Bryan Van Den Oever, Simon Bee and Cameron Raspet met in Seattle, but when the three craft beer fans decided to launch their own brewery, they crossed the country to the “other” Washington.
Red Bear Brewing, which debuts Saturday in the former Uline Arena, in Northeast, is the first brewery to open in the District since the Public Option and Right Proper’s production house opened in 2015. Although craft breweries continue to open in Maryland and Virginia, the pace has slowed significantly in D.C. proper.
The NoMa brewery will operate more like a brewpub than a traditional brewery, at least at first. Instead of pumping out cans of a new triple IPA or sour every week, the owners are trying to create a diverse, beer-centric community destination with more than 100 board games to play; drag bingo nights; improv-comedy performances; and trivia in American Sign Language, a nod to nearby Gallaudet University. Bee, the brewer, is interested in “old nostalgic styles,” such as porters, red ales and ESBs, and beers that pair well with food. He’s also going to try to put his own twists on trends: Instead of a bone-dry brut IPA, Bee plans a “bright, fizzy Kolsch,” but made with champagne yeast.
Red Bear should also find support from supportive communities: It bills itself as the area’s first “100 percent gay-owned” brewery, and two of the three co-founders are veterans.
Van Den Oever says he wasn’t familiar with craft beer when he moved to Seattle in 2006 — “There was nothing in my 400-person town in Iowa,” he says — but fell in love with hometown favorite Elysian after walking by the brewery every day on his way to work. Raspet, on the other hand, grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where “Red Hook was my standard.” The two were introduced in 2007, and met Bee at a house party in 2014. Bee had a dream of opening a nanobrewery, and thought it would be easier in Washington, D.C., than Washington state. “In Seattle, [the beer scene] is so oversaturated,” Bee says. “Coming over here, it’s an emerging craft scene.”
The name Red Bear wasn’t the owners’ first choice, but came from a Facebook poll of friends and family. “We liked other names, but people responded to it,” Bee says. “People loved the bear concept,” Van Den Oever explains, pointing to its dual meaning — bears representing the outdoors and a term for burly, hirsute gay men. (“And Simon and I are both gingers,” he adds.)
After a two-year search for a building and a Kickstarter fundraiser that raised more than double the requested $10,000, Red Bear took over a 7,000-square-foot space adjacent to the popular REI flagship store last fall. The taproom they’ve created liberally mixes the two Washingtons. There are picnic tables, “stars” in the ceiling overhead (look for Ursa Major, the great bear) and a mountain range set into the front of the bar. The logo, meanwhile, combines the city’s familiar bars-and-stars flag with the outline of Mount Rainier. “Seattle is our roots,” Bee says, “but D.C. is our future.” (Still, that won’t stop Van Den Oever from trying to turn the place into a Seahawks bar.)
For launch, Bee’s beers are keeping things simple: A spiced witbier called Marmalade Skies, a nod to the site of the Beatles’ first U.S. concert; a subtle and roasty porter dubbed D.C. Dirt; and Snookum, a malty and complex red ale. “It’s bit of a vanity project for me,” Bee says. “It’s a style you don’t see anymore.” The Mystic Storm IPA continues the two-Washingtons theme, drawing its name from the D.C. and Seattle WNBA franchises. Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, there’s a nitro version of Swampoodle Stout, a heavyweight imperial Irish stout brewed with the team from Ireland’s Lough Gill Brewery.
Beer will be available on draft and in growlers to start, and cans at a later date. The bar will also pour cocktails made using spirits from local distilleries, and a selection of wine and cider.
Bee would like to offer beer aged in barrels from local distilleries, including Cotton and Reed and One Eight. Van Den Oever says food is also in Red Bear’s future, though not for a couple of months (the plan is for customers to order and pick-up dishes at self-service windows). In the meantime, food comes from food trucks and pop-ups; the DC Fish truck will be on hand for the first weekend.
Red Bear Brewing: 209 M St. NE. Open 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Saturday, and daily after that, with the exception of Monday, March 11. Official grand opening at 3 p.m. on March 23.