The Art of Revival

With dedication and luck, RaR has created vast amounts of craft, commerce and fun in a colonial town on the Chesapeake

A quaint, unassuming community on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Cambridge adds historic charm to the maritime feel evident in many locales along the Chesapeake.

Although it is by no means an unlikely spot for a brewery, Cambridge is a surprising setting for RaR Brewing, which feels like it was airdropped in from a nearby urban city—perhaps Baltimore, D.C., or Philly.

The humorous, black-and-white designs that dot the tasting room wall seem at first glance like graffiti tags on a post-industrial warehouse. In reality, they are large reproductions of the iconic imagery found on past and present RaR beer label —the handiwork of in-house illustrator and RaR partner B.J. Wheatley. They include the happy crab from Bottom Feeder Blonde, the fat cake from 10 Layers Stout, the lumberjack from Lumber Sexual Double IPA, and, of course, many versions of the RaR mascot, the legendary sea monster Chessie.

Wheatley’s artwork is also evident in the hundreds of stickers littering the bar, the tap system, the cooler, and in and around the brewery itself.

RaR stands for Real Ale Revival, which is the answer to the question most people ask themselves when they first see the eye-catching logo, created by Wheatley’s collaborator, co-owner Chris Brohawn.

Years ago, before all of this, Wheatley and Brohawn were part of a small circle of home-brewing dreamers who met regularly in the back of a nearby restaurant.

“We’d hang out and brew beer and shoot the shit,” Wheatley says while eating lunch at the tasting room bar.

“Man, we always joked, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool [to run a brewery] some day!’ And I would say that about six months into it, Chris and I looked at each other and said, ‘If we don’t do this, somebody else is going to for sure.’”

In fact, there was already possible competition in an area restaurateur who was testing the waters, trying to put together a team and dive into the local craft beer market.

Says Wheatley: “We were like, ‘No one’s gonna do it better than us, because we’re the guys we’re trying to market to. We know what people are looking for. We know what their spending patterns are. We are the craft beer consumers. All we got to do is sell it to ourselves.’”

Thanks to the dedication and hard work of the two partners, they were able to open those brewery doors six years ago in August.

“We were still building the brewery when we opened,” Brohawn reveals.

As we speak, a story unfolds of a dream that came with a price. That dream required long working hours that spilled into morning. It required faith in the dream itself.  And, as with many things, it required a certain amount of luck.

O&A: How did you get from dabbling in home-brewing to opening a full-fledged brewery?

Brohawn: I had a small home brew set-up in the back of Ocean Odyssey Seafood House on Route 50. A bunch of us brewed beer there. Eventually, [Wheatley] and I wrote a business plan.

My father had an old college roommate, who was and still is a prominent businessman [and] still lives in the area. I called him and said, “Can you give me 30 minutes of your time? I want to run an idea by you, see what you think of it, and give me some advice.”

I took the business plan, talked to him about my idea, and 20 to 25 minutes into the conversation, he wrote me a check for $75,000.

He said, “Somebody helped me out once when I was your age, so roll with it.”

O&A: When you got that check for $75,000, how did you feel?

Brohawn: I kind of remember the drive home, trying to keep the car on the road, my hands shaking. It was nuts. I’m getting goosebumps all over again just talking about it.

A $75,000 check now is just [an exchange] with one distributor on a Friday. But back then, that was everything. I never had more than a couple hundred dollars in my bank account before then, y’know? And this man trusted me with all that money. It’s crazy. [laughs]

O&A: So if that hadn’t happened, where would you be right now?

Brohawn: I don’t know. I don’t know if I would have gotten money from somewhere else, y’know? I don’t know.

O&A: What did happen next?

Brohawn: I took the money and started talking to the local economic development office in Dorchester County. There’s two here—which is strange. There’s one for the city and there’s one for Dorchester county. The director, Keasha Haythe, said, “We think we can help you get a revitalization loan for downtown, because it’s struggling and in need.”

So she got us a super low-interest loan, and we used the $75,000 as leverage. And then we ended up raising another 40 to 50 grand between investors—there’s five of us. We ended up doing all the construction ourselves.

RaR Brewing’s Annual Dank Day beer festival draws big crowds to Sailwinds Park on the banks of the Choptank River in Cambridge. Photo courtesy of RaR Brewing Company

O&A: Had you done anything like that before?

Brohawn: I was an electrician beforehand, so I dabbled in all the trades. I can do whatever. I built all that stuff next door [he nods to the expansion next door].

But we got to July [2013] and realized we were going to run out of money. And our brew system was backed up. Our licensing was backed up. So that’s when we pushed.

I think we opened up in the third week of August and had $200 in the bank. My business partner, J.T., and I bartended when we were open, and then when he could watch the bar by himself, I was in the back brewing.

It’s been non-stop, man, since Day One. It’s been kind of a blur looking back. I remember a little bit [chuckles], but not a whole lot.

O&A: Just $200? That’s crazy. Did you get any sleep?

Brohawn: No, no. From when we started construction to when we opened, I lost like 30 pounds. I was nothing. Skin and bones. Drinking my way through, trying to keep my sanity.

But now we’re churning out $5 million a year, I’ve put back on the weight, and I can sleep at night [chuckles].

O&A: At any point during construction, did you feel like you’d made a mistake opening a brewery?

Brohawn: I don’t regret it. Looking back, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Because it shaped us, and it made me hustle. There were points in time when I was scared to death and I thought we were going to lose everything. But it turned me into a rock.

Nothing fazes me now, which might be a negative. But in terms of running a business, it’s good.

O&A: When you look back on it, what’s the thing you feel like you got right? Was there something that you nailed right from the start?

Brohawn: Branding. We built a strong brand before we even opened the doors. On social media, we had thousands of followers and nobody had even tasted our product. Just from the look and the feel—it’s kind of grimy industrial with a lot of nostalgia—we’ve kept that theme since Day One.

O&A: And who took the task of branding?

Brohawn: Right out of the gates it was B.J. and me. He’s doing most of it now. The last piece of the pie was graphic design, which I was doing up until last month and then I off-loaded that on him. So he is art director.

Some of RaR Brewing’s artwork, displayed in the new brewpub, still under construction next door to the current taproom. Photo courtesy of RaR Brewing Company

O&A: You were doing the graphic design? All of this stuff [pointing to the wall of large beer-label icons]?

Brohawn: Yeah, so those are all his illustrations. He’d hand me the piece of paper he drew it on, and I’d take it from there.

O&A: So you have to wear a lot of different hats? You’re the owner, you’re the electrician, you’re the contractor, you’re the bartender . . .

Brohawn: Yeah, I came in today and was working on the canning line because we had some issues. I ran that for the first year-and-a-half after we installed it. Then came back over here [to the pub area] and was building furniture.

I don’t think I took a vacation until two years ago.

O&A: You said you got the branding right from the beginning. Do you think the logo played a part in that?

Brohawn: Yeah, it got people talking. It still does.

O&A: Because there’s a little bit of a mystery behind it.

Brohawn: It’s that, but with all our marketing we just tease and hint. We never just throw out info unless we’re coming right up to a surprise or a release. With the logo, I wanted something that could just be a single color and be noticeable and stand out.

I actually worked on another logo for four weeks straight and I hated it. Then I got shit-faced drunk one night, deleted it, and did that one in about 15 minutes. [He proudly points to the large RaR logo on the wall behind the bar].

Look how it pops!

O&A: You said you were an electrician. Had you taken any design classes?

Brohawn: I went to college for graphic design. I never finished; I dropped out. But I went for two years at Salisbury. I dropped out and sold mortgages for a while. Then started doing electrical work. A local business—residential, commercial, a little bit of agriculture. But all those things played such a massive role for me. The graphic design. The trades. The electric and plumbing. I still use it every day here. I didn’t realize it, but I basically groomed myself for this position.

O&A: Elaborate on that.

Brohawn: It’s everything a brewer needs to know. You got to be handy. You’ve got to be able to focus and fix problems quickly. But even further, no brewers know electric work. That’s the one trade where everyone’s like, “F_ _ _ it. Call somebody.” Anything that goes wrong in this brewery at any time, I know how to fix.

Where we are right now, we can’t produce enough [to keep up with demand]. We’ve never been able to. But we cannot lose a day. Ever. So to be able to get stuff back up and running is priceless.

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