By Julia Burke, Beer Editor
Three Heads Brewing Company, the brainchild of Rochester natives Geoff Dale, Dan Nothnagle and Todd Dirrigl, launched in January and has since expanded from Buffalo to Albany with four killer brews and a bold passion for delivering the very best to New York drinkers.
I met the men of Three Heads at J.B. Quimby’s in Rochester and was immediately greeted with a pitcher of Blimey, their English-style pale ale.
Obviously a departure from the mini-IPA all-hops style that characterizes so many pales, this dark, toasty bitter has a surprisingly malty, smooth backbone. “It’s my drinker!” says Geoff (pictured right) proudly. The three founders’ enthusiasm for their beers is obvious as they tell their story.
“Our story starts with us being driven beer enthusiasts,” says Dan. “Wherever the great beers are being made, we wanted to try them.” This passion for beer drove the friends to begin making the kinds of beers they wanted to drink. “We started saying we should do this in Rochester, because Rochester doesn’t really have somebody pumping out these high-level, bold, in-your-face beers.”
They began homebrewing and experimenting with challenging styles. At first, “it was a matter of licking our wounds for a few batches,” Dan chuckles, but soon they developed recipes for the kinds of beers they’d like to drink. Armed with great recipes but in need of a large-scale brewing facility, the Three Heads team approached Custom Brewcrafters, whose contract brewing system was a perfect fit for the brewers’ goals. “We worked with Bruce Lish, their head brewer, to take the beers that we had and put them up on a production scale,” explains Geoff. Thus launched the Three Heads flagship line: Blimey, Java Sutra (a coffee-accented porter), The Kind IPA and The Skunk Black IPA.
Translating those homebrew recipes to a commercial production scale was no easy task. Todd points out that there’s little room for error: “It’s one and done. There’s no test batch – that’s your beer.” Geoff adds, “It took months to take what we were doing in our kitchen to that next level. What you’re drinking right now is the first shot out of the gate; there was no time to trial-and-error on their system. If you were starting off a brewery you might work a recipe up, where we had to come out and deliver right away.”
Nevertheless, the guys couldn’t be happier with the partnership. “The great thing about CB is they were made for us to come in and do what we’re doing,” says Dan. Taking their homebrew recipes to CB for mass production, Todd adds, was “truthfully a scary process – you don’t know how happy we were when we went to the fermenter and tasted The Skunk. And the common reaction was, what we’re drinking in the bottle is what we drank in our kitchen.”
So far, Three Heads is off to a phenomenal start, which is as much a testament to the success of their locally-focused mindset as it is to their beer. “Our whole philosophy is building relationships,” explains Dan. “If we come into a bar we want to bring this new great beer to them. Beers of the World (a top retailer in Rochester) has sold about 100 cases of our beer in something like three weeks.”
“We don’t just want to sell you beer, we want to meet you!” Todd exclaims. “We want to sit down and have a pint with you.” Geoff adds that their one-on-one relationship with retailers isn’t likely to change. “Our philosophy is to self-distribute in Rochester. We didn’t want someone else representing our beer in our hometown. We want to have face time with all our clients.”
The local focus extends to the products themselves, too – the Java Sutra is made with locally roasted coffee beans and their offbeat artwork is done by a Rochester-based artist. Geoff says they will continue their self-distribution model no matter how big the brand gets. “This is our hometown,” he says. “You gotta take care of your own.” Dan adds, “We want to be a great New York State brewery, but we also want to make sure people in Rochester think of us as their local brewery.”
Asked how he would describe the Three Heads “style,” Dan lists his influences as Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, Green Flash West Coast IPA, and other west-coast beers, but doesn’t limit himself to a certain niche. “On the west coast they’re throwing a lot of traditional styles out the window,” he says. “You find a lot of people on the east coast making traditional crowd pleasers. But we’re finding there’s a bigger market now for people who want the bolder beers. We’re trying to do different things instead of pigeonholing ourselves into a ‘west coast’ style.”
He points to Blimey, a pale very much in the British bitter style, as an example. The coffee porter, Java Sutra, impresses with its restraint as well: rather than being “a cup of cold coffee in a glass,” as Dan puts it, “the coffee is an accent to a good beer underneath.” Geoff explains that the team isn’t overly concerned with fulfilling rigid style guidelines. “We don’t want to color between the lines,” he says. “We want to make a great beer, not necessarily pigeonhole it into a style. We’re making beer for the drinkers.”
Dan sums it up: “It’s all about making great beer. If you make great beer, people will come.”
Outside the lines but firmly within the realm of drinkability, Three Heads brews are big on flavor but not over-reaching for the “extreme beer” label. Alcohol levels are well in check, and by design. Dan points out, “I’d rather have a couple pints and feel good about it than have one and sit with it for an hour.” A restrained beer is often a more enjoyable drinking experience, Geoff notes: “Why do we need to beat people over the head with flavors? You should be able to enjoy your food with your beer.” Most importantly, the team wants four unique beers rather than four versions of a single flavor. Dan explains, “We want all our beers to have unique character to them, that they all can stand alone and be divergent from one to the next – it’s not a ‘house’ taste.” It’s a philosophy that is evident in their distinct and innovative beers, the most exciting of which is The Skunk, a seamless and sexy black IPA.
“A skunk, to me, is black and aromatic, and that’s what this is – it’s probably our most aggressive beer as far as hopping,” says Dan. A hop cocktail that includes aggressive Columbus and Simcoe hops but boasts an equally elegant malt backbone, it’s a class act that’s pleasing for certified hop-heads and newbie craft drinkers alike.
Asked if he has a favorite, Todd doesn’t hesitate. “We’re passionate about every one – we’ve been brewing them for the last four years,” he says. Dan explains, “What we have is an arsenal of beers we had been working on as homebrew recipes, and we had to pick our four horses to go to market with.” Between those four brews, Three Heads feels they’ve hit all the bases for a variety of moods and tastes. “Bars have told us that our beers last hours, not days,” Geoff says proudly. “That’s a testament. People are looking for these and we’re delivering.”
In keeping with their appreciation for local drinkers, the Three Heads team isn’t just interested in conventionally promoting their beer – they want their fans to have a really, really good time. “One of the things we’re about is making the things we do into a party,” says Dan. “For our launch event we threw a raucous, two-bands, all-night-long fiesta.”
Geoff says “We don’t do beer tastings, we do beer drinkings. It’s one thing to make great beer, but the point of beer is to be a social lubricant.” (“We’re the KY of beer!” Todd exclaims.)
The team is planning an all-out spring bash in Ithaca, and has several Rochester events planned in the upcoming months. Folks in the Rochester area can try their beer at the Loco for Local event this Thursday beginning at 7:30 p.m. at the Old Toad pub.
Ultimately, the Three Heads team wants to revolutionize western New York beer. “People laughed at us, said what we wanted to do wouldn’t work here,” says Geoff.
“But we’re blowing the doors off, and I think some people underestimated the beer community here. That’s almost insulting – we have a long-standing beer tradition in upstate New York. We didn’t undersell or doubt the beer community. We believed they’d respond, and so far we’ve been right.”