Come for the beers, stay for the singing fish heads: RAR Brewing opens its first taproom west of the Chesapeake Bay
- January 19, 2024
There’s a lot to take in at Chessie’s Wharf, RAR Brewing’s new taproom and restaurant in West Annapolis.
You might start with the gold tap handles, modeled in the shape of “Chessie,” the Chesapeake Bay’s very own version of the Loch Ness sea monster. Maybe you’ll focus on the faux seagulls perched on the windowsills and peering over beer refrigerators, or the merchandise stall in the back that looks like a fish counter, with T-shirts and beer cans piled atop fake “ice.”
But owner Chris Brohawn thinks one display, in particular, will be the taproom’s showpiece. Whether you’re sitting at the bar or at one of the long wooden high-top tables, you can’t miss it: an assortment of 26 Big Mouth Billy Bass plaques mounted high on one wall, singing in unison.
Yes, that Big Mouth Billy Bass, the animatronic fish you probably first encountered in your uncle’s basement. Brohawn hired a Brooklyn, New York-based designer to program his fish so they can sing any song he chooses, from sea shanties to Backstreet Boys hits. The singalong happens every hour at Chessie’s Wharf, which opened Jan. 16.
Finding a distinctive theme was important to Brohawn as he prepared for RAR Brewing’s first taproom west of the Chesapeake Bay. The craft brewery, which got its start in Cambridge in 2013, already has a handful of vibe-y sister bars and restaurants on the Eastern Shore: there’s the LabRARtory, a subway-tiled cocktail bar next door; the “insurance office turned nostalgic 80’s baby taproom and kitchen” at Chessie’s Burger; and The Dive Club, a nautical-themed tiki bar that takes inspiration from the Rainforest Cafe, with “thunderstorms” rolling in every hour.
For Chessie’s Wharf, Brohawn looked to fish markets, especially San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, for design inspo. And though there are references to RAR Brewing throughout — and 28 RAR beers served on tap — the popular brewery isn’t name-checked on the sign out front.
“We wanted to not necessarily call it RAR,” Brohawn said. “I feel like a lot of brands water themselves down. So, much like the Dive Club, we’re kind of expanding into more of just our self-brands, I guess you could say.”
Still, RAR’s beers will be a major draw for craft brew lovers, many of whom go out of their way to stop at the Cambridge brewery on the way to Ocean City. Brohawn said RAR’s biggest markets are in Baltimore, Baltimore County and Washington, D.C.
“We’ve always done really well in Annapolis, and restaurants and to-go stores around here,” he said.
The brewery’s first Western shore outpost follows a decade of growth. Brohawn — who said he’s been an entrepreneur since he started selling World Wrestling Entertainment pencils to classmates in the first grade — developed a home brewing passion in his late 20s, setting up a mini brewing system in the crab-picking room at Ocean Odyssey, his friend’s family restaurant in Cambridge, during the off-season as he worked on a business plan. His first investment came from Duane Marshall, a businessman and college friend of his father’s, who wrote a $75,000 check to help get the fledgling brewery off the ground. Another early investment came from his high school guidance counselor, Bobby Howard.
Brohawn picked a historic pool hall building on Cambridge’s Poplar Street for RAR’s taproom.
When he was a kid, the pool hall had billiards and an arcade, hotdogs and fountain sodas. “It was a spot where you could sit next to the mayor and a plumber, or whatever anyone was,” he said. “My grandma would take me there, I would play pinball, she would get us hotdogs and sodas. And I’ve always loved the spot.”
He transformed the space, adding string lights and murals, and opened in August 2013. For the first seven months, the bar served other beers on tap, while Brohawn worked on raising funds to brew enough of his own beer to supply the draft system. The taproom arrived right at the start of a nationwide craft beer renaissance.
RAR’s subsequent expansions were concentrated in Cambridge, but Brohawn, who spent time living in Columbia as a young man, had his eye on crossing the Bay Bridge. He said he scoped out potential locations in Baltimore and D.C. before landing on the West Annapolis space, a former Mexican restaurant at 609 Melvin Ave.
The area, about a mile from downtown Annapolis, reminded him of Cambridge in RAR’s early days. New businesses have been cropping up nearby, such as the neighboring Always Ice Cream Co. and InGrano, which will soon take over the former Flamant building.
“The vibe is a lot like what Cambridge went through when we first opened,” Brohawn said.
Chessie’s Wharf serves staple RAR beers like Nanticoke Nectar, a dark gold IPA that was Brohawn’s first concoction for the brewery, as well as special edition brews like the thick, Creamsicle-colored Westside Connection, a sour beer collaboration with Always Ice Cream Co. that tastes like a cross between carrot cake and Smith Island cake.
There are also 10 beers from other craft breweries on draft, as well as several fridges full of cans to-go. The restaurant also serves cocktails and mocktails (“I’m still trying to figure Gen Z out,” says Brohawn, citing research that shows younger adults drink less than previous generations.)
To eat, there are snacks like fried crab balls and pretzel bites, and more filling items like the Chessie Deluxe (double beef patties topped with lettuce, pickles, onions, RAR sauce and American cheese on a butter bun) and the Pool Hall Dog, a classic beef frank.
Though his focus has been on opening the Annapolis taproom, Brohawn said he’s got his sights set on future growth. He envisions opening more Dive Clubs and eventually turning Chessie Burger into a fast-food chain.
But for now, he hopes to build on RAR’s Western Shore audience.
“We’ve done our best to listen to our customers, and it seemed like the biggest hurdle was getting people across the Bay Bridge and Eastern Shore,” he said. “Now we can capture people if they’re on their way to Ocean City, because it’s easy.”
- Celebrity News
- Editors Picks
- Most Recent Obituaries
- Movies TV
- News & Advice
- Politics Election
- Theater Arts
- Top Stories
- Tribune Review Obituaries
- Valley News Dispatch