On December 1, we learned that Red Bear Brewing will be the latest craft brewery to join the DC market. Brought to you by the team of Bryan Van Den Oever (front of house and marketing/public relations), Simon Bee (brewmaster), and Cameron Raspet (operations), the three Seattle natives are hoping to bring a taste of the Pacific Northwest to the other Washington. Red Bear Brewing will be opening up as a brewpub first in the renovated Uline Arena next to the NoMa metro. While the team is busy gearing up for their fall 2018 opening, Bryan and Simon were kind enough to take some time out of their schedules for an interview with the DCBeer staff. Below is an edited transcript from that meeting, lightly edited for clarity and length:
How did your team meet and decide to make the crazy decision to open up a brewery? Was it via external signaling of being 30-something males with beards?
Bryan: We actually started out as buddies in Seattle who homebrewed together. One year, driving back from a Scottish Rites Game, Bryan (who had already worked at Elysian) turned to Simon, and they just started chatting about their careers and future. The decision to open up Red Bear came organically out of that conversation.
Simon: I started from nothing and was able to achieve some success. I’m willing to risk [that success] now for this dream.
Bryan: [We’re] literally willing to risk it all.
The current craft beer scene is very competitive, and no one on your team has had prior professional brewing experience. How are you planning on making up for that deficit and ensure consistency and quality?
Simon is currently apprenticing as an assistant brewer in the run-up to the opening of Red Bear. Additionally, they are consulting with several professional brewers for advice and will be hiring on two assistant brewers to work alongside Simon. That apprenticeship, plus the hiring of experienced staff, will help to ensure quality control.
How did you choose your current location in the Uline Arena? The first thing that jumped out to our staff is how expensive that type of space might be. There are typically zoning restrictions at play for production breweries. Was that a factor?
When we were looking for a space, our focus was on finding a location that would work for a brewpub. We needed a certain amount of maximum/minimum square footage, sufficient ceiling height, good location, and layout of the space. It took us over a year of searching to find the current location, aided by the great staff at Streetsense. When we saw the space at the Uline, it fit all our criteria. The location is historic in nature and close to public transit and a large pool of our target clientele. Yes, the space is expensive. We all put in a ton of personal investment, plus some debt financing from the bank, is what has allowed this lease to happen. Since Red Bear’s first location is opening as a brewpub, there weren’t the typical zoning issues, and we aren’t looking to distribute right away anyway.
So what is the setup?
Red Bear will open up as a 7,000 square foot brewpub, and the brewery and taproom are currently in the design phase. We are going to have a 10 barrel (BBL) brewhouse, with two 20 BBL fermenters and four 10 BBL fermenters. Right now, the 99 percent sure plan is to go with a custom system from ABS Commercial. With “focus” on Pacific NW beer, we’ll also be adding a hopback early on. They provided a great value when we sent out our RFP to different brewhouse manufacturers. CBC (the annual Craft Brewers Conference) provided a great resource for the team in terms of being able to check out a bunch of different vendors at once and what systems would work for us.
What can customers look forward to in your current portfolio of beers? How do you achieve a true Pacific NW beer without access to fresh hops?
The Pacific NW branding is key to our identity as a brewery, but less than 50 percent of beers will actually feature those styles. The portfolio isn’t currently locked down, and a big part of why we decided to open as a brewpub is to ensure that Red Bear has the flexibility to meet consumer demand. For example, we do intend to brew some New England IPAs because that is what customers currently want. As time passes and our brewery develops a set of regular customers, our hope is to receive feedback from those fans and genuinely strive to adjust our offerings. There isn’t a particular niche in the DC market beer wise that Red Bear is currently striving to fill.
Is there anything beyond the beer that will govern how Red Bear operates or any values you hope to showcase?
A big part of what we’re focused on is employees and fair work conditions. Our plan is to start off all employees, including bar staff, at a minimum of $15/hour. Additionally, we will pay for Cicerone(R) training for all of our front of the house staff. If we pay employees well and ensure that they really know about beer, it’ll greatly improve the experience for customers. As the business progresses, there may be additional employee ownership incentives that Red Bear puts in place. Beyond the employee front, Red Bear is excited to be bringing some added diversity to the craft beer community. While we absolutely put the beer first, Red Bear is proud to be the first 100 percent gay-owned brewery in the District of Columbia. In fact, if you notice our appearance, “Red Bear” is also a cheeky reference to the fact that Simon and I are red headed bears and Cameron is a red bearded one.
Final question, name a beer that really inspires you and really governs what you look for in beer?
Simon: It would have to be Saison Dupont, because it is a perfect matchup of art and science.
Bryan: I have to call back to my roots at Elysian and say Space Dust. It’s the perfect IPA for me.
Okay, real final question. You’re next to the REI flagship, any plans to work with the store in some way?
There is a mutual excitement on our part and REI that we’ll be neighbors. We’re going to be having a meeting on January 3 to discuss some possible collaboration ideas. Stayed tuned for some news down the road.
Best wishes and good luck to the Red Bear team! We’ll keep you posted with updates!
Greg Parnas, is a contributing writer to DC Beer and local alcoholic beverage attorney. If you'd like to discuss more about this issue, or other concerns with beer and the law, please feel free to reach him at Greg@dcbeer.com.