RAR Brewery: Keeping It Local, Keeping it Real
RAR Brewery, a cornerstone of Cambridge’s vibrant rebirth, has deep local roots and plans on keeping it that way
If John Waters opened a brewery, ReAleRevival (or RAR to those in the know) is what it might be like. Playful, irreverent, and unexpected— their brews are flavorful, complex canvases on which the owners, Chris Brohawn and J.T. Merryweather, and the brewmaster, Randy Mills, craft nuanced pints of fancy. And just like Hairspray or Cry Baby, their beers are love letters to Maryland, inspired by the Chesapeake’s culture from Smith Island cake and the Choptank River to the Ripkens and blue crabs. There’s no doubt these sons of Cambridge are proud of their roots— and their commitment to keeping it local has made their thriving, cult-status brewery a cornerstone of their community’s vibrant rebirth.
Cambridge’s renaissance—and RAR‘s role in it—might come as a surprise to those who recall Cambridge as a place that time and prosperity seemed to have passed by. But Dorchester’s county seat is not only up-and-coming—it’s also developing a serious reputation as the Eastern Shore’s foodie capital. Thanks to some savvy local investors, today Cambridge’s all-American historic downtown houses museums, galleries, and busy boutiques, and hip eateries that range from bistro fare to brick oven pizzas. RAR was right at the front of the town’s recent transformative trend, opening their taproom on Poplar Street in 2013.
It was a business gamble that took off, but for Merryweather and Brohawn, setting up shop in downtown was the only option. The two graduates of Cambridge-South Dorchester High School had left the Eastern Shore for college and followed careers elsewhere, because, as Brohawn explains, “sometimes you have to leave a place you grew up in, to start to appreciate what you had.” Ultimately drawn back home by the slower pace of life and the promise of families on the horizon, Merryweather and Brohawn decided to take their homebrewing hobby to the next level. The partners were committed to brewing in their re-found hometown—and they saw the potential in 504 Poplar, a former pool hall, under the crumbling plaster and dingy tile. On a shoestring budget, the two renovated the space on nights and weekends, ultimately creating a light-filled taproom with brewing rooms in the back.
Just as the work was nearing completion, brewer Randy Mills— also a local—joined the team. Mills was a homebrewer who had also turned his passion into a profession with a gig at Salisbury’s Evolution Craft Brewing. Inspired by the creative brewing range of Dogfish Head, another regional icon, Mills was committed to the idea that great beer should be unexpected, delicious and boundarypushing.
RAR’s beer fully lives up to that standard. Working together, Mills, Brohawn, and Merryweather have created a brewery where beers are more than thirst-quenchers—they have a deep sense of place. The resin-y pine tang of their flagship brew, Nanticoke Nectar IPA, is like a brackish breath of loblolly-scented river breeze. RAR regularly releases new beers (35 in all) that more often than not are deeply rooted in the places and traditions of Maryland.
“It’s nostalgia,” Brohawn explains. “If you look at any of it, our recipes are based on childhood stories and memories.” Like 10 Layer, their dessert stout tribute to Smith Island Cake, which they grew up eating, or their blonde/Belgian ale hybrid shout-out to the Chesapeake’s favorite aquatic scavenger, Bottom Feeder. They’ve created a beer in honor of the Ripkens (Puck Face) and in collaboration with Oxford, Maryland’s Scottish Highland Creamery (Ice Cream Seas). Their Bucktown Brown, Northeast Nectar, Groove City and Wood’r all reference local places or local pronunciations. It’s clear from their beer—there’s a strong flavor of Maryland pride on tap at RAR.
These small-batch, experimental releases are a big part of RAR’s Cambridge magic. Beer collectors from around the state and even the nation will drop into one of their ticketed release events, which often have lines around the block. True devotees will post up in advance in order to secure a six-pack of a limited line (one notable regular is known for arriving at 2 am before each release)—a phenomenon that seems more Star Wars premiere than blue-collar Chesapeake community.
But hardcore beer nerds are just one part of RAR’s clientele. On any weekend, their lively, airy taproom, covered in original artwork and 90’s memorabilia, is just as likely to be crowded with people on their way to the beach and locals looking to slake a terrible thirst. Kids are welcome too, and for their recent release of Ice Cream Seas, the under-21 set got to enjoy towering sundaes while the legal-age folks drank their dessert.
RAR’s laid-back local vibe permeates their Poplar Street digs, and is a pillar of their masterfully produced social media feed. Their Instagram in particular is a like a love letter to the Eastern Shore, written by your middle school class clown and published by the Goonies. A recent video to promote their Pulpsicle release featured RAR artistic mastermind BJ Wheatley and Brohawn lounging on lawn chairs in neon swimsuits. A quick camera pan reveals their summer oasis is Cambridge’s beloved but grody World War I Memorial fountain. It’s a great example of RAR’s brand of irreverent local showmanship, and deservedly went viral—to date, the fountain spot has been watched 18,000 times. You get the sense from their marketing, their artwork, and their general joie de vivre that there’s nothing the RAR team won’t do to gin up some local attention— except be staid or predictable.
Even as RAR’s reputation for fine, fanciful brews makes its way around the region (along with their distribution range to Baltimore, DC, Annapolis and beyond), these local boys are doubling down on their Cambridge roots. RAR has made a point of investing in their local community—sponsoring the athletic and theater programs at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School, holding fundraisers for local animal shelters, donating auction prizes for the March of Dimes, and pitching in beer and support for countless local festivals. Their last philanthropic effort was a perfectly RAR affair—a pop-up art show featuring a ‘Garbage Pail Kid’- inspired series by Wheatley where all the proceeds benefited Cambridge Main Street.
A rising tide lifts all boats—and as RAR floats to success on endless barrels of excellent, creative beer, they’ve made sure to bring Cambridge right along with them. They’ve certainly created beer that Cambridge can be proud of, but they’ve also managed to help put their hometown on the map. “We’re glad that we can draw people from different states to downtown to experience Cambridge,” Brohawn asserts. We believe in this place, and we’re going to stay right where we are.”
As Brohawn and his team at RAR look forward to expansion—a restaurant is coming up next—they are adamant that they are already exactly where they want to be. Surrounded by a new generation of entrepreneurs and their thriving businesses in the heart of the historic district, RAR represents an essential element of Cambridge’s reclaimed vibrancy—one committed to keeping it local, keeping it real, and never letting a customer walk away thirsty.
> RAR Brewing: 504 Poplar Street, Cambridge, MD; 443-225-5665; rarbrewing.com