Breweries Are Making Space for Drag Performers - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Breweries Are Making Space for Drag Performers

Moving to another city means finding favorite coffee shops, restaurants, and bars where you can feel welcome in your new community. When the pandemic upheaval led Erick Rivera, who identifies as gay, to leave Chicago for the familial embrace of his hometown, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he found a glaring lack of gay bars and spaces catering to the LGBTQ community.

Pessimists might see a serious drag. Instead, Rivera viewed absence as an opportunity to create gay-friendly drag brunches, karaoke nights, dance parties, and even campouts. Rivera founded Queer Winston Salem in 2021. His event production company began small, hosting a drag brunch at a small beer garden, and as demand grew, Rivera looked for larger venues that could hold upward of 250 people.

“The only places big enough for that were the breweries,” says Rivera, who found receptive homes at area breweries including Joymongers and Radar. Attendees buy tickets for performances, food trucks supply sustenance, and the taprooms serve bubbly IPAs and Mimosas alike. “It’s kind of this utopian solution to not having a gay bar,” Rivera says.

Much like craft beer, drag has traveled from cultural fringes to the mainstream. The gender-bending entertainment, in which people don clothing and stylized makeup to assume flamboyant forms of femininity and masculinity, typically of the opposite sex, is part of the pop-culture zeitgeist thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race and other reality shows. Drag queens and drag kings regularly dance, lip-synch, and do bawdy comedy routines at clubs, gay bars, theaters, and themed restaurants.

Drag performances are bringing new audiences to taprooms, introducing guests to craft beer and fostering affable environments.

Now brewery taprooms are emerging as drag’s next great stage. Drag performances are bringing new audiences to taprooms, introducing guests to craft beer and fostering affable environments. Equally beneficial, drag events inject taprooms with levity and humor, bringing a collective buzz to complement that hazy IPA. “It’s so cool to get 100 strangers in a room just organically laughing and smiling,” says Sara Kazmer, a founder of Atlanta’s Elsewhere Brewing, which hosts a bimonthly drag brunch. “It’s the absolute best energy that we feel ever in the taproom.”

Prior to the pandemic, brewery taprooms emerged as thriving neighborhood hubs. Customers came for cold beer and warm conversation, a modern town square drawing friends, kids, families, and canine companions. The Covid crisis scrambled taprooms’ functions. Breweries became pickup spots for to-go beer and shipping stations for four-packs delivered to distant doorsteps, no humans needed.

As we continue rebuilding from the pandemic rubble, the hospitality business is finding there’s no boomerang to the before times. Guests are embracing early bird dinners and calling last call long before midnight. “People are really particular about how and when they go out,” says Kazmer, who owns Elsewhere with her husband, Sam. “It’s got to be an event or something special.” To entice people to leave Netflix-equipped homes, breweries are adding drag to event calendars.

Following a spring 2021 trip to Palm Springs, California, where “there were drag shows everywhere,” Kazmer returned with a resolve to launch drag entertainment at Elsewhere with A Lott to Love Events. Time of day was top of mind. Instead of an after-dark event, she wanted to bring drag into the bright daytime light bathing Elsewhere’s airy taproom. Moreover, the brewery’s LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood is “more interested in going out earlier,” Kazmer says.

Elsewhere bustles with a before-noon crowd … and drag queens have a safe and receptive space to perform in.

Elsewhere ran its first drag brunch in June 2021—Pride Month—and has since offered bimonthly weekend drag brunches that typically sell 75 to 100 tickets per event. Elsewhere bustles with a before-noon crowd (“People naturally come to breweries for lunch and later,” Kazmer says), and drag queens have a safe and receptive space to perform in. “It’s very much a give-give,” she says. “It really brings a lot of financial success to the taproom, and then everyone in return has a good time.”

The right day can make or break a drag brunch. In mid-2021, Funky Picnic Brewery and Café in Fort Worth, Texas, began hosting drag brunches on Mondays, but brunching during the work week was a tough sell. Funky Picnic tried a few late-night events on weekends before settling on Saturday mornings. “We went from maybe selling half of our tables to selling out completely and people asking when the next one was,” says co-owner and general manager Samantha Glenn. The monthly brunch draws large groups, including birthday and bachelorette parties. “It’s a really good way for people to come in and get their first experience of drag.”

Poison Waters Drag Queen Bingo
Poison Waters leads a Drag Queen Bingo event in Portland. | Photo by Leah Nash

Running drag events was a no-brainer at Red Bear Brewing in Washington, D.C. “The owners are three men that love beer and are gay,” says Bryan Van Den Oever, an owner and the director of marketing and events. “It was not hard for us to say that drag can be in a brewery space.” Led by emcee Desiree Dik, the brewery offers a diverse range of drag events, including bingo, brunch, watch parties for RuPaul’s Drag Race, and an amateur drag competition called Slay Them. “We’re giving them a platform to springboard their career into performing,” Van Den Oever says.

Connecting with the right performers is important. Jeff Lyons opened Endless Life Brewing in Brooklyn in early 2021 and hoped to host drag performances, but “I wasn’t having the right conversations with the right people,” he says. Endless Life hosted a produce pickup for a community-supported agriculture program, and one day a CSA member approached Lyons. Would he be interested in hosting a drag event? That chance meeting with Svetlana Stoli, a drag performer who lived nearby, led Endless Life to start a weekly drag queen bingo event late last year.

The Friday drag bingo, which doubled as a watch party for the latest season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, has helped Endless Life rethink its beverage program. Normally, 75 percent of the brewery’s sales are beer, with the balance made up of wine, cider, spirits, draft cocktails, and nonalcoholic options. “On Friday nights we’re doing 25 percent beer,” says Lyons, who has widened his beyond-beer offerings. Friday is one of Endless Life’s strongest nights, a weekly reminder of what it means to run a brewery today. “You want to open a brewery because you fall in love with beer and the process of making beer, but you open a taproom because you want to be part of a community,” Lyons says.

For drag queens and kings, only performing at gay bars, clubs, and other LGBTQ-friendly venues can make it difficult to broaden a fan base. Many drag performers are discovering that brewery taprooms can draw big crowds. “I don’t do any shows at gay bars,” says Austin, Texas, drag queen Eileen Dover. One day last year, Dover walked into local brewery Meanwhile, where she found a welcoming vibe and excellent customer service. Something was absent. “I was like, why don’t I see other people like me in here?” She approached management about adding drag, leading to the creation of BrewPaul’s Drag Show.

The first event took place last August on Meanwhile’s outdoor stage and drew more than 700 people. “I’ve done drag for seven years, and it was really crazy to have 700-plus people all engaged and interactive,” says Dover, who now runs a bimonthly edition of BrewPaul’s Drag Show at Meanwhile. Performing before an enthusiastic audience feels “like superstar level of drag,” Dover says. “It’s just a really welcoming, warm feeling.”

Breweries can provide new venues for veteran performers. Kevin Cook of Portland, Oregon, began performing as Poison Waters in 1988, and he spent the first two decades of his drag career working in gay venues and pageants around Oregon, plus private shows for corporations and nonprofit fundraisers. His client mix took a hoppy turn in 2011 when the McMenamins chain of brewpubs, hotels, and music venues asked Cook to perform at the Crystal Hotel. (The building formerly housed a gay bar and bathhouse.)

Nicole Halliwell Drag Events Unlimited at Gulf Stream Brewing Company
Nicole Halliwell of Drag Events Unlimited at Gulf Stream Brewing Company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. | Photo by James Holmes Photography

The performance was supposed to be a one-off, but “something clicked with their clientele,” Cook says. Twelve years later, Cook continues to do drag bingos, brunches, and shows at McMenamins properties in Oregon and Washington, and he runs a monthly drag brunch and bingo at Rogue Ales & Spirits’ Portland location. “We’re never at a loss for audience members and enthusiasm in those venues,” Cook says, adding that about 90 percent of his career revolves around drag bingo. “It really fits well with breweries,” he says. “People have a beer in one hand, a bingo dauber in the other, and they can socialize.”

Drag queen Nicole Halliwell’s Florida-based Drag Events Unlimited operates multiple themed shows, including a national comedy tour called Hilariously Inappropriate Drag Queen Bingo: A Comedy Show With Balls, which she performs at a half-dozen breweries across the Sunshine State, including Gulf Stream Brewing, and other venues nationwide. “Craft beer spaces have been such a gem for opening people’s eyes,” she says, adding that straight men are more at ease experiencing this type of entertainment for the first time. “It helps break down stigma. These guys will go back to their buddies and say, “Hey, I went to a drag show and it was an amazing experience. You should come with us next time.’”

Performing for primarily straight crowds led Halliwell to recast bingo as a comedy show tailored to her core crowd of women. After shows, she chatted with audience members about pet peeves with their partners. Now her routine is centered around “making fun of their husbands and talking about faking it during sex,” Halliwell says. “Once you get that first laugh out of them, it helps build a connection.” That also means the drink choices. Halliwell works with breweries to create special drink menus that might include a Mimosa mixing lager and fresh-squeezed orange juice, or a riff on the Lemon Drop blending lager and lemonade, then served with a tart-and-sweet rim. Missing from a night’s menu: beer jokes. “They just don’t land,” Halliwell says. “People coming to the show at the brewery are not beer enthusiasts.”

Drag performers are discovering that they can add an enticing ingredient to taprooms: joy and laughter.

Sitting around a taproom and analyzing beer isn’t everyone’s flight of fancy. Drag performers are discovering that they can add an enticing ingredient to taprooms: joy and laughter. “When you go to a brewery you just want to have fun,” says Trevor Lee Straub, the owner and show producer of MI Drag Brunch, which began business in 2018. His troupe of Brunchettes, as he calls his company’s drag queens, regularly appears at Michigan breweries including Founders and New Holland. “As people are leaving, we just hear time after time again, ‘This is one of our favorite places to see you guys.’”

BinKyee Bellflower at Drag Queen Bingo
BinKyee Bellflower at Drag Queen Bingo. | Photo by Leah Nash

Breweries once sat on the sidelines of the simmering culture wars. Put politics aside, crack open cold beers, and agree to disagree. But presenting a brewery as a hoppy Switzerland is impossible, especially if it hosts drag performances—a weaponized topic in today’s cultural discourse.

As of February, lawmakers in nine states have proposed at least 20 bills that would restrict or ban drag performances, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Drag shows and story hours draw prickly protests, and bars, clubs, and breweries are increasingly caught in the crosshairs of outrage. In December, Switchyard Brewing in Bloomington, Indiana, received phone threats about its drag brunch. That same month, a group of Proud Boys—a violent far-right group designated as a terrorist organization in some countries—assembled outside Jacksonville, Florida, brewery Tepeyolot Cerveceria to protest its holiday drag brunch. And November’s deadly shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, during a drag performance, still hangs heavy.

“I told everybody that we made the space to include everyone. I want everyone to feel safe, no matter who you are.”—Edgar Preciado, Beer Thug Brewing

Soon after Beer Thug Brewing posted a flyer for its inaugural January drag show at its Bell, California, taproom, “I got death threats,” says owner Edgar Preciado. The hot-button issue was a flyer announcing that all ages were welcome, nothing unusual for Beer Thug. “Our brewery is always family-friendly,” Preciado says. “People always come with the kids.” Preciado remained unbowed and pushed forward with the event, hiring armed security guards and checking guests for weapons. Preciado addressed the packed crowd prior to the show. “I told everybody that we made the space to include everyone. I want everyone to feel safe, no matter who you are.”

For breweries, navigating controversy is now the new normal. During the pandemic’s uncertain early months, Beale’s Beer in conservative Bedford, Virginia, adhered to masking guidelines, causing plenty of consternation. “People looked at you like some sort of alien if you were masking,” says vice president of operations Emily Sanfratella. Online discourse grew heated and people started sending nasty emails. Instead of deleting them, the brewery transformed digital vitriol into labels for its Trollthe Troll beer series, including a porter named Your Manager Is Bitch.

Eileen Dower at BrewPaul's Drag Show
Eileen Dower at BrewPaul’s Drag Show at Meanwhile Brewing in Austin, Texas. | Photo by Melanie Grizzel

The tactic helped establish principled new ground rules for Beale’s. So when the brewery’s lead bartender approached management about hosting a drag brunch, it “felt like it was okay to take that risk,” Sanfratella says. “We were comfortable knowing that you don’t have to please everyone to run a successful business.” Yes, people pasted Bible verses on the brewery’s Facebook page, but positive responses outweighed any negativity. “We heard from LGBTQ folks who grew up locally and moved away, who said they never thought a day like this would come to Bedford,” Sanfratella says.

One challenge with events, drag included, is keeping them fresh so customers stay engaged. Straub of MI Drag Brunch favors a quarterly return policy, while Funky Picnic offers a wider variety of drag programming in its bimonthly calendar. “You want every seat to be full because of the energy it brings,” says Elsewhere’s Kazmer. At Denver’s queer-run Goldspot Brewing, owner and head brewer Kelissa Hieber regularly offered several drag events, including bingo and brunch. But with the local market for drag events getting saturated, the brewery is shifting its focus to other activities such as queer comedy and karaoke, plus an ongoing pop-up called Homos and Homies that unites BIPOC and queer artists and vendors, vegan food, and craft beer. “You can make the best beer in the world, but you have to offer something else at this point,” Hieber says.

Drag has been interlinked with entertainment for centuries, from Shakespeare’s plays to Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire.

Drag has been interlinked with entertainment for centuries, from Shakespeare’s plays to Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. It courses through culture, lauded then misunderstood, as social mores sway and evolve. Plugging drag performances into a brewery’s event calendar isn’t a cure-all for cultivating inclusivity, expanding audiences, and attracting fickle guests. Success requires a conscientious buy-in from both brewery and drag performers, each side being a little vulnerable to work together to try something new. Maybe it’s the round peg for a square hole, or the missing piece to a puzzling question: What brings people together?

“Drag is not only an entertainment form for the gay community, it’s a bridge that helps to unite people,” Halliwell says. “We can close the gap by getting people to come in and laugh, have a good time, drop their guard, and experience what people in the gay community are like.”

Enjoy This Article?

Sign up for our newsletter and get biweekly recipes and articles delivered to your inbox.

Send this to a friend