In March of last year, Red Bear Brewing opened its doors to a lot of fanfare and some overwhelming crowds. The line stretched back from the entrance 200 to 300 feet and people were waiting in line because the brewery was already at capacity. The staff looked stressed and, according to Simon Bee, co-founder and Director of Brewery Operations, Red Bear did get close to running out of beer between the soft and grand opening weekends.
As Bryan Van Den Oever, co-founder and Director of Marketing and Development, related, “the entire month of March was crazy between soft opening weekend, grand opening weekend, and then St. Patricks weekend.” Thankfully, Simon and Bryan, along with their third partner Cameron Raspet, were able to weather that initial craziness and are still going strong one year later.
Walking into Red Bear nowadays, everything looks to be a well-oiled machine. Thanks to Bryan’s leadership, Red Bear has a slew of regular and well-attended events going on all the time. Simon and his brewing team are consistently turning out some of the best beer in the District, and Cameron is keeping all the wheels turning on the finance and operations side — a function that is so important but rarely seen. On a recent visit to the brewery, I had the chance to hang out with Simon and Bryan and talk about the highs and lows of their first year, lessons learned, and where they see the brewery heading the future.
First, Red Bear’s Beer…
When Red Bear opened, all the initial beer recipes came from Simon’s experience as a homebrewer — and a lot of what they were initially making was based on their knowledge of tastes and preferences in beer nerd circles. A big lesson of the first year was getting to know the customers and regular beer drinkers who were coming into the brewery and figuring out what sorts of tastes they had and what would sell well to the clientele at Red Bear.
“While we want to do stuff across the board, by and large, we’re focused on what is selling well in the taproom.” That becomes clear when you notice how closely the team tracks week to week sales of each beer and adjusts their brewing schedule accordingly or, as Bryan points out, when they hear feedback on social media about whether a customer’s favorite beer is coming back. Dirt, the classic porter, has a small but very devoted following. Additionally, the team is sensitive to the need for changes in the makeup of beer offerings as the seasons change.
Over their first year of operation Red Bear’s beer has been continuously improving, and Simon is especially happy whenever a new beer comes out and the team nails it on that first attempt. (As a note to readers, please have the From Asgard with Love and Tall, Dark, and Nutty while they’re still available.) While most brewers have a “hate and more hate” relationship with Untappd, Simon begrudgingly gets a bit of a smile whenever on their beers do especially well on the app. A big reason for the high quality of Red Bear’s current beer offerings is the unique collaborative process that the brewing team and general staff take to develop new recipes.
Along with Simon, Lead and Assistant brewers Eric and Alejandro comprise the production team. Besides the first eight beers, everything that Red Bear has made over the past year has been developed together by Simon and Eric (formerly of Night Shift Brewing). Usually, the two of them will first talk about a concept and try to develop a middle point. Then Eric will develop a base recipe and create a blind taste panel of existing style examples for Simon and the other staff, which helps to dial in exactly where Red Bear wants to land in the style.
Simon, Cameron, and Bryan get together with the managers and then the staff to discuss the beer and take input about what the final product should be like. There is plenty of room for disagreement and Simon is happy to incorporate feedback — as long as it has a clear argument behind it. “A lot of times, [Eric or other staff] will say this is why we should do X,” he says, “and I’m like ‘oh wow I didn’t even think of that.’” The process helps the brewery consistently make beer that appeals to consumers and that is balanced and technically well-executed.
Once the beer is brewed, there are many more steps that have to take place before it touches a customer’s lips. For example, one of the bartenders, Sergio, draws the graphically numbered menu board for each beer. Much of the first year for the brewery has been about getting that single step in the process figured out and streamlined.
…then, Red Bear’s Events
If there is one thing that Red Bear is known for, it is throwing some of the best brewery events in DC. These include a regular Drag Bingo, trivia night, and concerts, as well as, a lot of programming around the holidays.
Many of the events Bryan has done this year have been trial and error because he didn’t know how things would shake out. Holidays, for example, are unusual in DC since many people leave, while many other cities tend to see people coming in for the holidays.
The major lesson for Bryan has been how to situate and schedule events better to lower the stress level. Bryan’s advice to himself from one year ago is “relax, follow your heart, follow the core of what the event is. Things are always going to happen, just don’t stress about it.”
There has been a learning curve around the lead time required for events, too. For example, Red Bear is already figuring out their plan for Pride Week happening in June. Of course, that doesn’t always work out. The brewery only heard back from the organizers of the Mid-Atlantic Leather conference a week beforehand…but they were still able to make the event work.
When Bryan considers an event, he always asks himself, “Is this something I would want to do out in the world?” and “Is this an event we can put on during consistent times throughout the month.”
“When I setup drag bingo,” he says, “we knew it had to be [a set day] in the month. So it’s always the second and fourth Tuesday of the month. That consistency is how you build up an event so people know they can go on that Tuesday and it will always happen.” Customers want predictability and Red Bear is focused on providing that.
Becoming better business people: Learning to trust each other
Bryan explains that when “you’re in an industry like [craft beer] you’re asked often to give things up.” Sometimes, he notes, he gets daily requests for donations that seem like asking for the shirt off his back. The team has become more careful about getting contracts in place to ensure details are ironed out and that Red Bear’s participation in an event fits with the brewery’s brand and is a good return on the investment. As Simon has found, this is also the case for the beer festivals that Red Bear decides to attend. “Participating in festivals basically means you’re paying one of your employees to be there, which can take away from their hours at the brewery, or you go yourself, which can mean working seven days a week. It can be hard to juggle.”
Time management, especially around the hectic DC Beer Week, has also been an important lesson. This year the team is planning to cut back on the number of festivals and outside events they attend and make sure that the ones they do participate in have marketing value and don’t put too much stress on regular operations. The team has become much more thoughtful about the business case for everything they’re doing with Red Bear.
Another challenge that Bryan has had to face over the past year is being a manager, developing a work culture at the brewery, and, occasionally, having to fire people. “It’s something that I underestimated. The challenge of managing people who have their own issues and struggles…figuring out that piece of the puzzle and making sure our family is working well. Because we are a family. We see each other more than our spouses or other friends and family.”
Over the past year, Simon, Bryan, and Cameron; have settled into a comfortable process for working with one another and making business decisions. A big part of this has been learning how each partner operates, anticipating how they will think about different issues that might arise, and learning to trust their democratic process for decision making. Simon explains, “We’ve all gotten good at accepting that there’s three of us and we can be outvoted…It can be hard to let something go because this [brewery] is our baby, but later on, because you went through it democratically and the choice worked out, you build faith in the process.”
Unfortunately, this democratic process did lead to Raptor Jesus not being included on the can art for Red Bear, so I’m skeptical.
Community and Inclusivity
Two big pillars for Red Bear are to make sure that their brewery lives up to the values of community and inclusivity. This has been at the heart of the brewery’s efforts to build relationships with the DC gay community and create a welcoming space for the ASL community centered around the nearby Gallaudet University.
“People just like to feel included and that they can just be. Not feel worried that they’re at a brewery with their husband and whether they should touch each other or not.” Much to my surprise and disappointment, Bryan and Simon shared that they often hear from their LGBTQ clientele that they don’t feel comfortable at other breweries because the vibe is not welcoming to them.
Red Bear always tries to maintain an atmosphere of “come as you are.” While Bryan works to make sure none of the events Red Bear puts on get too crass or overly sexualized, the brewery doesn’t shy away from who they are. The entrance proudly features both a trans and pride flag, and Simon says that the events that cater more specifically to the LGBTQ community are precisely those that draw in a more diverse clientele of both straight and gay individuals. “Who doesn’t love bingo and who doesn’t love drag queens,” he says.
The brewery provides ASL training to all their staff, including training before every shift, and also runs a class that is open to all bar industry members in DC for a nominal fee to cover costs. Red Bear has regular events geared to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, including a queer night that takes over the whole space, which forces the staff into a language immersion setting. Bryan says that over the next year, Red Bear will try to work more closely with the community outreach department at Gallaudet to put on events at the brewery.
Anniversary Party and the Future
The one-year anniversary party for Red Bear will take place on March 7th. The team doesn’t expect the same massive rush of people as last year and, instead, hopes for just a consistently busy day. The ice sculpture from last year will make a return. There will be a surprise give away for the first 100 people who come to the event, starting at 11 AM and running until…whenever.
Solo musician artist, Silence Echoes will be performing from 2 pm until 5 pm, followed by resident drag queen Desiree Dick around 8 or 9 PM. There will be a DJ for the rest of the night. “It will be a big ass party!” The (still unnamed) beer release for the anniversary will be a west coast IPA that honors the Seattle roots of Bryan, Cameron, and Simon.
Going forward, there are a number of things to be excited about. Red Bear will soon be doing their first run of cans, with a packaged release of the Mystic Storm IPA and Tall/Dark/Nutty pastry stout. The kitchen at Red Bear, which has slowly evolved from a pop-up space for outside food vendors to an integrated part of the brewery, will feature an in house chef and a menu that pairs with the beer at the brewery.
Also, in big nerd news, Red Bear will be producing the official beer for Awesome Con this year. Bryan and Simon want to make sure that in their second year a larger portion of the DMV community knows about the brewery, comes to visit, and that Red Bear does a better job of letting folks know about them.
In the long term, Bryan hopes that Red Bear will grow organically in their existing space as the neighborhood of NoMa continues to grow. Within the next five years, the NoMa Business Improvement District estimates that an additional 14,000 units will come online. That will certainly provide Red Bear with a lot more potential customers, but there is a bottleneck because the brewhouse cannot grow beyond its current physical footprint.
When (Simon and Bryan are very careful to say when and not if) it becomes necessary and possible, the team will most likely open a second location to increase their production capacity. In the ideal world, Simon would want to do more packaging, and Bryan has a grand vision for a bigger stage and the ability to put on more extravagant events.
Red Bear numbers two, three, etc., aren’t out of the questions, but Bryan says, “We have to make sure that this runs well. That people still like coming here and the beer is on point.” Or as Simon jokes, “as long everyone comes and likes our [hard] seltzer, we’ll be fine.”
Congratulations to the Red Bear family on getting through their first year. We at DC Beer wish them the best for the future. If you haven’t had a chance to visit yet, come by for the anniversary party on March 7th or any other time. It’s worth the trip.