It’s spring in northwest Washington, and Otherlands Beer is not on our radar—we haven’t even heard of it, to be honest—but when enough brewers in the area say you need to go to a place, you go.
One thing is clear upon arrival: This is not a taproom—it’s a café. The sidewalk terrace bustles in the last hours of sunlight as guests enjoy falafel, salads, and tall krugs of helles. There are flowers on the tables, inside and out. Upstairs, there are two Lukr side-pull taps on the bar and enamel signs from a few of Europe’s best small breweries. The hospitality is not built around the brewery—on the contrary, the seven-barrel kit is off to the side, not the main attraction. It supplies the café without being its only reason for existence.
This place is not like the others, and that’s part of why it appeals to those brewers—and why European-inspired, lager-centric Otherlands has grown a strong following in Bellingham, about 90 miles north of Seattle.
The cofounders are Karolina Lobrow and Ben Howe; longtime partners, the two got their business loan in May 2019 and married the next month. They opened Otherlands a year later. Since then, it’s typical to see both of them greeting guests, waiting tables, or closing down the kitchen.
Like all couples who plan and open businesses together, the two had some fantastic ideas about what it would be like. Like all couples who run businesses together, they’ve made compromises—but what’s distinctive about Otherlands is how few compromises they’ve made, all things considered, and how closely they’ve adhered to their vision.
At the heart of that vision is an alluring fantasy about running a small, sustainable family business—“Let’s just make this small space that we can control,” Lobrow says. “And I do think you can be successful at that. I do think that you can find a balance where you’re not there 100 hours a week like we are, and that’s our goal for ourselves.
“A lot of other business owners that we talk to, they’re like, ‘What are you guys doing? Like, why are you mopping the floors?’ For us, it’s figuring out the balance of what we have to control in order to make sure that everything continues to be excellent.”
Chickens as Friends
For different reasons and from different places, European food, drink, and hospitality have made strong impressions on both Lobrow and Howe.
“Rather than saying, ‘Hey, here are 10 or 20 of our own beers, and welcome to this warehouse; look at how talented we are at making all these different things,’ it’s a different kind of cultural concept,” Howe says. “‘Here’s the beer we make—it’s one or two things, and you’re at our place. It’s our brewery, it’s also our house. And we’re going to serve the food that’s like the kind of food that we eat.’”
The dream went through several iterations. At one point, Howe wanted to have a B&B attached—just two or three rooms, to make it a proper guesthouse. “I was like, ‘Absolutely not,’” Lobrow says. “No way are we going to do that. But the concept that you’re in somebody’s home and you’re kind of being taken care of, I think that carried over—even though, thankfully, the sleeping-over part did not.”
Then there was “Chickens as Friends”—that was the idea that the brewery could be a little cottage out in the woods, serving vegetarian food and making only one really excellent beer. “That was a romantic idea we had,” Lobrow says, “where we thought you could have two customers a day, and it would hilariously keep you afloat. But there’d be a garden, and it’d be beautiful. And you’d be outside with the chickens running around, and you could stay there, and it would just be this very rustic countryside place where you’ve just created this little oasis of comfort and good food and beer.”
The soul of Chickens as Friends still lives in Otherlands, “just scaled up a bit,” Howe says. There are no chickens, but there are a few hungry crows hanging around. The beer menu is short and focused—a few lagers, a couple of saisons, usually an IPA. “It’s a lot bigger than Chickens as Friends would have been,” he says. “But that core dream of the place, it definitely influenced it.”
Lobrow’s training and experience was in nonprofits and international development, often in charge of fundraising. “As we started developing the business plan for Otherlands, it just translated enormously,” she says. “I do not think I could be doing a lot of the things I am now without the accounting, fundraising, and finance background.”
While she keeps the books and Howe brews, rarely does one make a business-related decision without consulting the other. Arriving at a choice for even the smallest touches can be an elaborate process.
“We are problematically codependent on our decision-making,” Lobrow says. “Everything takes us so much more time because we both have to hash it out. And we have to come to an agreement, whether it’s a kitchen-equipment purchase or a new food-menu item that we’re doing. Ben talks to me about the brewing schedule—what’s coming on deck? What should we bottle? How much should we bottle? What should the label look like? What is the name of this breakfast burrito that we’re going to be serving?
“It’s just a lot of consensus building—which I think works really well. But it just takes forever.”
The Power of Cute & Cozy
“We wanted a very beautiful place,” Lobrow says. “What I mean by beautiful is [that] we wanted it to be filled with flowers and artwork, and we wanted it to be cozy. We wanted it to have some more delicate features to it.”
Some of that influence comes from Lobrow’s years as a beer enthusiast, visiting places that seem to be made by and for men. “We did intentionally think of what would make a space feel more welcoming to women, from certain things as basic as the temperature in the room,” she says. “Sometimes women want to get dressed up. They want to look nice, and they go out to a brewery or a taproom, and it’s freezing cold in there. You can’t ever take your coat off.”
Then there’s the look of Otherlands: “It’s cute, and cozy, and pretty,” she says. “And I think what surprised us is that everybody seems to enjoy that part of it. We were a little concerned. … Is this going to feel too feminine? But a lot of folks respond to it, not just women.”
The Otherlands’ ambiance is warmer and more welcoming than typical industrial taprooms; it has an old-fashioned sensibility. “I’m not trying to disparage them,” Howe says, “but a lot of places that I’ve worked, and a lot of places that I like to drink, there [aren’t] a whole lot of women there. The clientele feels very uniform. … One of the accomplishments is that we have a lot of women. Younger women, and especially older women, will come in at noon on a Thursday, and just sit there and have a couple of helles and eat latkes for two hours. I’ve never worked at a place that has succeeded in having that.”
The café even hosts a women’s book club, Lobrow says. “And when they come in, I say, ‘You are who we’ve been waiting for.’”
“Not just a large group of women,” Howe says, “but a large group of women who are into literature. And they come here to talk about literature!”
The Sneaky Menu
Lobrow was born in Communist Poland; her family immigrated to the United States in 1989, when she was five. They temporarily moved back when she was in elementary school, and then came back to the States again, and she would return occasionally to stay the summer and visit grandparents. “My parents did a very good job maintaining our connection to the language and the culture,” she says.
It’s a background she often took for granted—until she found herself running an Old World–influenced café. Neither she nor her family thought anyone would be interested in Polish dishes. “Whatever you do, don’t you dare say you’re serving Eastern European food, or you’re dead in the water,” her father told her. “No one wants that. Nobody’s ever wanted that.”
So, at first, their focus was more on German biergarten staples and Belgian frites. Then they started to try out certain dishes from the family repertoire, such as pierogies, borscht, latkes, and paczki (Polish doughnuts)—and people ordered them. Now they keep coming back for them. That, Lowbrow says, “is just the most lovely thing: when you see things that you grew up with, that are very normal to you, and other people get really excited by them. … People love beets, apparently.”
The menu is stealth vegetarian. That’s by design—they don’t make a big thing about it. As a guest, you might not even realize it unless you search the menu specifically for meat, only to realize there isn’t any. They hired local chef Noël Keyes, a specialist in vegan and vegetarian cooking, to oversee their kitchen. The menu doesn’t lack hearty options; they hear plenty of compliments from omnivores, and nobody who seriously likes good food will complain.
“I think this is one of the things that we’re most happy about, is that we’ve gotten away with it,” Lobrow says. Vegetarian cooking always was their plan for the business, but it was not an idea that thrilled investors. “They were like, ‘What are you going to do about people wanting meat?’ And our answer was always, ‘If we’re going to lose our business, we’ll put a burger on. We’re not going to die on this hill, necessarily.’ So, it’s just been really cool to see how long we’ve gotten away with this.”
The Path to Otherlands, via Other Lands
Howe is originally from Wilbraham, in western Massachusetts. He moved to Boston at 18 and got a degree in history at Boston University. He also got deeply into homebrewing. Deciding that he wanted to work in beer, he started sending out letters and resumes, looking for entry-level jobs. It was Will Meyers, brewmaster of Cambridge Brewing, who finally offered him a shot as assistant brewer—washing kegs, cleaning tanks, waiting tables, and anything else that needed doing. Cambridge is also where Howe and Lobrow met in the fall of 2013; she worked there, too, as a server/host/bartender.
It was under the guidance of Meyers—and the supervision of Megan Parisi, now at Boston Beer Company—that Howe says he really learned how to be a brewer. That included learning to sweat all the details to avoid small mistakes—and how to stay calm when you make a really big one. “That has really stuck with me—that being really meticulous about the details is extremely important,” he says. “And when we do make big mistakes, those are moments to learn how to be a better brewer, and to learn how to how to deal with what seem to be catastrophes at the time.”
While at Cambridge, Howe got his brewing degree through the American Brewers Guild’s intensive program. “And I was arrogant enough to think that I could start my own tiny little nanobrewery.”
That was Enlightenment Ales, an “urban farmhouse” brewery in Lowell, Massachusetts, specializing in Belgian styles bottled by Champagne method. While the project and its beers were highly regarded by local aficionados, Howe never was able to pay himself a salary. He continued working at Cambridge.
“If there’s anything I took from Enlightenment, it was, ‘Here’s the value of doing your own thing and having your own control—and, you need to understand how business works.’ Because I did not understand. I didn’t have any concept of cash flow, and I didn’t understand that people can owe me $5,000.”
After two years, he realized it wasn’t sustainable. He partnered with Idle Hands founder Chris Tkach, and in 2013 they folded Enlightenment Ales into Tkach’s brewery. Howe became head brewer and stayed about two years. Then he heard about an opportunity he found impossible to resist—despite his anxieties about foreign travel and living abroad.
Howe left Idle Hands in 2015 to become head brewer at the Ebeltoft Gårdbryggeri in Denmark, on Jutland’s east-central coast. If he imagined a chance to brew rustic, Old World beers at an actual farmhouse brewery, the reality would be more varied—naturally, they wanted their American brewer to make IPAs. So he did, learning a lot along the way. He also had the freedom to brew other things (including saison).
He also got to travel, visiting breweries to learn more about how they made beer and took care of guests. One of the more influential stops for Howe was Brasserie Thiriez in Esquelbecq, France, where he was able to absorb some ideas about yeast and fermentation from Daniel Thiriez. Another influence palpable in Otherlands beer and atmosphere is Howe’s time as brewing “intern” at Upper Franconia’s Brauerei Zehendner, known for its full- flavored Mönchsambacher lager beers. There, from Stefan Zehendner, Howe learned more about decoction, spunding, horizontal lagering, the surprising expression of lager yeast, and more.
“It was just a radically different way of approaching wort production, of approaching cellaring, of approaching fermentation,” Howe says. This was not like the American obsession with super-clean, “crisp” lagers. “The beers that I really fell in love the most with, and the beers that influenced me the most, were in Franconia,” he says. “There are these farmhouse beers that are lagers—they’re super expressive, super yeast-forward. They have rough edges—in really pleasant ways—and they don’t fit perfectly into categories. … It was like meeting a bunch of people who didn’t want to [color] inside the lines. And they were proud of that.”
When Howe returned to the States in 2017, it was to reunite with Lobrow in Portland, Oregon, where he went to work brewing for Kevin Davey at Wayfinder. “It ended up working out quite perfectly,” Howe says. “It was my favorite place to drink.” That also meant more lager experience and perspective.
Meanwhile, he and Lobrow were working on their business plan—thinking through Chickens as Friends and all its various iterations on their way to Otherlands.
Brewing & Selling Otherlands Beer
The chicken-friends survived, in a way. Two colorful roosters adorn ribbed tumblers meant for Otherlands’ Polish-style pilsner, Haładuda Specjal. Named for Lobrow’s grandmother, the beer is 4.4 percent ABV, made with Bohemian pilsner malt and Polish Lubelski hops.
They sell about 80 percent of their beer out of their own café. The rest goes out for local distribution, including Seattle. Howe bottle-conditions the saisons and recently began packaging lager in half-liter bottles with a counterpressure filler.
There is nary a can in sight.
That’s another area where they’ve stuck to their vision: They haven’t given in to the pandemic-era financial pressure to put beer in cans. “I hate ’em,” Howe says. “They look like ugly bullets.”
Plenty of guests ask for cans to take home, only to be disappointed. “I get that it’s an easier way to take the beer,” Lobrow says, “but it doesn’t fit with Otherlands.”
The choice to avoid canning also means growing more slowly than they might have otherwise. “We’re going to convert people one by one,” she says. “And the trade off on that is, maybe it’s going to take us another two years to get to a level of business that is a lot more sustainable. But it fits the vision of the place. And it’s an active choice we’ve made. I don’t know if it’s the right one—we’re probably going to have another debate about it at some point—but for right now, it is.”
Howe says he always wanted to feature lagers, but he didn’t expect them to be as popular as they are. In drawing up the plans—this is the Pacific Northwest, after all—they figured quicker-turnaround IPAs would sell the fastest. In the beginning, that’s how it went—then more people started catching on to the lagers. “And our production is having a hard time keeping up,” Lobrow says, “just because of how long they sit in those horizontal brites, how much more time they take. So, it’s becoming a constraint much more quickly than we ever anticipated.”
At Wayfinder in Portland, Howe would help turn around many of their lagers in about five weeks, including three weeks of lagering. At Otherlands, he finds that he needs more time to get a product that satisfies him—and a lot of it has to do with the malt. The Franconian-made malt that they’ve been able to source is less modified than the popular Weyermann’s; that has meant more tinkering with decoctions and rests. It’s also meant more time in the horizontals to get a beer that pleases Howe.
“Six weeks is the absolute minimum,” he says. “And the helles is more like seven weeks—and that’s great. I’m really happy that we’re making sure the beers taste the way they need to. But damn it: I’ve only got four brites. So I think if we were to do it again, we’d leave space for a couple more.”
It’s also been tricky to know how much beer they need for the café. Some weeks they almost run out—and then a few weeks later, they find themselves with a bunch.
“So much of that is the fact that our numbers from last year don’t mean anything,” Lobrow says. Because they opened in June 2020, all they’ve known is pandemic-era ups and downs. “We’re trying to plan and figure out when people are coming out and how much they’re going to drink, and our base numbers are worthless. … I just think it’s going to be a while before we can figure out that balance.”
In 2020, Otherlands produced 350 barrels of beer. They could go as high as 450, Howe says, without expanding the cellar—and that would be enough. “We can be selling enough beer to make sure that we’re making our payroll, to make sure that we can have a little bit less crazy-time in our life.”
The footprint is 700 square feet, which effectively rules out becoming a production brewery in this space. If demand ever forces them to decide whether to deviate from “the dream”—which, Howe says, is to “serve really fresh beer to people in a really fresh setting directly over the counter from our taps and be in this café with them”—then they’ll have to build that other brewery somewhere else.
“That’s not this place,” he says.
Maintaining and Shaping the Vision
In 2021, Lobrow and Howe were able to add a few more staff members. While their days remain long, they no longer need to be the last ones out the door at night. That has been an adjustment—letting go, just a bit, of that hospitality experience they’ve created together.
“As we have gotten busier and been able to kind of bring more people on, we’re also finding it difficult to step away from anything,” Lobrow says. “Being so tightly in control of every aspect of the experience over the last year, from even having to make the food to cleaning the dishes to pouring the beer—it’s really hard to let go.”
In some ways, that tension goes back to the original chicken-friends fantasy—the dream that you can have this cute little family business that sustains itself while you live happily ever after. There’s a problem with that fantasy: “If it’s that small, it requires you to do all of the fucking shit,” Howe says. “It requires you to be there seven days a week. It requires you to be washing the pots at the end of the night. It requires you to be constantly linked to this place, doing it all the time, and putting in 100 hours a week of labor.
“And that’s great. But do we want that forever? I don’t want that forever. I do want our place to be this beautiful expression of our ideals forever—I do want that. But I don’t want to work 100 hours a week forever. I don’t want to never be able to take a vacation with my wife forever. I don’t want us to not be able to wake up at 10 o’clock and have a Bloody Mary forever.”
So that’s the challenge, for now: maintaining that relatively strict vision for their business while also giving up just a bit of control.
Lobrow says that Howe’s crotchety Luddite ways have helped them maintain a steady, conservative approach. “He hates new things,” she says. “But it helps remind us: That’s not our answer. It looks like a shiny object, but it’s not necessarily right for us.”
“And we could be totally wrong!” Howe adds. “One of one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned from doing this is that not every decision we’ve made is right. Not every aesthetic feeling that Karolina and I have is the best one. We have bad taste on lots of things. … But sticking to our guns—we have this little place, and we’re not trying to push cans on you. … A few people slowly come to realize, ‘Oh, this is a different thing. I do enjoy it in a different way than I enjoy going other places.’”
There are other reasons why Otherlands is different. There are no TVs here. There are no trivia nights. To some people, those choices will be refreshing—but they are scary ones to make as a business that serves beer and aims to make people happy for a living.
“It causes you to panic when you see everybody else doing something,” Lobrow says, “and you see them finding success with it. And you’re choosing to stick on the sidelines, basically. … It always seems like this little golden goose in the corner, and you see everybody else reaching for it, and you want to grab it.”
Maybe they should. Their way, they admit, is not necessarily the best way. It’s just theirs.
“I don’t think we’re trying to say, ‘Oh, look at us, in our shining city on a hill, doing things differently,’” Howe says. “It’s just, we have a vision of what the place is. It’s hard to stick to, but doing so seems to help differentiate ourselves.
“This is Karolina and Ben’s place, and that’s different than a lot of other places.”