Bryan Van Den Oever
Bryan Van Den Oever
Staff Manager, Red Bear Brewing
Note: Bryan's statements are his and his alone and do not reflect those of Red Bear Brewing.
How did you get into beer?
In 2006 is when I really started getting into beer. I moved to Seattle from South Dakota after college, and in Seattle the craft scene was already moving. I got introduce to Elysian Brewing, and in 2012, I was able to volunteer for their Great Pumpkin Beer Festival. In Washington state, you have to have a license to be a bartender, and I got the license just so I could volunteer for them. The license is for five years, so I kept doing it every year. When I think of craft beer, Elysian Brewing will always stay in my heart.
Do you remember the first beer you ever had?
I was probably fifteen at the time, and my parents went camping and my older brother had a house party. I think I drank a Red Dog, which is an obscure Miller brand from back in the day. I just remember a big, red bulldog face on the bottle.
Tell me about Red Bear. What are you trying to create together?
We’re bridging a West coast and East coast flavor profile. Simon, our brewer, is really passionate about sessionable beers. Beers are so big right now, but we want to make something palatable where you can drink a couple of them and not feel overbodied.
In terms of the name, myself and Simon are very ginger. Cameron has some gingerness in his beard, but he’s really not a ginger. That’s where we got the red. In the gay community there are bear men, and we like that style of men, so it just made sense.
I was kinda hoping the red indicated your political inclinations.
No, nothing like that. Simon, Cameron, and I moved here from very blue states.
Oh, I meant red as in anti-capitalism.
Oh that’s funny! My sister-in-law is from Russian and she loves the communist red for that. We’re like, no no no, this is for the ginger part.
My experience is that the beer industry is hella hetero. You are a gay man and Red Bear is a gay-led organization. What has your experience been like in such a heteronormative space?
Since we’re not operational yet, there is not a lot I can say about it yet. We’re getting into the industry – like a bear in a china shop! – but it’s too soon to say what it’s like.
We have worked in other very hetero-centered industries, though. For me and Cameron, we are both in the military. I was there in the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I joined when I was 19 and I came out when I was 21. All throughout that, I couldn’t be overt. If something I saw was offensive to me, I didn’t want to put any spotlight on me because that was dangerous. I kept my head down and did my own thing and that was how it was for most of my time in the military. Even when I got deployed to Iraq, I just had to lay low. I basically felt that when I’m in uniform, I’m not "Bryan." If I saw something that was offensive to the homosexual population, to women, to people of color, I didn’t say anything. Which is sad, but that’s how I felt I had to act.
As you are thinking through names and how to make beer that’s inclusive, what comes up for you?
When thinking through the marketing, the visual, the names, even the styles, we do talk about being a diverse brewery. We have to be. And right now you are seeing a lot of colors, a lot of florals, a lot of different things on bottles, and we want to add to that.
It’s like, “Make beer gay again.”
Yes! Like DC Brau, I loved what they did with their pilsner bottle for Pride. That was amazing, and I’d love to see that throughout the industry. What we can do is be vocal about who we are as a gay-owned brewery and keep the conversation going.
Why do you think there are so few gay men running breweries?
There is this weird misnomer that gay men don’t drink beer. We know that gay men do like beer. That said, people like beer. Beer has always been community-centered. The heteronormativity of it makes you think they own it, but everybody likes beer.
As a white person, how do you counter whiteness in a space that tends to exclude people of color?
We just need to be good about hiring competent people of all ethnicities and genders. There are people of color in the industry, they just need a light shined on them. I think it’s gonna happen.
I can say what we want to do, but what matters is what we do. I encourage you to hit us up a year from now and see how it all played out. I have high hopes that we are as inclusive as possible.
Do you find it ironic that you are a bearded white man?
I know, it is funny. I’m basically the stereotype of who is running a brewery, except I’m gay. In fact, all three of us are. We’re all bearded white men. So yeah, we noticed it!
There’s not much I can do about that. You know, I can’t be a woman. Well, I could, but I just don’t choose to be. And that’s another thing, gender roles are being so fluid right now, which I think is great. I’m sad there is a lot of pushback, but it’s changing.
That’s my hope, too, but I do think that in the beer industry women are asked to perform femininity in a very particular way, and it’s a harmful form of femininity.
Do you feel like you are forced to be that way?
I feel like it’s expected. Like when I ordered this beer I’m drinking right now, the bartender asked if I’m into sours. Not like, “cool, you’re into sours,” but, “you into sours?” as if I had never had one before or didn’t know what I was ordering.
I’m bartending now at Glenn’s Garden Market, and I never insinuate that I know what someone is going to order. I always ask, “What styles do you like?” That will lead me down the path of what I’ll serve them.
There was a female who came up and another bartender asked her, “Oh, do you want a cider?” And I’m thinking, why are you presuming that? How do you know they don’t want a stout or a heavy-bodied beer? You don’t know. And they didn’t get a cider, they got an IPA. I did step back with the other bartender and ask, “why did you assume they wanted a cider?” It was a weird little conversation we had.
That goes into training people. I’m really thinking about the training program for our staff. They will know everything about our beer, but I would never want them to assume they know what a person likes or talk down to anyone.
There is also a hypermasculine expectation of men. Do you feel that?
I do get that. When I tell people I’m starting a brewery, sometimes people assume I know everything about beer. I do know a lot about beer, but I don’t know everything. I have a lot to learn. I need to be upfront as well and say I don’t know.
It can be hard to say, “I don’t know.”
Do you think there is a style of beer that's really overrated right now?
Yes, and it’s the style that I love. IPAs are everywhere. It’s getting a little bonkers. I really wish other styles would get the identity that IPAs have.
What was the last beer you drank?
Troegs Blizzard of Hops.
What’s in your fridge right now?
Blizzard of Hops, Mad Elf from Troegs, O’Connor’s Pumpleweiss. I’ve always got an experimental beer Simon is producing. I’ve got our winter warmer, it’s got a lot of plum and clove flavors. I have one of his watermelon sours. I have one of his IPAs as well.
What’s your favorite local beer?
I do like hoppy beers, so I like the Ponzi from Atlas. I also love the Dance of Days from them. Right Proper’s Raised by Wolves is so good as well. I was at Franklin Hall the other night because I’m studying for the Cicerone and I had that on draft there. DC Brau, I love their Wings of Armageddon. And Denizens is amazing, too. Their Southside Rye IPA is great.
Wow, we have the same palate. You’re hitting all the classics.
And Hellbender, their Birthday Pony blew me away. Phenomenal beer. Clap, clap clap. Oh, and Three Stars, I love their Ghost White IPA.
The apocalypse happens and you can only have one kind of beer. What would it be?
I would take Space Dust by Elysian. I have a sentimental, heartfelt feeling for Space Dust.
If you were in a pinch and had to swing by a mainstream grocery store or a 7-11 for beer, what would you get?
Have you had Session? It might be a West Coast thing. It's from Full Sail Brewing in Oregon and it has “Session" written on the bottle. And the bottle cap has rock-paper-scissors on it, so you can play rock paper scissors with other people who open a bottle. If it had that, I’d get that.
What?! We don’t have beer in convenience stores here where you can play rock-paper-scissors with the bottle caps.
Okay, then I’d want to see what ciders they have, because domestic beer is gross. Or maybe I’d get bottled water.
Are there other questions you think I should be asking?
Maybe, as a small business owner, what keeps me up at night?
What keeps you up at night?
We are a gay-owned brewery, and when we see events unfolding like the Pulse nightclub, sometimes I wonder if that could that happen to us. We can do everything we can, and at some point we can’t plan for it. I just worry about it. These days, we’re living the best gay life, but you still have to be cautious. It’s getting better and better all the time, but not everyone is happy about how progressive the world is becoming. That does keep me up at night sometimes.