It’s Friday morning at Red Bear Brewing Co., and Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” is blaring from the speakers as employees prepare food in the kitchen, clean glasses and fill ice in the bar area, and move stock around from various deliveries. The brewery is busier than a beehive, with each employee flitting to and fro, earnestly focused on completing their individual tasks.
At the center of the hustle and bustle are the brewery’s co-owners, Bryan Van Den Oever, Simon Bee, and Cameron Raspet, three craft beer aficionados who relocated from Seattle and pooled their talent and resources to open the District’s first and only 100% gay-owned brewery on March 9 of last year.
“I just got my hair cut, so I’m feeling ‘Good as Hell,'” jokes Van Den Oever as he rolls his neck with an imaginary hair toss and bops to the music while checking the email on a laptop perched at the end of the main bar. “Also, Simon says he’s never heard the song, so I figured I’d play it for him.”
Bee, who has slung his bags over one of the cushy, lounge-style chairs in the corner of the front bar, has his laptop open on the table alongside a book filled with notes he’s scribbled. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Raspet is overseeing the staff and making sure everything is in order ahead of the doors opening at 1 p.m.
Together, the owners are like the three legs of a tripod, each bringing balance to life at Red Bear. Without one, the other two cannot function as efficiently. And each man brings part of his unique personality into the business.
Van Den Oever, gregarious and playful, is as comfortable in a glittery, sequin-studded red cape as he is a flannel shirt and jeans. As the director of business development and marketing, he serves as the public face of the brewery. Bee, by contrast, is the tall, strong, silent type who looks like he’d be more comfortable cutting timber in the Pacific Northwest — he did the bulk of the woodwork in the bar, after all. An ambitious striver, he’s the certified cicerone who serves as director of brewing operations. Raspet, the quiet, organized one, serves as director of operations. He’s a steadying influence, the pragmatic partner who ensures the brewery is up to code, oversees the back-of-the house staff, and is in charge of payroll and human resources.
“It’s a good dynamic,” says Raspet. “Bryan is definitely the whimsical one and the character who brings the charisma that’s needed for this kind of business. I’m the one that more or less keeps them on task. And Simon is kind of the middle ground, where Bryan and I can sometimes cause strife or can butt heads, and Simon serves as the intermediary. But Simon also runs his own little part of the show, since he specifically runs the brewery. I think we work well together.”
It was Bee who first came up with the notion of opening up a nanobrewery after he decided he wanted to pursue a passion for brewing beer — which he had been doing at home for 11 years — on a much larger scale.
“Home brewery was basically a hobby, something I did for fun on the weekends in my past life,” says Bee, who previously worked as a property manager in Seattle. “I got burned out on my career, and decided that I was in a good spot to be able to open a business by myself. I was looking at something pretty small until I got together with Bryan and we realized we could do something a little bit bigger and better.”
Bee and Van Den Oever then enlisted the help of Raspet, who was poised to start a new career when Boeing, where he had worked for 15 years as a flight test engineer, began asking employees to agree to voluntary layoffs.
“I just wanted to do something else,” says Raspet. “Bryan and Simon had been pondering this idea of opening a brewery somewhere, and they came to me right around the same time that Boeing was asking for voluntary layoffs. And it was like, ‘Well, this is coincidental timing. Let’s see where this goes.”
IT SEEMS THERE’S a backstory for everything at Red Bear, including how the name was generated.
“Simon and I started with the brewery idea, and we came up with a whole list of names,” says Van Den Oever. “Some I liked, some he liked, and some were just names. We did a Facebook poll back in 2015 among our family and friends, and they overwhelmingly chose Red Bear — mainly, I think, because they know we’re both gingers. I actually hated the name when we first started, but it grew on me and now I’m like, ‘I love it. I’ll take it.’ We were actually shocked that the name was trademarkable.”
Above Red Bear’s main bar hangs a menu boasting various types of craft beer, including three that are named after each of the owners. Van Den Oever’s namesake, a double IPA brew called Twinsies (Pew, Pew, Pew!), refers to an inside joke with his twin brother, Ryan. Raspet’s namesake, Cammy Cam Cam, an ESB, is based on a nickname his grandmother gave him. Bee’s is Skookum, a beer inspired by red ales that are common to the Seattle area.
Each co-owner took a unique path to their current partnership. For Van Den Oever, born in Pipestone, Minn., and raised in small-town Iowa, that path ran through the military. An Army Reserve veteran who was deployed overseas in 2002 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Van Den Oever eventually obtained an associate’s degree and moved to Seattle in 2006, where he began working as a nuclear medicine technologist. Although he had to hide his sexual orientation from his fellow soldiers while serving in the military, Van Den Oever says that “people knew, but nobody cared.”
Raspet, a Washington State native, was born and raised in a “standard Seattle” household with a father who was a firefighter and a mother who was a homemaker. An outdoors enthusiast, Raspet — who also shares a military background with Van Den Oever — went to college for a degree in electrical engineering, first working at a job where he designed nuclear weapons before switching careers to work at Boeing.
Bee, who was raised in a blue-collar English immigrant family in the Seattle suburbs, entered property management when he moved to Seattle and bought a fixer-upper that he was later able to flip for a profit, investing that money in order to save up enough to pursue his idea of opening a brewery.
While all three largely found acceptance from their families and friends after coming out, Bee’s journey of self-realization occurred much later in his life than his two co-workers, who came out in their late teens and early 20s.
“I’m a bit of what they would call a late bloomer,” he says. “I was married for a little while to a female for about eight years and then that basically didn’t work out. It was a combination of just wanting to go our separate ways.
“I was like, well this is probably the right time to come out,” he adds. “I was really kind of afraid of what was going on, and there was this big buildup of just expecting everybody to react a certain way. But everybody was super cool. My folks took a little bit of time to kind of adjust and get used to it, but they came around…. My dad was a mechanic and a business owner, so I think he is probably pretty proud of the fact that I was able to start a business and I have that same entrepreneurial spirit.”
SINCE OPENING A YEAR ago, Red Bear has carved a special niche for itself within the bar/brewery community. Not only is the 7,000 square-foot space the biggest bar operating in D.C.’s trendy NoMa neighborhood, its single-floor layout takes advantage of space to make it feel less cramped than other bars that have to spread themselves over multiple floors. Additionally, Red Bear’s designation as a gay-owned brewery — even though the bulk of its clientele aren’t necessarily LGBTQ — and its focus on inclusivity make it an appealing spot for craft beer connoisseurs to let their hair down on the weekends while leaving behind any pretensions.
“On the weekend, in the early afternoon, you can find the families here with their kids and the strollers,” says Van Den Oever. “People from all walks of life. But then in the evenings, like Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, clearly this is a younger crowd. It depends on the event that’s going on.”
Due to Red Bear’s proximity to Gallaudet University, the owners have tried to reach out and cater to an underserved community by hosting ASL events. The brewery also markets itself as a hangout for self-described “board game geeks” who can play any number of classic games while they down their beers. Red Bear has hosted special events, such as community forums and panel discussions, and regularly features monthly drag shows, as well as drag bingo events on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month.
“I think it’s that we’re doing something that you don’t really see in craft breweries that attracts people to us,” says Bee. “I’ve never seen any brewery that focuses on minority groups. I think of our ‘feel’ as being like a little bit of a misfit, and I think that’s a lot of fun, and a little bit edgy.”
Even though most of Red Bear’s clientele are straight, the brewery’s drag-themed events remain among its most popular. On the first Friday of each month, the brewery hosts a “Slay Them” contest for amateur drag queens, with the winner earning $50 and a chance to perform in a future drag event at Red Bear. On May 8, the winners from each month’s contest will compete for honors in a Slay Them Pageant.
“We’ve got a crown, they get a bigger prize, they get more bookings,” notes Van Den Oever. “These drag performers are all relatively new or just getting into drag. They’re not polished queens or kings. They’ve all just started working in the drag community and this is a platform to springboard their career.”
Besides Slay Them, Red Bear also hosts a monthly drag show, the Desiree Dik Drag Show Extravaganza, which provides additional performance opportunities for local drag queens.
“Desiree is very ambitious, and she said, ‘Let’s do this, this, and this.’ And we were like, ‘Let’s go for it and see what happens,'” Raspet says of the brewery’s star queen.
“Just walking in the door, the hostesses greet me, the crowd is ‘oohing,’ everyone says hi, even the kitchen staff,” says Dik. “We all work as a team. Everyone at Red Bear has always been really welcoming, and takes care of every drag performer. I know drag performers say Red Bear is a place that treats them very well and where they are respected. The audience is laid-back, fun, very open-minded. I always have a blast with them. They’re always very positive and screaming and cheering at the shows.”
ENTERTAINMENT OFFERINGS bring in the crowds, but it’s the beer that makes people stick around, and Red Bear is intentional about the different brews it has on tap — basing its decision partially on market trends, but also on feedback from its customers.
“The three of us come together and really talk about what styles we want, what season is it in, really mapping out what customers are going to want and doing our research,” says Van Den Oever. “It does help that we have so many tap lines that we can be very flexible on the styles that we have here. You should be able to find anything you’re interested in — light beer, dark beer, sour, sweet, big ole pastry styles if you want.”
“In the fall, you’ll see a lot of German beers, and pumpkin beers. That’s what I think of when I think of fall seasonals,” adds Bee. “Winter beers are a bit heavier because it’s kind of cold out and people want something heavy and dark. In springtime, people are ready for something that’s a little bit lighter, more refreshing. And usually a lot of the spring beers just spill into summer. It’s so hot here in D.C. that we just hold those offerings all the way until fall.”
Red Bear provides regular training for its employees to make sure they’re “educated and know what’s going on” about the various types of beers, Bee says, in case they are asked for recommendations by a customer. They also make extensive use of social media to promote any new brews on tap, helping customers know what to expect before they even set foot in the bar.
“Every time we have a new beer released, we try to push it out on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook,” Bee says. “That’s a really good way for us to say, ‘Here are the ingredients going into the beer,’ here’s some flavor profiles, here’s a bit of background on it.”
Despite the brewery’s success in its first year, Van Den Oever is intentional about seizing various marketing opportunities to ensure business remains steady.
“We’re brand new, so you always have that lingering fear that nobody’s going to walk in the door,” he says. “I know we have fabulous beer. The beer is delicious. The cocktails are amazing. We have great shows, but you just never know. Are people into it? Do people want to be here? You always have that lingering fear. I hate that because we’ve put a lot into this.”
He also notes that NoMa is still an up-and-coming neighborhood that is undergoing gentrification — which will inevitably bring other potential competitors to the area.
“We know more restaurants and bars will be coming to NoMa, but right now we just don’t feel that pressure yet,” says Van Den Oever. “It is going to come. But we just need to be savvy. We hope that we are building ourselves up to be a cornerstone of the neighborhood.”
That said, Van Den Oever doesn’t begrudge any other bar or club owners the chance to set down roots in the neighborhood.
“We’re super excited for Town 2.0 to open up on North Capitol and K. We’re very excited about that,” he says. With a chuckle and another toss of his head, he adds, “Maybe together, we can make NoMa the new gayborhood.”
Red Bear Brewing, located at 209 M St. NE, will celebrate its 1st Anniversary on Saturday, March 7, from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. DJ Silence Echoez spins at 1 p.m. and DJ Shea van Horn spins at 8 p.m. Desiree Dik performs at 9 p.m.
Red Bear’s normal hours are: Mondays through Thursdays from 3 to 11 p.m., Fridays from 1 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.. For more information, visit www.redbear.beer.
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