Julie Verratti and Emily Bruno are not professional commercial beer brewers. But for the lesbian couple, opening Denizens Brewing Co., geared toward a younger, diverse generation of craft beer aficionados, is just the latest endeavor in a string of adventures.
Denizens, a term meaning a local or regular customer, is a fitting term for the new brewery, nestled among new high-rise apartment buildings on East-West Highway, a 10-minute walk from the Silver Spring Metro stop, which former same-sex marriage activists Verratti and Bruno opened this month with Jeff Ramirez, whose sister is married to Emily’s brother giving the operation a family feel. Ramirez, who’s been developing and fine-tuning beer recipes for his entire career, came up with the flavors.
The owners of the 200-seat brewery and beer garden, about 3,000 square feet, plan to brew five core styles and five seasonal styles out of its basement. A popular gay-owned food truck, BBQ Bus, will open a brick-and-mortar location inside the brewery this summer.
“Have I ever done something this big? No,” says Verratti, who’s had a series of careers in everything from political activism to personal training. “It’s the first time — the first time for all of us.”
Che and Tadd Ruddell-Tabisola, who own BBQ Bus, knew the Denizens owners from their time as LGBT activists. Going into business together seemed like the perfect next step, building upon an old friendship.
“It was a match made in heaven,” Che says. “I think Julie and Emily are great. Their concept and their approach is really thoughtful. There’s a lot of quality behind what they’re doing.”
Che and his husband always wanted to open a physical location ever since their first day on the road in April 2011. But the opportunity didn’t immediately present itself.
“We got turned down for two loans and a few credit cards when we were trying to get this business going,” he says. “Nobody was lending money to a startup [during the recession], let alone a restaurant. The food truck really was a way to get into this business.”
Today, the food truck is well known across the D.C. area, an asset upon which Denizens, located at 1115 East-West Highway in Silver Spring (denizensbrewingco.com), hopes to capitalize.
“Everyone wants to eat when they’re drinking beer,” says Taylor Barnes, the brewery’s director of marketing and events. “Che and Tadd loved the pairing of beer and barbecue, and so did we. It’s a new model — two businesses coexisting in the same space. So it was really important for us that we just got along as people first, and second as business partners.”
“They’re fun, they’re super welcoming, and they love diversity just as much as we do,” Verratti says. “I love the fact that if you combine the ownership structure between the brewery and BBQ Bus, four out of the five owners are gay and gay married.”
A long journey
Craft beer fans tend to be well educated, city-dwelling political progressives in their 20s and 30s, making the District and the surrounding metropolitan area an optimal place to open a brewery. But as the East Coast craft beer scene continues to boom, Barnes says craft beer is often marketed toward a “narrow slice of America.”
“One of the reasons we wanted to start Denizens Brewing Co. is that craft beer is for everyone,” she says.
But plans to open the business were stalled in part because of the restrictive Defense of Marriage Act, leading Verratti and Bruno to draw upon their roots as activists.
“Emily and I met and started dating as political organizers,” Verratti says, referring to their time in Boston working on the 2004 presidential campaign and later, on the canvass program at MassEquality, an organization that helped secure and defend same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, the first state where it became legal.
“It was a pretty unbelievable time period,” she says, reminiscing on what she jokingly calls her “past life as a professional gay.”
“Every day, you could feel the weight of the country on you. We were being attacked constantly from the right, and we did a full-scale ground war. We knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors. We created the model for how to win these types of battles across the country.”
Veratti, born and raised in Silver Spring, married Bruno in California during the short window before Proposition 8 was temporarily struck down, and moved back home with her wife to earn a degree from George Washington University Law School. Both women had toyed with the idea of opening a business, but it was their penchant for political activism and Verratti’s fluency in legal jargon that paved the way for the opening of Denizens.
The couple encountered their fair share of roadblocks along the way, starting with the Defense of Marriage Act, which, until it was struck down last June, prohibited the couple from enjoying mutual financial benefits even though they’ve been legally married since 2008.
“We had been making steady progress on our plans to open the brewery, but the striking down of DOMA enabled us to move forward more quickly because I knew I would have full access to Julie’s benefits as a federal employee during the unstable transition to becoming an entrepreneur,” Bruno says.
Opening a business together, Bruno says, wouldn’t have been possible if the law was still on the books.
Changing the law
The fall of DOMA allowed Bruno to quit her job and devote full attention to opening the brewery. But that wasn’t the last hurdle to overcome. Restrictive laws in Silver Spring made opening a brewery nearly impossible, gay or straight.
“One of the reasons why there hadn’t been more breweries opening up, specifically in Montgomery County, is that the laws had been archaic,” Verratti says, pointing to laws prohibiting breweries from offering take-out service and forcing them to sell pints to the county as a middleman instead of directly to bars and customers.
“We looked at that and thought, ‘Why don’t we just change the laws?’ I honestly think because of our political organizing background, it gave us the savvy to figure out how to do that.”
After testifying before the Montgomery County delegation, the couple was successful in making the county’s laws more business friendly. Denizens bills itself as a “craft brewery serving European-style lagers, American-style ales, Belgian-inspired beers, sour beers and barrel-aged beers to both the craft beer aficionado and those new to high-quality brews.”
For the first round of brewing, they contracted with Beltway Brewing Company but by September plan to brew everything in house with their own 15-barrel system. They decline to say how much they invested in the business but say they’ve been planning and developing since December 2012. Both Verratti and Bruno love beer and while Verratti has done some home brewing, they say Ramirez is the expert.
Brett Robison, the bar manager at Republic, a local bar that buys beer from Denizens, predicts the change will improve conditions for Denizens and future breweries.
“What’s going to happen because of this law change is overnight, Montgomery County is going to go from being one of the least favorable places to open any kind of alcohol business to being one of the most favorable places,” Robison says. “This law change now creates incentives for entrepreneurs.”
Although the doors have only been open for a few weeks, the brewery, which Barnes calls a local “job creator,” already has a diverse group of regulars.
“Everyone who works here is really gay friendly,” says Barnes, who is straight, pointing out that the nearly 40-person staff mostly identifies as LGBT. “I’m proud to be working at a lesbian-owned establishment. Because we are all diverse, it is more welcoming to everyone.”
“This community has really embraced us, and we’re so grateful for it,” Verratti says. “There’s been a strong contingent of the LGBT community that has come out and supported us. That makes me feel really happy and proud.”