by Kevin M. Smith

Founded in 2016, Brawling Bear was one of the first independent breweries in Montgomery County, along with Waredaca Brewing Company, and Brookeville Beer Farm. The brewery has been a staple at Maryland beer festivals ever since, and their distinctive logo, the bear with the boxing gloves, was a common sight at bottle shops in Montgomery County. Over the last couple of months, in the wake of the Pandemic, that bear became an endangered species on the verge of extinction.

Founders Eric Rosenthal, and Jenn Rogers felt they could no longer make a go of it, and resigned themselves to shutting the Gaithersburg brewery down. Rosenthal started reaching out to other local brewers in an effort to sell off equipment. That outreach – Rosenthal’s effort to sell kegs, a fermenter, and other equipment – earned the brewery a respite.

When Rosenthal reached out to Brendan O’Leary, founder of True Respite, O’Leary was, in his own words, “floored by the news.” He went on to say that, “Brawling Bear opened before we did and they were out hustling every day telling the story of their product. I thought back to all the festivals we poured beside each other and to conversations with mutual retailers who proudly spoke of supporting local when they bought in Brawling Bear beer. This brand had become a MoCo staple and I hated the idea of seeing it go.”

The news, which was not public at the time, was something that hit O’Leary hard. “I told Eric how shocked and devastated I was to lose a brewery I looked up to almost like an older sibling. He simply said although he’d really love to see the brand live on, he’d already had time to mourn the loss and was now laser focused on the business aspects of closing. That was a lightbulb moment for me.”

Where Rosenthal and Rogers saw an ending, O’Leary saw the potential void that would be left by the closing of the small brewery. O’Leary saw an opportunity to preserve part of Montgomery County’s brewing heritage. “At True Respite, we have a strong attachment to MoCo given all the support we’ve received from our neighbors, the county government, and our brewing peers,” he explained. “We felt we could honor Eric and Jenn’s contributions to the industry and we could save a MoCo staple in the process. So we worked out a deal to acquire most of Brawling Bear’s physical and IP assets to keep the brand going under the True Respite umbrella. We really liked how the portfolio and the brand generally complemented but did not compete with what we’re creating at True Respite.”

The corporate word for what O’Leary saw when he looked at how Brawling Bear fit with True Respite is synergy. “When we considered whether or not we felt we could make a real go of it with this brand, we thought of how Eric and Jenn were hustling their butts off as owner-operators without the support of a distributor nor in-house sales nor delivery staff,” O’Leary noted. “Plus, they were paying contract brewing fees to have the beer contract brewed off-site. At True Respite, we already have the infrastructure and relationships in place to give the brand the care and focus it deserves at the scale it deserves. Plus, our available capacity allows us to brew the beer on-site which is a nice operational cost savings on every case and keg. The result: Brawling Bear gets to live on and stay home.”

O’Leary reviewed Brawling Bear’s portfolio and branding, “and felt that a little label refresh and SKU simplification could help highlight the new transition while still staying true to the vision that Eric and Jenn had originally laid out for the brand. So we tweaked the can label designs to be highly familiar to existing customers but with a slightly more modern flair and we’re consolidating the brand into just two delicious flagship beers: an IPA and a lager.”

Right now, O’Leary is experimenting with the Brawling Bear beers in order to rebuild the line. “By now, we’ve been able to brew and release two IPA concepts to potentially fill that IPA slot: Brawling Bear IPA – the OG recipe, canned for the first time at True Respite” earlier this month, he said. “And Blindside IPA – our own recipe that we feel best represents our take on the Brawling Bear brand and the space it’s meant to occupy. We’re paying close attention to the feedback we receive on these beers from our retail customers and our consumers plus how they perform with respect to sales volumes. Soon, we’ll pick a horse and ride it.”

Brawling Bear Lager, which was brewed earlier in December will be a simple pale lager – the lager common to, and associated with American brewing of the early 20th Century. “The beauty of this style is that it appeals to both craft newcomers and seasoned craft lovers alike,” he said, “and through True Respite’s animal lager series, we’ve gotten the word out that we can absolutely crush the classic lagers with the detail and consistency necessary to really shine in the space. Brawling Bear Lager is our opportunity to do so with consistency.”

The short term plans for Brawling Bear is to release the beers in 12oz 6-packs, aiming for a reasonable price-point, and post-pandemic the plan is to start kegging. O’Leary believes that the beers will be an area staple “at Maryland restaurants and bars looking for an affordable local favorite that their guests will recognize.”

Brawling Bear’s lease was expiring at the time of the acquisition, allowing O’Leary and the True Respite crew to bring operations in house and under the same roof, sparing O’Leary the complications of running two separate brewing facilities. “Since we have only acquired the assets from Brawling Bear, but not their actual business entity, we are able to brew the Brawling Bear brand under our True Respite licenses. Now we brew, sell, and pour all of the Brawling Bear beers right at home out of our True Respite brewery and tap room in Rockville.

“As for Brawling Bear vs. True Respite, there’s no need to complicate things with respect to business entities, brewing locations, etc. We own the naming trademarks and we have acquired the original beer recipes as well as the full suite of Brawling Bear branded merchandise, equipment, and more. We can simply brew it all with our existing capacity right under our one roof in Rockville. It’s far simpler and more efficient this way.”

With True Respite continuing with the same business model, and portfolio of beers – three flagships, along with a rotating support cast, “these two brands allow us to best serve two entirely distinct market segments: cost-conscious buyers – and converting macro drinkers – seeking a great, reliable local option and uncompromising craft aficionados seeking the newest and very best, said O’Leary.

I can’t express to you the peaks and valleys we’ve experienced in such a short amount of time,” he continued. “I don’t think ‘difficult’ even begins to describe it. But rather than focus on what I pray is the most chaotic and impossible year of our lives, I’d rather focus on my gratitude for the support we’ve received from a veritable horde of selfless people. Family, friends, neighbors… We’re so lucky to have experienced the outpouring of love and support we have. I’ll never properly be able to say thank you to everyone who has reached out or lent a hand.”

O’Leary added, “In addition to our True Respite products, OtherSide Beverage is selling and distributing our Brawling Bear products throughout all counties in Maryland except MoCo and Frederick where we are still self-distributing, plus statewide in Delaware. We self-distribute True Respite and Brawling Bear products throughout D.C. as well.”