December 7, 2018 at 3:50 pm EST | by Evan Caplan
LGBT-owned Denizens Brewery challenges straight bro beer culture

From left are Emily Bruno, Jeff Ramirez and Julie Verratti, co-owners of Denizens Brewery. (Photo courtesy Denizens)

Washington residents need not be reminded that long nights, pizza and beer are staples of the political campaign lifestyle.

When Julie Verratti and her wife, Emily Bruno, left their campaign lives in Boston and moved to Washington a decade ago, they just couldn’t quite quit the political lifestyle — or the beer part.

So in 2014, the couple and their brewmaster brother-in-law Jeff Ramirez opened Denizens Brewery, the only woman/minority-owned and -operated brewery in Maryland (115 East West Highway, Silver Spring, Md).

No ordinary brewpub, it’s as much a community organizing point as it is a beermaking center. Denizens brews a rotating list of small-batch, craft beers and serves pints, growlers, bar noshes and plenty of pride.

A lifelong beer aficionado and onetime homebrewer, Silver Spring native Verratti’s career took her first to Massachusetts to work on the John Kerry presidential campaign, where she and Bruno met. Fast forward a couple years, and the pair is still together, taking part in the nation’s first statewide marriage equality victory at Mass Equality.

In true D.C. fashion, Verratti decided to pursue a law degree, which brought her and Bruno back to the area. It was here, over holiday dinners, that they broke bread with Ramirez. For his part, besides marrying into the family, Ramirez is also was a veteran of the Colorado and Pennsylvania beer scenes. Verratti pitched him on the idea of opening their own brewpub and Denizens was born.

Explaining the division of labor, Verratti says simply, “Jeff makes the beer. I sell the beer. And Emily does the business operations.”

Today, as the growth among broader beer industry fizzes, craft brewing is mushrooming in popularity, changing the perception of how beer is consumed and what beer is meant to be. Though it may be changing faster than corporate beer culture, craft brewing is still a white male-dominated industry, Verratti says. She’s set out to change that through Denizens.

Denizens’ philosophy is reflected in its name. Verratti explains that their brewery, “should be a gathering place for the community.”

There shouldn’t be a craft beer type of person, she continued, because “craft beer belongs to all of us.”

“We don’t just shove IPAs down people’s throats.”

The brewery has five flagship beers, drawing from traditional lager, ale and Belgian styles. It also pours seasonal selections that showcase the spot’s creative barrel aging and sour programs.

The barrels bring their own only-in-D.C. story. One beer, named Call Waiting, is aged in bourbon barrels sourced from fellow LGBT liquor purveyors, Republic Restoratives. Verratti is a fan of the Ivy City-based distillery’s “kick-ass cocktails,” and they partner on programs in the LGBT community.

Putting their political organizing hats on, the partners lobbied for statewide policy change that allowed for easier local beer production and distribution and reduced regulations on where beer can be consumed.

Advancing this progressive agenda even further, Verratti has joined the board of the Brewers Association, representing thousands of beermakers across the country. She chairs the diversity committee, endeavoring to ensure that small, independent brewers improve diversity in their workforce, customers base and atmospheres. This year, the leadership panel at the annual conference was made up entirely of women.

At Denizens, “We’re so proud of being out,” Verratti says. “We’re extremely vocal of being an LGBT operation and supporting LGBT causes.”

At the brewery, the three owners have made a concerted effort to create a community space. They work with nearby University of Maryland to experiment with yeast strains and carry Maryland-made products and ingredients for the kitchen that plates everything from wings to winter kale salads. They also host special beer events, craft fairs, trivia, live music, a running club, and yes, even drag shows. They also give back to LGBT organizations, including HRC and SMYAL, and the MoCo Pride Center.

“While we’re not a ‘gay’ brewery like there are ‘gay’ bars, everyone knows who we are,” she says.

Looking forward, Denizens is in full construction mode for its second, roomier location in Riverdale Park, Md. The production space is five time larger (to make more lager), and will also include a full restaurant and tap room.

Even as she works to change the attitude of the beermaking industry, Verratti understands that “it still has a bro-style culture. And that manifests itself in people feeling excluded. We’ll never be the ‘cool kids’ on top of every craft trend. But we will make sure our customers never feel left out or marginalized. We welcome everyone with open arms and a good beer.”

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