Over the past two years, Montgomery County’s craft beer scene has made some significant progress. This is due in no small part to regulatory changes that have made for a much more welcoming environment for start-up breweries. One of those breweries, True Respite Brewing Company, recently signed a letter of intent for a property in Rockville. True Respite is the brainchild of husband and wife team Brendan and Bailey O’Leary, both engineers who fell in love with brewing. Their as-yet-unnamed brewer “has 15 years of experience as a production brewer and is the proud owner of a brewing degree from the Siebel Institute. He has won several Great American Beer Festival (GABF) awards and has overseen a microbrewery startup from construction to production,” according to a business summary.
I recently had the chance to email with the O’Learys to find out more about True Respite as a brand and a business. True Respite is slated to open in the spring of 2017.
Tell us about True Respite. What's the elevator speech? What separates True Respite from the other breweries already in the area?
True Respite is a destination microbrewery and tap room opening in Rockville, Maryland, in Spring of 2017. You’ll feel the difference in what we offer every time you stop by the tap room or pick up a six pack. We’re building so much more than a product; we’re building an experience. This is because we understand that making top tier beer is no longer a competitive advantage; it’s a fundamental requirement. For that reason, our brewery digs deeper into why we seek out great craft beer. It isn’t just for the product in our glass. We crave it for the culture that surrounds it. At True Respite, we’re focusing heavily on the craft beer drinking experience so that every swig from a can and every trip to the tap room help satiate that desire for something better.
What is the derivation of "True Respite"?
True Respite is the culmination of a year and a half long battle to concentrate all that we stand for into one simple name. We started out trying a little too hard to force some more common (read: uninspired) concepts into our brand, thinking that what has been accepted will be accepted. We’d toiled with several names (including one that earned us a very credible legal threat) until we finally decided to cut the cliches and dig straight to the core of why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Ultimately, we just want to bring enjoyment, relaxation, and happiness into our customers’ lives. From there, it was simple: True Respite stands for completeness and authenticity in our mission to offer relief from the rigors of daily life. Fortunately for us, “respite” was nowhere to be seen in the federal trademark database for any product with any relation to beer, and the kind people at TRVE Brewing Company were fine with our use of the word “True” (as long as we don’t use the “V!”) That’s a very good thing in these days of rampant trademark litigation
Why do you want to get into owning a brewery? How did you get into beer? Will you be brewing yourselves or will you be hiring externally?
We love beer. We love the culture, the history, and (especially as engineers) the brewing process. We’ve been watching this incredible craft beer revolution grow and evolve around us, and now we’re ready to dedicate our lives to help grow the burgeoning craft beer industry here in Montgomery County. It’s still young, so we can be leaders in helping this new market develop. We want to see it make a name for itself both locally and in the national scene. Montgomery County deserves the same high level of quality in their beer and brewing culture that most of the rest of the country has already been able to enjoy. That’s why we’re going to brew exquisite, high quality craft beer for our customers in one of the best places to enjoy it in metro DC.
Brendan got into beer when he started homebrewing outside of work hours in Richmond, VA, in 2008. Bailey picked up the hobby in 2011 and fell just as deeply in love with the process and the culture surrounding it. Since then, we’ve traveled throughout Europe and have seen how deeply beer is entwined in their culture. We were fascinated at the pride and knowledge locals have on
everything from the annual Bavarian Oktoberfest to the Trappist breweries of Belgium. The history, the culture, and the beer are all amazing. We want to bring that all here.
We also lived in Denver for three and a half years. For those unaware, there is a neighborhood brewery on just about every corner throughout the whole metro area. It doesn’t matter if it’s a weekday, weekend, or holiday; they’re all always slammed busy. The brewery culture in Colorado is incredible. A huge chunk of the population spends their time off work gathering at breweries, eating from the food trucks, and communing over a quality brew. We watched, learned, and took careful notes. Once again, we were inspired and recognized the opportunity to help build a new and unique brewing culture back east.
As for our Brewmaster, we’ve decided to leave the professional brewing to the professional with whom we’ve partnered. At this time, he wishes for his name to remain anonymous out of respect for his current employer. However, once our commercial scale brewing operations begin, we will release his name. In the meantime, we will continue regularly brewing together on a 10 gallon homebrew system as we perfect our recipes.
If anyone would like to try our beers, feel free to reach out to us. We usually have extra and love to share our homebrew!
What do you expect your portfolio to look like? If you're hiring externally, will you be telling the brewer what you expect to be brewed, or will she/he have some creative control?
Our portfolio will be diverse and drinkable. We want our beers to be approachable no matter the palate of the beer drinker. For that reason, we’ll always offer at least one hop forward, one malt forward, one yeast forward, and one high gravity style. To meet this goal, we’ve selected and developed recipes for four overarching styles that will be our staples in the tap room: a floral, citrusy American IPA; a stout; a Belgian white ale; and a Belgian golden strong ale.
We will also have three seasonal beers brewed specifically for each season. Although we’ve already planned what styles we’ll offer, we’re going to leave our seasonal list as a nice surprise for when we open.
Lastly, we’ll offer a revolving list of limited releases and small batch firkins. There will always be a large selection of beer styles available to appeal to any beer drinker's palate. After all, we’re going to have 15 different taps in the tap room. We plan to keep them as full of top quality and diverse beers as possible.
Our brewmaster is our partner, not a “hired” employee. As such, our beer list has been developed with large amounts of his input. He’s been brewing in the region for some years now and understands well the palates of beer drinkers in metro D.C. He’s also very talented, which gives us comfort in affording him a large amount of creative freedom. Fostering a beer list that caters to the tastes of our customers is crucial as trends come and go. That means we’ll always be developing new recipes and pushing the envelope to start new trends ourselves.
What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the area's beer scene now?
The biggest strength of the Montgomery County beer scene is the existence of the new brewing permits created in the county in July of 2014. MoCo gets a bad rap for having an overbearing DLC, but the truth is that since those new permits were made available, breweries have had the ability to brew and self-distribute up to 7,000 BBLs of beer per year in the county without any involvement from the DLC or a third party distributor. That’s a wide open door for a craft beer scene to explode in this relatively beer-barren county.
The clear weakness is closely related to its strength: it lacks local volume because the industry is so new. In the two years since these updated permits were made available, Montgomery County has had just two production scale breweries open. At True Respite, we’re going to increase the volume of local beer in the county. We’re going to grow the number of local tap handles dedicated to local beer, and we’re going to earn more room for local six packs on store shelves. Montgomery County’s beer scene is just now starting to get its legs, and we’re going to be a strong force in helping it define itself.
The beer coming from that side of the Red Line in MoCo has been, frankly, a bit weak at times. How do you plan to change that reputation among area beer geeks to get them excited about what you're planning to do up there?
We aren’t comparing ourselves with anybody else. At True Respite, we’ve partnered with a successful, experienced brewer, and word travels fast when your product speaks for itself.
What are some breweries that you admire that you'd like True Respite to eventually emulate?
We will never emulate anyone else. We are establishing our own identity.
That being said, we do think there are plenty of amazing breweries out there who have done some things incredibly well:
- Surly and Odell have two of the best tap room experiences in the country. (As a matter of fact, we’ve chosen to use Surly’s architects to design our tap room.)
- Funkwerks is our favorite Belgian style brewery.
- Creature Comforts has a killer website (and their Tropicalia IPA is to die for.)
- Full Sail and Sweetwater are industry leaders in environmental stewardship and community involvement.
- Port City is a shining beacon for what a DC area brewery can build in a very short time period with a quality product and good marketing.
- Denizens is a fantastic example of what a strong advocate for the industry can be.
While all of these breweries are leaders in one facet or another, we won’t be emulating any one of them. We’re inspired by the industry at large and will be building something very uniquely our own so that we can carve out our own niche in this growing and evolving industry.
You've got an Indiegogo, but fundraising seems to be going slowly so far. Best case scenario: when do you hope to open?
Despite what you may see on our old IndieGoGo campaign, our fundraising is likely complete. We’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars privately (in addition to our own personal investment) and are now waiting on word from our commercial loan officer regarding the results of our loan application in underwriting. As of Friday (8/26), he indicated that he believed we’ve raised enough cash to approve and disburse the bank loan. Now we are waiting to hear from underwriting to confirm loan approval.
From there, we hit the ground running on procurement and construction. We’ve already signed an LOI on a property in Rockville and our architects and engineers have already begun designing the layout. Our equipment is spec’d and the fabricator is just waiting on a purchase order.
We are planning eight months for construction (including two months allotted for unexpected delays.) Based on this calendar, we expect to open between mid-May and early June 2017.
That IndieGoGo campaign you found was a completely wild dart throw of an experiment and still was successful enough to allow us to buy our first round of t-shirts.
Montgomery County is an infamous place for alcohol. Between the DLC regulations, zoning, and permitting, there are a lot of challenges. Why open in MoCo at all?
We touched on this a bit earlier, but the DLC is making strides in how it views and treats local breweries. We’ve gotten stellar direction from the DLC in helping us network with the rest of the relevant Montgomery County entities.
In fact, Delegate Ariana Kelly went to the State Assembly looking to remove distance requirements for beer-to-go service in Bethesda. She came home with ALL distance requirements eliminated throughout Montgomery County. Granted, hers was not the only (nor the most ambitious) attempt to remove those old restrictions. But we had her support.
Councilman Hans Riemer, in just one meeting assembled specifically for True Respite, brought together representatives from the Montgomery County Council, the Department of Finance, the Department of Economic Development, the Department of Liquor Control, the Department of Permitting Services, and the State Comptroller’s Office. We haven’t even applied for a permit yet.
Since that meeting, we’ve had the Department of Permitting Services review our selected property for zoning and code issues and Mayor Newton of Rockville took us for a personal tour of industrial properties in the city proper.
We’ve had all kinds of support from county entities. They’ve been flexible, understanding, and active in helping us meet our needs. Of course, there is a long way to go in fixing or removing the monopoly they hold on liquor retail and distribution. But as a craft brewery, we have to say that we’ve been very appreciative of all that they’ve done for us. They truly are working hard to bring Montgomery County its fair share of local beer, and their hard work is paying off.
With the understanding that Montgomery County’s red tape isn’t so thick for local craft breweries anymore, it became clear to us that this is the best place in the country to be opening a brewery. It’s a great community with strong demographics that severely lacks local choice. Now we have the opportunity to start a Montgomery County business in an industry that has had consistent strong, sustained growth in local markets across the country.
Since the project seems to ambitious and needs a lot of startup money, how much do you plan to produce in the first couple of years in order to keep those investors happy?
The average start up costs for breweries with tap rooms at our production scale tends to be between $1,000,000 and $1,500,000 depending on the location. Our total project cost is $1,325,000. We feel that this is a very fair startup cost for a brewery, especially being in the DC metro area where the cost of living is much higher than the national average.
In terms of production volume, we forecast brewing 850+ barrels in our first year of operation, 2,500+ barrels in our second year, and 5,250+ barrels in year three. Our break even annual production volume is just over 1,100 barrels/year. We anticipate hitting this production rate in our eighth month of operation. We have established a solid investment and payout structure in our LLC Operating Agreement that all of our investors are happy with and have signed off on.
We anticipate this being a very successful venture both financially and culturally.
Do you plan to distribute over a wide area right away or to focus on the taproom first before branching out?
Our tap room will be the beating heart of our brand and culture. That is where we have the most influence over the entire customer experience. We believe that this is where loyalty is earned and reputations are built. However, in order to sustain our business financially, we will need to begin distribution operations as soon as possible. It may be a tricky balance pushing our distribution operation while keeping our cultural core in the tap room, but that’s a dance we’re excited to take part in. We think it’s the fundamental balancing act that every brewery needs to perfect.
Ultimately, we’d like to be a regionally distributing brewery. In order to sustain a brewery of that size, we believe the key is to become a strong and responsible member of the local community
first and always. After all, our local community will be our strongest supporters and it is extremely important to us that we do everything we can to show the same level of loyalty and commitment.