Cambridge’s groundbreaking RAR brewery is off to a spirited start as the holiday season launches. The homegrown miracle on Poplar Street is making fresh headway welcoming its third expansion space and latest can releases.
Once the adjacent location came open last February, RAR co-founder and CEO Chris Brohawn wasted no time taking ownership, breaking ground, and breathing life into the cozy cocktail locale he envisioned, which opened Nov. 12.
Though the original taproom and expansion Chessie Burger eatery have thrived, Brohawn felt the two venues were bypassing a niche market segment; to reach it, he crafted a warm, open atmosphere with tastefully inventive drinks. Inspiration for a name hit just three months before opening after a brainstorming session including Brohawn, business partner James Merrywhether, GM Toby Donovan and B.J. Wheatley, a quartet of longtime friends and former school chums making up an ad hoc brain trust via text or over drinks.
“The production and retail sides of RAR involve experimenting, so somebody, I’m not sure who, conjured ‘laboratory’; we then played with the word, then incorporating the logo, resulting in LabRARtory,” Brohawn said.
Artist Wheatley, a former art teacher turned RAR bartender Brohawn had tapped early on for logo work, created lab-themed X-Ray, beaker and test tube decorative touches.
Brohawn and Donovan devised cocktail offerings, some inspired from RAR’s “off the wall” beer flavors, such as Cereal Milk (served up in cup and saucer) and a frozen take on Blue Milk (in a vintage-style footed glass sundae dish).
Boat drink varieties Hoopers Island Tea and Orange Crush have been number one and two best sellers. But thanks to the duo’s steadily flowing creative juices, beverage enthusiasts can savor new flavors frequently.
Among the latest is Spillin’ Quillen, Nolet’s gin with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, house-made simple syrup, and locally sourced Quillen Apiaries honey plus Emily’s Produce Lavender.
The honey farm family’s Ben Quillen has been a longtime RAR employee. And the brewery has regularly partnered with Emily’s for the past six years, Brohawn noted. This latest was a happily accidental inspiration stemming from a kids’ birthday party hayride a week and half before the LabRARtory’s opening.
“Coming around the back end, I saw a whole field of lavender. We’d been shopping for a gin drink, so I hopped off and asked Kelly (Jackson) about selling it — she replied ‘sure.’ Jackson and husband Paul are some of the best people - salt of the earth, forward thinking, their brand is amazing, their products are unreal,” Brohawn said.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, LabRARtory visitors could taste Fall Vibez with bourbon, apple cider, seasonal spices, simple cinnamon syrup, plus champagne splash, apple slice and cinnamon stick garnish.
Those partaking of potables and cozy club chair ambience can view a big screen fireplace or gaze upon the impressive rows of massive silver brew tanks visible via opened sections of white tiled wall, which were moved in through the roof.
“Six are brand new, but there are 10 back there, with two more going in; next door we’ve got 12 more,” Brohawn said.
Along another wall, several refrigerated cases are stocked with carry-out RAR six pack varieties, including its popular “out of order” series. Two others feature craft beer offerings from breweries from around Maryland and the U.S. “that are a lot like us, rehabilitating dilapidated buildings in downtowns that may or may not be up and coming, showcasing how it helps bring people in and rebuild downtown areas,” Brohawn explained.
A revitalized Cambridge, and RAR’s Poplar Street location particularly, are near and dear to his heart, making up the neighborhood where he was raised, in the old pool hall where he spent so much time.
“I mean, I grew up in there,” Brohawn recalled. “Back then there was really nothing else to do downtown.”
That lack led him to explore life elsewhere over the next decade, until his grandfather’s illness and death brought him back where he’d begun. During an eight-year stint working as an electrician, at age 29 or 30, he started home brewing, “just a hobby that kind of got out of control.” At age 32, in 2013, he opened RAR.
Two months before COVID hit, the first expansion, Chessie Burger, became a family food favorite. But when lockdown closed businesses for public gathering, RAR’s brain trust drew deeper on its creative edge.
“It forced us to really think outside the box,” Brohawn said, noting that some of that challenging time’s silver linings have happily paid ongoing dividends.
Delivery introduced RAR to people as far away as Hurlock. But over time, through robust social media presence plus word of mouth “the rest of the county opened up to us,” Brohawn noted, a phenomenon that’s continued, with people traveling there to pick up online ordered monthly and holiday new product releases. He and GM Donovan enjoy meeting the many new people stopping in weekly, inspiring RAR to stay fresh and keep growing.
A purchased billboard at the base of the Bay Bridge now directs de-embarking Rt. 50 travelers downtown. Of those taking the detour primarily for beer, many have become intoxicated with the town’s other offerings and the area’s tranquil beauty, waterside charm and history.
“We also got people who normally might not have set foot in ‘just a bar,’” Brohawn said. “Now on Saturdays, Chessie Burger’s full of families enjoying the Lego wall and nostalgic memorabilia.” Though the patron demographic keeps expanding, 98% of RAR’s 50 employees are Cambridge natives. And the fact that they’re offering a locally created product is an ongoing source of pride to producers and purveyors alike.
While up-to-date brews add fresh offerings, Nanticoke Nectar, “the first beer we replicated around 30 or 40,000 times until we were satisfied,” is still number one, Brohawn noted. But on small business Saturday after Thanksgiving, the RAR faithful lined up outside the brewery garage entrance around the corner (some arriving the night before), coolers in tow, collecting the latest round of canned releases.
For more information, visit RAR on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, at www.rarbrewing.com, or call 443-225-5664.