Today (Nov. 8th) at Bellevue Brewing Company, they’ll celebrate the life of John Robertson. All are welcome to come enjoy beers and share stories starting at 4:00.
I heard the news on October 30th that John Robertson, the founder of Bellevue Brewing Company, had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. He was just 50 years old when he suffered a massive heart attack. More than a brewery founder and owner, John was a father and a husband.
I first met John in 2010 when his plan for Bellevue Brewing was just coming together. He’d secured the location and was getting ready to start building the brewery and the business. I think the story I wrote back then speaks well to John’s character and that is why I’ve reposted it below.
As originally published September 2nd, 2010
This is the first in a series of stories I will write about the Bellevue Brewing Company. I find myself emotionally invested in this one. While the building of a new brewery is a beautiful and glorious thing that always tickles my fancy, this one hits really close to home. In this post, I want to lay the foundation: the story behind the Bellevue Brewing Company (find them on Facebook).
A Sprawling Beerless Wasteland
John Robertson doesn’t want to offend anyone by saying it aloud, but he cannot help recognizing that Bellevue is behind the curve when it comes to craft beer. He does not call it a “beer wasteland” because he never wants to badmouth his hometown. He simply sees it as a problem that he intends to fix.
Robertson fully recognizes that Rock Bottom Brewery in downtown Bellevue makes some excellent beer. He also knows that Rock Bottom [updated: now closed] is a chain of breweries spread across the United States. He knows that the Taphouse Grill in Bellevue [updated: now closed] has one-hundred-something beers on tap. You do not need to remind him about those two downtown establishments or any of the sadly few other places around town that offer a barely passable selection of craft beer. He knows Bellevue inside-out. He is a native and a current resident.
Like Robertson, I am also a Bellevue native. I grew up there and spent a significant portion of my adult life there. I have a realistic opinion of the beer scene in my old stomping grounds. When it comes to beer, Bellevue needs some tough love.
I recently met with Robertston at the Pumphouse Bar and Grill (one of the better places to drink good beer in Bellevue) to talk about his plans to open the Bellevue Brewing Company. His enthusiasm is infectious. His motivation is pure of heart. His success seems imminent.
Good Beer and Baseball Jerseys
Instead of building something in one of downtown Bellevue’s glass towers, which might more aptly match many people’s stereotypical visions of a Bellevue brewpub, Roberston has secured a location in a much more modest part of town. Instead of designing a pub with a polished, corporate or franchised feel, he is creating a place that is casual and comfortable. Rather than worry about creating a logo based on feedback from focus groups, he seems more concerned about how it will look on a Little League baseball jersey.
“No doubt the beer must be great,” Robertson says. “All of the other things we want to do start with great beer. In this market, you cannot produce an inferior product and expect people not to notice.”
Robertson tells us that he is ready to assemble a team that will quickly put Bellevue Brewing Company on the beer map. He says that he is looking for, and assembling, the best of the best. We get the feeling he is farther down the road to building his brewery team than he’s letting on. He is noticeably tight-lipped about that part of the plan.
Serving the Community
While there might be some secrets about who will be manning the brewhouse, Robertson happily shares details about the rest of his vision. The plan is for Bellevue Brewing Company to be an integral part of the community. Not just part of the business landscape, but a visible and important part of the real community.
If you live up north in Bellingham, you know how deeply involved in the community Boundary Bay Brewing has become. If you live in West Seattle, you know how important Elliott Bay Brewery is to the community. John Robertson imagines Bellevue Brewing Company having a similar place in the hearts and lives of the people of Bellevue.
“I believe that if you want to invest in the future, you should invest in children,” he tells us. “If you show kids that you believe in them and you want them to succeed, and that you think they can succeed, then they will succeed. We intend to do a lot of work in the community to benefit organizations that help kids be great.”
He tells us that he imagines crews of people wearing Bellevue Brewing Company T-shirts fixing up local parks, cleaning up roadsides, painting houses, and generally working to make the community better.
Literally, when he showed us some of the preliminary artwork, he said, “Wouldn’t that look great on a Little League jersey?”
He wants the people of Bellevue to be proud of their brewery. Robertson recognizes that the business must make money in order to do the things they want to do. That leads him back to the same point, “But it all starts with world-class beer.”
Location, Location, Location
The Bellevue Brewing Company will be located not far off of Highway 520, between two major arterial routes. Robertson has secured 12,000 square-feet off of 130th Ave. NE in the part of town referred to as the Bel-Red corridor. For old-time Bellevue guys like me, I’d describe it as being next to Angelo’s.
This is not exactly the heart of Bellevue’s thriving retail hub. This is not the land of shimmering glass and towering steel that most outsiders think of when they think of Bellevue. This is the real Bellevue, removed from the skyscraping glitter of downtown Kemperville. Not that there is anything wrong with downtown, it’s just that most of Bellevue is significantly different than Bellevue Square.
Existing, albeit pending, plans call for a light rail transit station in this area—within walking distance of the Bellevue Brewing Company. Urban planners look at the open spaces and available properties nearby, anxiously waiting for a time when condo and apartment developers get active again. This is not lost on Robertson, who knows a thing or two about real estate and the current financial situation facing real estate developers.
Robertson doesn’t hide the fact that he comes from a different place than many other would-be-brewery-owners. He isn’t a brewer or a restaurant guy. He doesn’t have a background in the beer or service industry. He’s a businessman who has built a career for himself by helping real estate developers find the financing they need to realize their projects. Now he is ready to move on to new challenges.
“There comes a time when you look at what you’ve done in life and think about what it’s really worth,” he says. “I’m at a point where it just feels like I should be contributing more to this community.”
“Bellevue has changed a lot since we grew up here,” he tells me. “Today, a third of the city’s population wasn’t born in America. Downtown is unrecognizable compared to when we were in high school. Bellevue has a new face, but it is still the same great town where we grew up.”
He’s right. Bellevue was a great place to grow up. He’s also right that it has changed. I could go on and on remembering the Bellevue of my youth, but that’s not productive. I like Robertson’s approach. Let’s move forward and build something great. Let’s make Bellevue great for the kids growing up there now. And, for crying-out-loud, let’s get Bellevue its own brewery!
One thing that hasn’t changed over all of these many years is that Bellevue is still my hometown. In case you cannot tell, the fact that Bellevue is about to get a brewery—a brewery built by a local guy like me and not some big corporation—makes me very, very happy.
The architects are working on plans. Soon, the build out will begin. I look forward to telling you more as the plan unfolds.