikeller.

BKBR: You partnered with the ACLU on Courage My Love and we were wondering if you had more plans to partner with the ACLU or other charities in the future?

JS: It’s really important to us, particularly if you think about the things that we opened with and being a community space. We think it’s important to align ourselves with causes that are important to us and in many ways this project is just an expression of us as a collection of individuals. We’ve done quite a bit in the ways of giving, we’re doing donations to a lot of schools and we get hit up as a beer company like five times a day for someone’s cause. Sometimes it’s a tech startup that just wants beer, and we’ll sell them some beer but we get hit up for a lot of causes and we believe it’s our responsibility to help causes we believe in. If you’re a school in Brooklyn and you’re doing an auction for your fundraiser it’s pretty much a given that you’ll get some beer or a gift card.

We’re actually thinking about how we take corporate responsibility a little more seriously and how we fine-tune it. For us we want to be able to look in the mirror and feel like our parents raised us right and we believe too often companies are obsessed with profits and it is a necessity, I’ll butcher the quote but Thoreau said something like “corporations can’t have a conscience” --we’re trying to mess with that. On some level we do think corporations need to think about what they’re doing; granted, we’re a small family-run company. One day we might  be a giant business and pollute the world and not give a shit but for the time being we do think we have a responsibility to each other, our staff and the community around us. We did the Courage My Love beer and last summer we did a beer called Gender Neutral that was a beer where we donated proceeds to the Human Rights Campaign and the art was our iconic lager design but with a rainbow. We’re going to do that again and we’re thinking about who to partner with this year because that beer is important to us and it means a lot to us and the people who work here. Personally I think it’s ridiculous that we’re talking about gender identity in 2018 but it’s important. We got made fun of by Tucker Carlson which was a personal thrill for me. Which is fine, we can be made fun of for living in our little liberal bubble, but whatever, if it resonates with some people that’s great, but if it only resonates with us then so be it.

We did a thing last fall called Whole Hog for a Cause, which benefitted Esperanza New York which is doing some wonderful work with incarcerated youth and trying to help them. We roasted a pig in the backyard and it went so well we’re going to do it every quarter and find a different local organization to partner with.  We’re doing a lot of stuff like that with organizations both national and local. We want to do it in a way that amplifies the message but also doesn’t cause us to go out of business in the process. It’s not lost on us that we’re a for-profit company so the better we get at this, the more we can do.

BKBR: Why did you shorten Superfuckingyawn to SFY?

Photo by Alex Bohn.

Photo by Alex Bohn.

JS: The regulatory bodies don’t really like swear words on products.