Q&A with Denizens Brewing’s Cofounder Julie Verratti | Brewing Industry Guide

Q&A with Denizens Brewing’s Cofounder Julie Verratti

Those who say beer and politics don’t mix clearly haven’t met Julie Verratti. Along with her wife and brother-in-law, she cofounded Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring, Maryland, a city all too close to the Washington, D.C., border.

John Holl 13 days ago

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Proximity to the nation's capitol and a sense of moral obligation have led Julie Verratti to be vocal on issues ranging from the local to national. Earlier this year, she was a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Maryland during the primary season and is currently the chair of the Brewers Association Diversity Committee. In an interview with Senior Editor John Holl, she talked about the intersection of political action and pints.

CBB // Earlier this year you were a candidate for lieutenant governor in your state. While that primary bid wasn’t successful, it did give you a chance to speak about issues that are important to you and hear from your fellow citizens. However, as a brewery owner, what experiences did you gain during the process?

JV // Our brewery taproom is community focused, and I took that to the campaign trail. I visited other taprooms, was standing on line at 6:00 a.m. for can releases, talking about beer, politics, and the race. I’m of the mindset—and this isn’t just about beer—that any small-business owner should know your regulators. You should be politically active. It’s crazy to me when I meet other brewers and owners who have no interest in speaking with local, state, or federal government members. These are the people who regulate you, and I see it as a dereliction of duty to not be involved on some level. Even if they don’t share your particular politics, at least invite the members of your city council to come and visit. It’s important to be engaged.

CBB // And on the statewide race?

JV // I was lucky to be asked to run. In our state, you can’t just throw your hat into the ring if you want to run for lieutenant governor. You need to be asked by someone running for governor to be his/her running mate. I knew it would be divisive for some, and I’m sure I alienated some people. We made the decision not to use Denizens to advocate in the campaign—no yard signs on the lawn and no stickers or flyers in the brewery. I didn’t hide from people that I was running, but it was a primary, so half of the people weren’t even paying attention to the race.

This area of the country is interesting when it comes to politics. Being so close to D.C., a lot of people pay attention to national politics and are hyperaware but don’t really pay attention to local politics. We’re also a pretty liberal county here. Something like 90 percent of voters went for Hillary in the last election, so me being a Democrat doesn’t turn away customers in the same way it would if I were a Trump supporter.

CBB // But there is a risk imparting personal politics with a public-facing business, isn’t there?

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JV // There’s a local company here called Taylor Gourmet that makes sandwiches, great sandwiches, and when Trump took office, the owner of this small company went to the White House to meet with the President as part of a group there to talk about small-business issues. And he got absolutely roasted by people around here, especially on social media, just because he had a meeting.

I don’t think I have alienated anyone here with my politics. I mean, maybe, but I can’t believe that people would be so angry for anyone getting involved in politics or talking with elected officials.

CBB // That sounds a lot like Jim Koch of Sam Adams who recently met with the President at a small-business roundtable or dinner, and some folks freaked out afterwards.

JV // It’s totally bananas. I don’t understand that. We should all be politically engaged, have the ability to have conversations, and try to hear all sides. I believe there are some issues that don’t have two sides, but when it comes to tax policy, there is definitely room for reasonable people to disagree. Beer is something that brings people together and creates a platform for conversation.

We have a frequent occurrence here at the brewery called Vantage Points, and each time we talk about specific topics. It’s an open discussion where we can talk about race in America, women in America, you name it, and anyone can come and share a point of view. It has led to robust conversations, and it’s not really a debate; it’s just a positive way for people to share and talk about what’s happening all around us in a community space where people can be heard.

That’s one way that beer is a unifying thing. Beer brings people together, and there are going to be political differences among the drinkers. Why not get people engaged through a shared passion?

CBB // You’re obviously not shy about this, but there are some brewery owners who are a little shy when it comes to talking about politics or showing any kind of favoritism or even opinion. And maybe given the Koch backlash, they aren’t wrong, but you see a benefit in mining that vein.

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JV // When I was running for lieutenant governor, I spent a lot of time visiting breweries, and I had a three-prong approach. I’d call the brewery and ask first if I could come by and talk to their customers about my campaign. If that was a yes, I’d ask if they were willing to advertise that I was coming by, and then I asked if they would support my candidacy. I got varying answers to all three.

Only one brewery said they didn’t want me to come by at all because they were based in an area that was split pretty evenly politically and they didn’t want to do anything to alienate half of their customers—they wanted to at least make it through the first year without controversy coming in their doors. That’s how scared some people are of getting a backlash, and I get that. I wish our society weren’t so polarized.

Now, I don’t think I was a controversial candidate. Yes, I’m socially progressive, but I’m more moderate on business and fiscal issues. And being political is who I am. I met my wife, Emily, while we were both working on political campaigns. So, while it doesn’t make sense for everyone, if we weren’t politically engaged through our business, we wouldn’t be authentically showing ourselves.

CBB // You’re the chair of the Brewers Association Diversity Committee. What are you working on these days?

JV // A lot of it has been announced. We hired a diversity ambassador, J. Nikol Jackson-Beckham, PhD, and she’s phenomenal. She’s going to events and guild meetings to listen to folks and talk about how to make the beer universe more diverse. She is also working on resources for our member breweries to use in their businesses. I am continually impressed at how effective Dr. J is in leading the conversation, and I have learned a lot from her because, let’s not lie, it’s a super daunting and uncomfortable thing to talk about. Diversity is an awkward conversation.

CBB // It really is. But it’s an important one.

JV // For me, talking about and working toward diversity is not just a moral imperative but also a business imperative. There are more and more craft breweries opening up each year, and this industry is going to turn into a commodity war game, and brewers are going to start hating each other. If we can grow the pie of craft-beer drinkers into a larger number and expand our numbers into new areas while continuing to be a solid community, that’s where we should be thinking and acting. It makes sense from a business standpoint, not just socially.

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As an organization, the BA has been vocal on this, and member breweries should be listening and acting. And this circles back to the earlier point. One thing we do at Denizens is we get political on issues we believe in—be it immigrants being treated fairly, family issues, or supporting equality on all levels. We try to support organizations that aren’t necessarily political or partisan, just that support issues we believe in.

So, if brewery owners don’t want to be overly political, you can still help grow diversity in the beer industry. What are the issues where you draw a red line? Identify those and make it a part of your business and potentially reach, meet new customers.

CBB // You’ve also talked about diversity in beer, the product, which I’ve found really interesting.

JV // I’d like to see breweries be successful and reach their bottom line and pay employees well and create and sell great products. We make a wide range of beer, and that’s a diversity initiative as well. In Silver Spring, there’s a large Ethiopian community, and culturally in East Africa, the alcoholic drinks tend to be on the sweeter side, like mead. So we think about that when we make a beer: what is going to work in our community culturally? We’re always going to have our Belgian-style tripel on; it’s not just a bunch of IPAs. If you’re just making IPA, you’re attracting only customers who enjoy only IPA, and you’re possibly alienating people who enjoy porter, or Pilsner, or another style.

Think about a diverse range of beers, and you’ll get more customers in your door to drink your product.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

John Holl is the Senior Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email tips and story suggestions to [email protected].

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