Inside the Brewery That Makes New York’s Best Beer

Brooklyn's Threes Brewing mixes expert craftsmanship with puckish social activism. PLUS: a baker's dozen of the borough's finest brewers

In the beer garden at Threes Brewing on Douglass Street (Photo by Matt Furman/Courtesy of Threes Brewing)

When Josh Stylman and his partners Justin Israelson and Greg Doroski opened Threes Brewing 2½ years ago, Stylman said he wanted it to lack pretention. He felt the trio’s brewery and bar should be welcoming to more than just the cliché beer-buff types, or what he describes as burly white males with large beards.

“We sell Budweiser in our bar unironically,” he explained, sitting in the Gowanus brewery on an evening in July.

While Budweiser might be on the menu, that’s not the part of the brewery that has got the attention. Last month, Threes won the Governor’s Excelsior Cup for the best beer in the state at the New York State Craft Beer Competition, among 707 entries from 143 brewers. The award went to the brewery’s Vliet pilsner in the light lager category; the brewery picked up another top prize for its Wandering Bine beer, the gold medalist in the Belgian-farmhouse category.

Earlier this summer, Threes made news in a different way, brewing up a new batch to celebrate NYC Pride Week. They named it Gender Neutral: a pale lager with lemon zest, packaged with a rainbow design and a portion of proceeds going to the Human Rights Campaign. It wasn’t the brewery’s first crack at social activism. Back in January, at the time of President Trump’s inauguration, Threes produced a lager called Courage My Love, with a donation going to the American Civil Liberties Union. “Being a business in your own community, we think it’s incumbent upon us to be a voice for things that are important to us,” Stylman said.

The trio behind Threes Brewing, from left, Greg Doroski, Josh Stylman and Justin Israelson (Photo by Matt Furman)

With its award-winning brews, marketing wit and congenial beer hall, Threes Brewing is suddenly on the map. During the brewery’s first year in business, people saw it as a “bar that makes its own beer,” Stylman said. But he thinks that perception is shifting. “Hopefully the perspective has changed to, ‘Oh, there’s this brewery that has a bar,’” he said. In fact, now more than one bar, since the brewery added a Greenpoint outpost called Threes @ Franklin + Kent.

At the flagship location, the brewery and the bar are run out of the same space. Large metal brewing kettles are nestled behind glass windows by the bar counter. Grains are stored in a bright blue container outside. “We’re sort of like a cruise ship,” Stylman said. “Every square inch of this space is accounted for.”

On warm days, many customers sit out in back among picnic tables in a gravel courtyard. Greenery grows along the walls and sails hang diagonally above the guests. Before Threes took the helm, the building served as a warehouse and furniture factory; the backyard was an asphalt parking lot.

For Stylman, opening a brewery was a change from his previous ventures as a tech-company founder and investor in early-stage internet startups. After two decades in technology, he wanted something new, and his mother reminded him he’d always wanted to open a microbrewery, something that had slipped his mind. “I really wanted to do something in the physical world, a manufacturing company specifically,” he said, noting he also wanted to run a business in his home community. “Beer seemed like the intersection of those two things.”

Vliet pilsner, in the blue can, was named the best beer in the state this year (Photo by Alex Bohn/Courtesy of Threes Brewing)

Stylman teamed up with Israelson, an engineer by training who had launched Sycamore Bar + Flowershop in Ditmas Park, and later with Doroski, a brewmaster with experience at Greenport Harbor Brewery on the North Fork. They considered themselves lucky to find a site big enough for their business, an 8,000 sq. ft. building zoned for manufacturing and situated near busy residential neighborhoods. Not to mention the street address: 333 Douglass St.

Threes got some help getting started with a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $21,000 to transform its backyard into a beer garden. While Stylman said they weren’t allowed to give out beer as a reward, one of the things they doled out to donors were beer glasses. “We may or may not have filled that glass when they showed up with it,” Stylman said.

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The trio was entering an industry that was exploding in growth. The number of breweries in the U.S. tripled in the last decade, to 5,301 at the end of last year. (At one point in the early 1980s, industry consolidation had left fewer than 100 breweries in the country.) More than 5,200 of today’s breweries make craft beer, meaning a brew made in a traditional way in a small facility. “There’s this sensational appetite for local beer pretty much everywhere,” Stylman said. “The beer industry feels like the wine industry did in the U.S. 20 years ago.” While Brooklyn has been part of the boom, with more than a dozen craft breweries (see sampler below), the size of the borough means there’s probably still room for more.

Inside the main bar at Threes on Douglass Street (Photo by Melissa Hom/Courtesy of Threes Brewing)

Part of Threes’ success is in creating not just a beer hall, but a community hub. The Douglass Street building also houses an upstairs coffee shop (an outpost of Ninth Street Espresso) and a restaurant (a branch of The Meat Hook, the Williamsburg butcher shop). For the first year or so, the food counter featured a rotating residency of different restaurants, but now The Meat Hook is staying put. “It’s really hard to open a new restaurant every two weeks,” Stylman said. Several times a week, musicians perform upstairs and around the corner from the bar in a small venue called Tiny Montgomery. The name comes from a Bob Dylan song, but “no one gets that,” Stylman explains.

The beer hall has proven to be a popular rental space, even for wedding events, about 20 of which have taken place at the brewery since it opened. “We are very clear with them that you understand you’re getting married at a brewery,” Stylman said. “We will not go fancy.”

Entrance to the brewery, which once was a warehouse and furniture factory (Photo by Matt Furman/Courtesy of Threes Brewing)

The lack of snobbery at Threes extends to its beverage offerings, which include wine and cocktails as well as its trademark brews. The grand-prize-winning Vliet pilsner is far lighter than the India Pale Ales that most craft-beer aficionados prefer. (With 88 entries, American-style IPA was the dominant category at the New York State contest.) Yet it would never be confused with Coors Light or any sparsely flavored, mass-market beer. Threes brews plenty of IPAs as well, almost always with sardonic names that would never be mistaken for mainstream products either: Unreliable Narrator, Bad Wallpaper, I Hate Myself, Constant Disappointment and No Panacea.

Stylman, who lives a four-minute bike ride away from the brewery, recognizes that his company is part of the gentrification and upscaling of Brooklyn. “We know in many ways we are absolutely a part of that and that’s not lost on us,” Stylman said, “but we also want to make sure that we are retaining a lot of what made Brooklyn interesting in the first place.” How Threes contributes to that is by doing manufacturing in a neighborhood that was meant for it. “The city specifically and the country broadly said we want manufacturing jobs. Well, companies like ours can do that,” Stylman said.

The goal of Threes is to expand, which has prompted the partners to consider adding a production space on the North Fork, where Doroski lives. But the brand’s home remains firmly established in Brooklyn. “We wouldn’t do this anywhere else,” Stylman said. “I think that was part of the concept.”

A baker’s dozen of Brooklyn’s other fine craft breweries:

1. Brooklyn Brewery

The godfather of Brooklyn craft brewing, founded in 1988 with their signature Brooklyn Lager, the brewery now offers an extensive list of beers that are sold all over the world. The brewery hasn’t lost its touch, picking up gold and silver medals in the recent New York state competition. The brewery moved into its current location in 1996, at 79 N. 11th St.

2. Sixpoint Brewery

Sixpoint Brewery, situated in Red Hook at 40 Van Dyke St., has been around since 2004 and has been putting beer in their trademark skinny cans since 2010. But they’ve just recently made some exciting advancements, releasing all of their ales raw and unfiltered. They don’t currently have a tap room but are in the process of building one that’s set to open in 2018.

3. Strong Rope Brewery

Strong Rope opened in Gowanus in 2016, but already picked up two medals at the state competition, a silver for its Devil’s Bathtub red ale and a bronze for its Storyteller imperial stout. The brewery works with New York farms in an effort to support local agriculture and offers seasonal brews in addition to a handful of year-round flavors. The brewery and tap room is at 574A President St.

4. Circa Brewing

This newly opened giant is a 6,000 sq. ft. brewery and wood-fired pizza restaurant situated in Downtown Brooklyn. The design scheme is classic Brooklyn Industrial, composed of concrete, steel, glass and wood. The brewery is at 141 Lawrence St., tucked amid the borough’s new high-rise residential towers

5. Other Half Brewing

While Circa’s space is super sleek, Other Half draws some of its charm from its humble spot at the south end of Court Street in Carroll Gardens, across the street from a McDonald’s and a stone’s throw from a metal scrapyard. Inside, however, is a sophisticated operation known for its pungent, powerful Triple Pale Ale variations and a major draw for its special-edition brews. Their brewery and taproom are at 195 Centre St.

6. Five Boroughs Brewing

Five Boroughs, which draws its name from the geographic diversity of its team, won a bronze medal for its Mosaic Pale Ale at the state competition and just opened its new tap room, open Thursday through Sunday. Five Boroughs is at 215 47th St. in Sunset Park.

7. Folksbier Brauerei

Brewing since 2014, Folksbier opened its taproom in January, which you’ll find in a small industrial building tucked into a residential block at 101 Luquer St. in Carroll Gardens. Founder Travis Kauffman specializes in traditional lagers, drawing their flavor from hops grown on a family farm in Michigan.

8. Kings County Brewers Collective

Situated in Bushwick, Kings County Brewers Collective offers a variety of beers ranging in flavor from smoky to fruity. Visitors to the taproom can complement their quaffs with popcorn and board games. Kings County, at 381 Troutman St., is the first brewery to function in Bushwick since 1976, reviving brewing in a neighborhood that once had 14 breweries in a 14-block stretch.

9. Coney Island Brewing

Befitting its location at 1904 Surf Ave., Coney Island Brewing is not just about the beer, but also fun and games. The brewery schedules lots of events like Mermaid Bucket Night and Puppies n’ Pints. The taps carry eight house brews, regularly rotated, with amusing names like Cotton Candy Kölsch.

10. Grimm Artisanal Ales

Grimm Artisanal Ales, founded in 2013, has been a nomadic brewery since then. Founders Joe and Lauren Grimm come up with recipes in their Gowanus apartment and then travel to nearby breweries to make their well-regarded ales. Next month, however, the founders plan to open their own brewery and taproom at 990 Metropolitan Ave. in East Williamsburg.

11. Keg & Lantern Brewing

Keg & Lantern’s beers are all brewed in-house at 97 Nassau Ave., Greenpoint, where the tap room is known for its good pub food and cozy atmosphere. They also offer growler cans to go (32 oz. cans of draft beer, filled on the spot), appropriately referred to as “crowlers.”

12. Greenpoint Beer & Ale

Greenpoint Beer & Ale aims to preserve the traditions of European brewing while still incorporating creativity, which includes the ingenious designs on its beer cans. The brewery operates on a five-barrel brewing system, which allows for experimentation and the exploration of new flavors. The brewery and tap room, which offers a full menu, is at 7 N. 15th St.

13. Braven Brewing

Bushwick’s Braven Brewing (motto: “Bold like a buck & Crafty like a raven”), offers a combination of year-round beers and a few that have a limited release. In June, Forbes named the “best craft beers to try this summer,” a list that included Braven’s Las Tumbas, a spiced stout flavored with orange and peppers. Braven doesn’t currently have a taproom but retail locations can be found on its website.

Allison Prang is a journalist working in New York City and living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, American Banker, The Kansas City Star and The Indianapolis Star, among others.