Change, One Lager at a Time
By Caroline Cataldo
Beer is not exactly a glam drink. But make it a Junk in the Dunk dunkel lager or a Southside Rye IPA, pair it with handmade chocolates or local cheese, and round out the experience with a drag show to support the local LGBTQ community, and you’ve got something really special: community building.
That’s exactly what Julie Verratti ’04 was after when she opened Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring, Maryland, two years ago with her wife, Emily, and brother-in-law, Jeff.
Denizens customers can grab a seat in a two-level taproom, order one of the 35 craft beers produced on-site, sample food from local vendors and hang out with a diverse community of beer lovers. Verratti and her team use craft beer to bring together people who might not typically meet.
“We don’t want craft beer marketed only to white guys,” Verratti says. “I want someone who has never had craft beer before to ask any question they want and not feel like they aren’t part of the ‘in’ crowd.”
Today, Denizens has the equivalent of 40 full-time employees, all of whom are offered health insurance and earn above the average wage for workers at D.C.-area breweries. Before Verratti and her partners could launch the brewery, however, they had to contend with two restrictive Montgomery County ordinances. One prohibited local breweries from selling their beer to other bars and restaurants. Another required a brewery selling beer on-site to also sell food prepared in its own kitchen, which would have prevented Denizens from partnering with vendors who would sell their food on its premises, a key component of its business plan.
Verratti — who spent five years as a policy adviser at the Small Business Administration after earning a law degree from George Washington University — was confident that, with a little patience and persuasion, she could convince local officials to adjust the laws. She drafted legislation and set about explaining how small changes could make a big difference in job growth and local economic development.
It worked. “Changing these laws gave us two revenue streams, retail and wholesale, to reach and impact diverse customers,” says Verratti, who majored in politics, history and philosophy, and minored in economics at Brandeis. “This was huge for us, because we were able to grow a lot more rapidly than the average company.”
Recently, four other breweries have opened in the county, relying on Denizens-style partnerships with local restaurants, bars, vendors and entrepreneurs — further confirmation this publican knows how to build both a community and a business.