Metro Weekly

Brewing Community: The women behind Denizens Brewing

In the growing field of local craft beers, the lesbian-owned Denizens Brewing Company is a refreshing standout.

Denizens Brewing Co.: Julie Verratti — Photo: Todd Franson

Julie Verratti comes from teetotaler stock.

“My great-grandmother was the head of the Woman’s Christian Temperance movement in Freehold, New Jersey,” she says. The discovery of an anti-alcohol ancestor carries with it a certain irony, principally because, a century later, Verratti has traveled in the opposite direction. The Silver Spring native co-owns Denizens Brewing Company with her wife, Emily Bruno, and brewer Jeff Ramirez.

The only LGBTQ-owned brewery in the Washington area, Denizens is just one of four woman-owned local breweries, says Kathy Rizzo, executive director of the DC Brewers’ Guild. They include Leah Cheston, a co-owner, with her husband Thor Cheston, of Right Proper Brewing Company; Mari Rodela, a principal with DC Brau; and Catherine and Margaret Portner, who have revived their German grandfather’s brewery in Alexandria a century after it fell to prohibition.

“Craft beer isn’t necessarily all about white bearded men,” Rizzo explains. “There are other people involved, too.” Rizzo’s organization is helping highlight the growing diversity in the local craft beer scene through a few different events planned as part of DC Beer Week, a popular promotion now in its ninth year. Two of these involve Verratti and Denizens, including a We Can Brew It! Women In Beer event at Adams Morgan’s Black Squirrel on Sunday, Aug. 20, at 6:30 p.m., and a beverage-pairing dinner in partnership with D.C.’s LGBTQ-owned Republic Restoratives Distillery at the the Northeast restaurant Brookland’s Finest, on Wednesday, Aug. 30, at 5 p.m.

“Women are underrepresented in the craft beer industry as a whole,” Rizzo says. “So it’s really nice to get together with all the women in our area who are very educated and driven and knowledgeable to celebrate things we enjoy, like craft beer, but also to support one another in our continued efforts at making this industry a bit more diverse.”

Denizens Brewing Co.: Emily Bruno — Photo: Todd Franson

Hardly shrinking violets in their industry, Verratti and Bruno have also been active agents in the LGBTQ community, both individually and organizationally, as employees, volunteers, donors, fundraisers. Still, Verratti, 38, concedes, “I don’t think a lot of people realize that Denizens is LGBTQ owned and operated.”

Adds the 35-year-old Bruno, “Once folks know that we’re LGBTQ-owned — or partially LGBTQ-owned, because Jeff is not gay — people get excited and try to be supportive.”

Supporting queer beer couldn’t get much easier than it does with Denizens’ high-quality brews — whether savored in one of two tasting rooms in the sizable, gleaming two-floor brewery, or on the adjacent outdoor beer garden, which seats 200 people (and a handful of their best canine friends). The company’s standard brews include the light, refreshing Born Bohemian Czech-Style Pilsner, the complex, bitter Lowest Lord English-Style ESB, and the hoppy, well-rounded Big Red Norm American Red Ale.

Like any couple, Verratti and Bruno share a natural, easy rapport, and have fostered a culture at Denizens that is a reflection of their outlook on beer in general — friendly, festive, approachable, and welcoming.

Denizens Brewing Co.: Julie Verratti and Emily Bruno — Photo: Todd Franson

METRO WEEKLYWhat inspired the two of you to get into the brewing business?

JULIE VERRATTI: I had been working for the federal government for about five years, at the Small Business Administration, and was around all of these business owners and entrepreneurs, working on policy issues, and was just getting inspired every day. And also personally I just really love beer. I was born and raised in Silver Spring and was living there again as an adult, and just sort of saw this gap in the downtown Silver Spring area for a brewery.

EMILY BRUNO: I’d done office jobs for a long time — for 10 years in D.C. I knew I wanted to start a business, and was thinking through different options. This was in 2011, 2012. Craft beer was starting to take off in D.C. I had been familiar with craft beer from my time in Boston, but it wasn’t that popular in D.C. yet. I saw other breweries starting to open and realized, “Hey, this would be a great business to get into.” I always liked beer, I always drank beer. Julie was a home brewer and Jeff was a professional brewer. I didn’t want to sit in an office. I didn’t want to work by myself. I wanted to work with a team.

MWDid you have any concerns about working together on a regular basis?

VERRATTI: We both took pause and sort of thought “Is this a good idea?” But at the end of the day, we have very different skillsets. And because we have such different skillsets — she’s working on stuff during the day that I’m not working on, and vice versa — it’s not like we’re constantly in meetings together or working together every single day.

MWWould you say the business has made you stronger as a couple?

VERRATTI: Yeah. It’s sort of this interesting thing where, it’s almost like we have the same goal at the end of the day, even more so than we did when we were just married and not working together. Because now we have the goal of wanting our marriage to work, but we also have the goal of wanting the business to work.

BRUNO: We’ve struck a really nice balance. When you work together and you own a business, in particular, you could talk about it all day long, from 7 a.m. to midnight. We know when to turn it off. We know when to just be spouses and not be business partners. It’s helped us communicate better generally and keep things in perspective — because you have to work together, you have a really huge investment together. You just don’t need to fight about little stuff.

Denizens Brewing Co — Photo: Todd Franson

MWHaving a mutual love of beer helped with the type of business you’ve created.

BRUNO: Julie had been a home brewer for a while. I never got into homebrewing per se. It always seemed like a lot of work when you could just go buy pretty good beer somewhere else. [Laughs.]

MWHow did the two of you meet?

VERRATTI: We met in the summer of 2004 working in Boston together, raising money for the Democratic National Committee. In that summer and early fall, I was trying to get Emily to date me and she wasn’t having it. [Laughs.]

BRUNO: I was still dating my boyfriend from college. I was trying to figure out that relationship. I was dating my male boss at the time, too, which is totally inappropriate.

VERRATTI: After the election, I moved to New York City and Emily moved to Niger in Africa. When she came back to the States, she gave me a call: “I just had to see how you were doing.”

VERRATTI: I said, “Funny you should mention it, I’m actually coming to Boston this weekend. Let’s get brunch on Sunday morning.” We met up for coffee that morning in Boston Commons, and ended up spending the entire day together — actually I missed the last train back to New York that night. I actually had a date lined up in New York that I just totally skipped. I didn’t call, I didn’t show up, I just stayed in Boston.

BRUNO: And from that point when we reconnected, we were together. We’ve been together ever since.

MWWhen did you get married?

VERRATTI: June 20th, 2008. We actually were in San Francisco at the time. I was working for the National Legal Aid and Defenders organization. We had a conference in San Francisco that summer and I was flown out there for part of my job. Emily bought a plane ticket and went out with me. We used my per diem to pay for the marriage license at the San Francisco City Hall. It was during that five-month period where California was allowing out-of-state couples to get married, before it got shot down by Prop 8. So we literally got married the fifth day it was legal to get married in California.

MWObviously, coming out was a very different experience for each of you.

BRUNO: Yeah, Julie is the first and only woman I’ve ever dated. I had dated men prior to that. I would say I’m generally bisexual — I’m attracted to men and women. But I didn’t have the experience that I feel like a lot of people I’ve met have had, where they knew when they were really young. I was out of college, in my early twenties when Julie and I started dating. I just took it as a matter of fact, like “Oh, I’m dating this woman now.” It took my parents a little bit to adjust to it, but they love Julie very much. I think once they got to know her, it was kind of easy.

VERRATTI: I have a twin sister, Kathleen. And I told her when I was 18, but kept it as a secret from everybody else until I was about 21, and then officially came out and said, “Hey, I’m gay, in case you were curious.” I went to an all-girls Catholic high school in the area, and then went to college at Fairfield University in Connecticut, which is a Jesuit school. I kind of realized, the first semester my freshman year, “Oh, shit, I’m gay.” I went into a pretty bad depression and came back home and started going to therapy. I wasn’t very happy with it, I wasn’t comfortable with myself. But after going to therapy for a year or two, I really came out on the other side of it and have never felt uncomfortable about who I am since.

MWHave you had struggles as female business owners?

VERRATTI: I wouldn’t say I’ve had struggles with it. I’m sure that Emily’s experience has been somewhat different from mine because, yes, I’m a female, but I’m also more masculine-presenting than feminine-presenting. And so a lot of people respond to me, I think, the same sort of way they respond to straight white dudes. So it’s not really been a struggle for me, to be honest. I will tell you that when I work a lot of the beer festivals and stuff, when we’re out pouring at certain events, people never assume that I’m the owner — they always assume I’m somebody who just works for the company. There’s a guy who works for me, who’s our sales manager. His name is Ben Hunter — really good guy, super-smart, super-knowledgeable, but he’s also a straight white guy. And if we’re at festivals together, people will come up to the booth and will start asking Ben all kinds of questions about the brewery, about the beer, and won’t necessarily look at me or ask me these questions. And Ben is great. “Oh I can answer, but here’s one of the owners right here. This is Julie.” So, that type of stuff happens.

BRUNO: Even last week, I sat in a meeting where I introduced our team to two men that we were meeting with, and one of them only made eye contact with Jeff and Julie — because men, because she’s a more masculine woman, very much see her as a guy typically. You get used to that. Even though I introduced the team and made clear what each of us does, he would ask questions to them about things that I made clear I was responsible for.

That kind of stuff happens I think to women all the time. It’s not different from any other kind of business setting women are in, where you have to say, “Hey, remember me? I exist and I want to be treated the same way.” You just have to kind of force yourself to be heard.

Denizens Brewing Co.: Julie Verratti and Emily Bruno — Photo: Todd Franson

MWYou’re partnering with Republic Restoratives, the LGBTQ-owned distillery in Ivy City. Talk about your history with co-owners Pia Carusone and Rachel Gardner, as well as your collaborative DC Beer Week event at Brookland’s Finest with Chef Shannon Troncoso.

VERRATTI: We met Pia and Rachel before either of us had gotten our doors open.

BRUNO: We were actually talking about co-locating at one point in our early planning stages.

VERRATTI: We’re good friends with the Brookland’s Finest folks, and we were talking to them about doing an event for DC Beer Week, but we wanted to do something a little bit different. Tap takeovers are super-boring, nobody cares about them anymore. I don’t really enjoy participating in them, because I don’t think that they’re worth the time. I was talking to Shannon at Brookland’s Finest, and I said, “Hey, have you heard of Republic Restoratives? Let’s try to do something with them.” We could do sort of a women owned and operated event together with them, and do beer cocktails or something. And so it was kind of born from that. It went really well last year and we decided to do it again this year.

MWAnd Brookland’s Finest is a favorite restaurant of yours?

VERRATTI: Oh, it’s hands-down my favorite restaurant in D.C. proper. The food is always fantastic, the service is always really welcoming — the staff is friendly, they’re knowledgeable. And the atmosphere just feels so comfortable. No one puts on airs. There’s no, “Oh, I’m too-cool-for-school sort of vibe.” It’s just sort of, “We’re gonna treat you really well. Thank you for being here. We’re gonna serve you some really good food and we’re gonna take care of you, and you be who you are.”

MWYou have a full food menu in addition to your selection of original beers. Do you consider yourself a restaurant, too?

BRUNO: Yes, effectively we are, but we’re not going to be winning any Rammys or anything. [Laughs.] We try really hard to make high-quality food. We make everything from scratch. We don’t freeze anything, really. We just got a freezer for the first time two months ago, just because we have churros, and they fry better when they’re frozen. But we do make everything from scratch. Everything’s super-fresh, and we eat the food that we make, so we’re proud of it. But we’re not doing high-end stuff.

MWAnd anyone can come dine, sample, and drink from your selection of beers as well as take a tour of the facility?

BRUNO: Yes. We do free tours at 3 p.m. every Saturday, when we’ll take you through the brewery and do a 15-minute tour at no cost. We can also set up private tours, and we do that. We have a pretty robust private events schedule, whether it’s a company or an organization that wants to do happy hour tours, we can do stuff like that.

MW: In what ways has identifying as LGBTQ come into play in your work and operations at the brewery?

BRUNO: We always try to offer our space for free, with no bar minimums or anything like that, so it doesn’t cost nonprofits or elected officials or whomever to use our space to have gatherings or fundraisers and things like that. We try to do that to whatever extent possible, to give our space to local nonprofits. We’ve marched in Capital Pride since year one and we’re going to keep doing that. We love it. We have a signature tank top that we sell, where this year we’ve donated a portion of that to the Human Rights Campaign, that says, “Beer Makes Me Gay.” We don’t do things exclusively around LGBTQ issues, although we certainly support progressive causes.

After the election, we participated in All In Service, a D.C.-wide thing, where bars and restaurants donated a portion of proceeds over inauguration weekend to different organizations. We were able to donate money to AYUDA, to support immigration services, and Planned Parenthood. We’ve tried to give back a lot. We’re progressive in that way. I have had a Black Lives Matter sticker on our window in the tap room and have fought back lots of people who don’t like that, and said, “Sorry, but this is true and we’re going to say this.” We’ve taken political positions when we feel like it’s really important for businesses to be speaking out as a community member. We’re not uber-political, we don’t do it all the time, but when we feel like it’s really important that we participate in the community, we do.

VERRATTI: As business owners at Denizens, we speak out publicly. We don’t stay neutral. We say things out loud. The other day I tweeted an entire thread from the Denizens account about the white supremacist bullshit in Charlottesville, because it’s important that not only individuals speak out but that businesses speak out. And I don’t care if I’m alienating people by standing up for that. I think it’s important.

Emily and I both have a history of, what I like to refer to as being professional gays. In law school, one of the biggest things that people try is to get on Law Review. So after your 1L year, based on how well you do in terms of your grades — and it’s all based off your ranking with your peers — the top 10 percent or whatever, those people will be invited to write on Law Review. If you get Law Review, you’re the cream of the crop — at least on paper. And people clamor for those positions, and it’s unheard of to get invited to that and just reject it.

Well, I got invited to be on Law Review and I rejected it because I was able to land a job working at the Human Rights Campaign. It was more important for me and my career and what I believed in that I wanted to work at HRC. “Screw it, I’m not doing Law Review, I’m gonna be a McCleary Law Fellow over at HRC.” And that was a really cool experience because it was the fall of 2008, I got to work on election law with them from all different states around the country. Obama was running. It was an incredible experience. And so I did that. I also worked at MassEquality for a few years, as did Emily.

Denizens Brewing Co — Photo: Todd Franson

MWMassEquality is an organization that turned out to play a pivotal role during a momentous era in the LGBTQ movement.

BRUNO: I started their canvassing program. MassEquality was the organization that kind of led the coalition to pass and secure gay marriage in Massachusetts, which was the first state to allow it in the country.

MWIt’s hard to imagine that was only a decade ago. Prior to that, the idea of marriage equality wasn’t top of the list for the majority of gay people.

VERRATTI: No, it really wasn’t. And I’ve always been of the belief that it normalized us. Not everybody agrees with me on this, and I understand that there are life-and-death issues that LGBTQ people face every single day, and I have been lucky enough to not have experienced that myself. The day that we were given the right to get married in Massachusetts, the percentages of people in the state that all of a sudden supported gay marriage started growing. And it’s because gay people were normalized.

What’s more American than you get married, you have kids, you buy the white picket fence, you bake apple pie, you celebrate July Fourth? And then also us serving in the military — think about that. “I might not be able to relate to you as a gay person, but I can relate to you as being a spouse. I understand what that means.” “I may not be able to relate to you as a gay person, but I can relate to what it means to serve in the military.” Right? And so, it normalized gay people and brought folks who had been suspect and prejudiced and ignorant and not really knowing, to a position where they could relate to gay people and empathize with them and sympathize with them and all of a sudden, gay people were really not that harmful, and they’re normal and they’re good people and they’re all the same. And I think because of that, it sort of brought America to a place now where people don’t really want to discriminate against gay people because it’s like discriminating against themselves.

MWWhat do you see for the future of Denizens Brewing Company?

BRUNO: We want to produce more beer. We have demand for our beer and we want to be able to meet that demand. So what we’re looking at in the year ahead is potentially opening up a second facility.

VERRATTI: We’re at the point now where we’re sort of maxed out in terms of what we can produce at our current location, and we’re not able to meet the full demand of the beer that people are ordering. It is a good problem to have, for sure.

It’s one of those things where, you don’t want to expand willy-nilly and just jump on the first opportunity that comes in front of you. So, we’re really trying to be very strategic about vetting places. You don’t want to expand too much and over-leverage yourself, but you want to make sure you give yourself enough room to grow in your next space, so you don’t have to get a third location. My hope is that it happens within the next year, but it’s probably a more realistic goal to be up and running within the next two.

MWDo you want kids?

VERRATTI: We go back and forth on it. For a while we were thinking more seriously about it, but then when you open a business the size of Denizens, it’s hard to think about adding to that. We both focus all of our time and energy on the business right now, so it would be difficult. It’s not like one of us works at the business, the other one has a nine-to-five, where it would be a little bit easier to have a child. Maybe one day. We’re just not there yet.

MW: You’re still young enough.

VERRATTI: Well, Emily’s still young enough. I also have zero interest in birthing a child. There’s always adoption. We’re not closed off to that, either.

Denizens Brewing Co — Photo: Todd Franson

MWFinally, I wanted to touch on the hyper-masculine nature of today’s craft beer scene and whether you think that’s changing. Also, isn’t it true that brewing started as a woman’s job in America?

BRUNO: Beer was something that was typically made by women in the home because it was a part of making food. So women were the first brewers.

VERRATTI: It’s not just in America, it’s in the world. Women were the people that were brewing beer first. It’s not the first time women started something and men took it over and commercialized it. It’s not just straight white men with beards that enjoy beer. There are a lot of efforts that the industry is taking to try to combat that. Everybody enjoys beer, like all demographics, all cultures. I sit on the diversity committee for the Brewers Association, the national trade organization for small and independent brewers across the country. We try to advocate as much as we can, not just in our own tap room, trying to make it a welcoming place for everyone.

BRUNO: Craft beer definitely has been, in its modern era, and seems to continue to be, dominated by white men, but I think that that’s changing. You can’t market beer to women if there’s naked women on the can. It just typically doesn’t work that well. So getting craft breweries to think about this as a competitiveness issue and not just, “Oh, you’re clamping down on my fun.”

Fortunately, I think some of the bro’iness that’s been in craft beers is falling by the wayside. The international beer business is owned by Budweiser — so all of Budweiser and Stella and all these beer brands are owned by two international companies now. They’re not even American-based companies anymore. And they are pushing craft breweries out of the market. So if you want to compete as a craft brewery, you have to market yourself to everyone, which means you can’t do or say things that are racist, you can’t say or do things that are sexist, you have to understand your customer is everybody if you want to invest. You can’t survive on white men alone.

VERRATTI: If you look at where breweries are opening these days, there in a lot more urban centers, where there are a lot more young people, a lot more transient people that move in and out, that come from different cultures and backgrounds. And I think folks are just becoming more familiar with local breweries because of that, because places are opening up in those type of areas. One of the things I love about Silver Spring is it’s an extremely diverse community. You’ve got all ages, all ethnicities, all genders, just the whole gamut — nationalities, race, everything. Takoma Park is one of the Top 10 places in the country for gay people in terms of population of where they live. And that’s less than a mile from us. So I think just by the mere fact that places like Denizens are opening in diverse areas is just bringing in a more diverse consumer group.

BRUNO: And at the end of the day, you’re competing against Budweiser, which owns 88 percent of the beer market in the United States. So there’s no point in craft breweries fighting each other. Let’s take on Stella and Blue Moon and these mega-brands and try to get more bars and restaurants and consumers to see the value in craft beer. Your beer’s going to be way better if it’s from a local place. It’s going to be fresh, it’s going to taste good, and you’re helping out the local economy way more than you ever are if you buy a Miller Lite.

Denizens Brewing Co. is at 1115 East-West Highway, Silver Spring. Call 301-557-9818 or visit denizensbrewingco.com.

DC Beer Week runs Sunday, Aug. 20, through Saturday, Aug. 27. For more information on the week’s events, including the Denizens-paired three-course dinner at Brookland’s Finest ($35 per person), visit dcbeerweek.net.

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.