March 29, 2019 at 11:44 am EDT | by Evan Caplan
NoMa’s Red Bear Brewing Co. opens
Red Bear Brewing, gay news, Washington Blade
Red Bear Brewing Co. co-owners (from left) Cameron Raspet, Bryan van den Oever and Simon Bee open their new bar March 23. (Photo by Evan Caplan)

On a rapidly expanding corner of NoMa just past the shadow of a Metro underpass, stands the city’s newest industrial-chic watering hole. 

Gay-owned Red Bear Brewing Co. (209 M St., N.E.) opened this month, a place where inclusion is as critical to the business as the hops.

Bryan Van Den Oever, Simon Bee and Cameron Raspet — all gay — own this brew-bar-hangout that’s campy in every sense of the word. As central to anything else at the brewery, “Red Bear Brewing Co. is a safe space,” say the owners. 

The three hail from Seattle, a city where beer can be seen as another food group. Their geographic origin inspired the name. It’s also a subtle signifier, as bear is a term used to describe certain members of the gay community. Two of the founders are also redheads.

The brewery encompasses 7,000 square feet abutting the new REI outpost. Red Bear mashes, ferments, matures and carbonates, from grain to glass, its own craft beers in its on-site facility. 

The industrial design echoes similar spaces in the neighborhood — unfinished concrete sits underfoot and exposed steel beams and piping and string lighting drop from the ceiling. 

One half of the floor plan is dedicated to the taproom for guests. It’s split into two spaces: the Front Yard and the Backyard, bisected by an enormous U-shaped bar. Bee oversaw the building of picnic-style tables and benches and high tops, all sourced from reclaimed timber. Board games abound, stocked high on shelves in the Front Yard section, where painted planks form a mountain range mural. The lively area is equal parts campground and living room. 

The Backyard space is more relaxed, hidden from the entrance behind that ample bar. Notably, the Backyard hosts a stage for events like drag performances. Other community events in the works include yoga, comedy, ASL trivia and live music.

Beyond the taproom are several gender-neutral restrooms, detailed with offbeat prints of Jeff Goldblum and space cats.

Alongside are all 10 enormous barrels and lots of shiny machinery. A small kitchen churns out beer-friendly noshes. 

Down to the brew: Two dozen lines snake to the bar to feed 50-plus taps for the diversity of beers, from sweet and fruity to dark, thick and malty. Selections from the initial 10 offerings (the owners aim to have a total of at least 16) are self-referential: Skookum Red Ale, using barley from Washington State, pays homage to the owners’ home Pacific Northwest region; Twinsies (a Double IPA clocking in at 10 percent ABV) notes that Van Den Oever is a twin and keeps his “hop-lust at bay”; and Swampoodle, an Imperial Oatmeal Stout, jokingly includes “400 pounds of four-leaf-clovers to capture the luck of the Irish” and refers to the neighborhood’s original name before the North of Mass Avenue portmanteau took over. 

The brewery supports local by serving City Winery vintages and ciders and meads from Maryland distilleries. There’s also a full bar and discussions for beer cocktails are in the works. Hard liquor from neighboring Northeast distilleries like Republic Restoratives are poured from bartenders, some of whom are already conversant in ASL, though all certainly speak the language of beer.

While Red Bear is not a gay bar, it’s proudly loud about its identity and its inclusivity. It’s a community space first, insists Van Den Oever. While he also takes ASL classes, Braille menus are in the works and there’s space at the bar for wheelchairs. 

The owners are proud they’re helping turn the gay community onto beer, providing customers with creative offerings, wide flavor profiles, tongue-in-cheek explanations and a playful environment. 

“The gays are not exclusively about spirits,” Van Den Oever says. “In fact, I think they aren’t exclusive to anything.”

On opening night of March 23, a line of patrons flowed well past REI to make it in the doors in time for the show. A few minutes after 6 p.m., drag queen Kitti Chanel Fairfield owned the Backyard, setting the stage for the grand-opening ribbon cutting of the taproom. Bearing oversized scissors, the three owners — Van Den Oever donning a bright-red sequined dinner jacket — officially opened the brewery for business.

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