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Chatting with Denizens Brewing Company, Which Turns One This Week

Silver Spring brewpub Denizens Brewing Company will blow the candles out on its first birthday cake this week with a whole series of celebratory events. The ambitious brewingng operation has produced a wide variety of brews in its first year while teaming up with the BBQ Bus in an innovative food-truck-and-brewpub model. This week, you can celebrate Denizens through a variety of events:

  • Thursday, 7/16 – DC101 broadcasting from the beer garden for their “Thirst-Day Live” series. Live music with Darcy Dawn & Company
  • Friday, 7/17 – 6 PM DBC stein giveaway to 100 guests at the taproom (stay tuned for the password)
  • Saturday, 7/18 – Anniversary party with freedom hour prices all Saturday long, anniversary beer release, along with live music from DJ Sway and Sound Makers Union
  • Sunday, 7/19 – Brewery open house

To get some perspective on how the first year went, we interviewed all four founders, director of marketing Taylor Barnes, Jeff Ramirez, director of brewing operations, Emily Bruno, director of operations, and Julie Verratti, director of business development, via email. What follows is a transcript that has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

DCBeer: You're one year in, how do you think it has gone? Has it been easier than expected? Harder? What do you think you've done well at? What are things you definitely think you need to improve on?

Taylor Barnes: It’s been a really solid first year, although, if we’re being honest, at times it felt like we were building the plane as we were flying it. We opened our two-level, 200 person indoor taproom, and 200 person outdoor beer garden in phases, which allowed us to expand in a manageable way. We have tried to be a true ‘third space’ to our Silver Spring community, and we are very humbled and grateful by the warm reception we’ve experienced in our taproom. People seem genuinely happy to have a brewery within blocks of where they live, which validates the decision we made to exchange higher rent for closer proximity to our customers. Some of us call Silver Spring home, and we feel at home in our brewery here.  

In addition to running our taproom seven days a week, we launched our wholesale distribution in late fall of 2014. We are taking advantage of the self-distribution laws we changed, and we’ve been able to create very close relationships with some of the best bars and restaurants in DC and MoCo, with fantastic partners like the Black Restaurant Group, Meridian Pint, the Hamilton, and AFI.

As we expanded our wholesale business, the logistics of delivering to so many places has been interesting. Our little red pickup truck gets a lot of action between southeast DC and Olney, MD, and while we’ve done a good job managing it all, we’ve had our fair share of tickets, tuneups, and minor delivery mishaps. We’re learning and fine tuning as we go.

How have customers reacted to your wide-ranging portfolio? In what ways has their feedback shaped what gets brewed?

Our wide-ranging portfolio is not only fun and interesting for us, it has helped us reach new customers both at the taproom and in our wholesale business. In the taproom, we host a lot of large groups, so some people know their craft beer while others are totally new to it. Having non-hoppy options like the Third Party Tripel and sour and wild beers allows us to convert a lot of wine drinkers and broaden people's perceptions of what beer can be. In our wholesale business, we are always able to offer the latest seasonal option to bars that prefer to have a constantly rotating menu. We also always solicit feedback from our customers and plan to re-release many of our most popular seasonal offerings during the course of the next year.

Which other breweries do you take inspiration from in terms of marketing, brewery operations, tap room operations, etc., if any?

Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado is a role model for us as a brewery and brand. We love their beer and how they run their taproom, and we like how they’ve intentionally grown outside of Colorado. We also admire and seek to emulate their focus on quality, creativity, and uniqueness in their beer and brand. Jeff has worked at Iron Hill Brewery in the PA / NJ area and Mountain Sun in Boulder, so we take a lot of lessons from those two seasoned brewery groups. Finally, locally, we took a lot of inspiration from The Brewer’s Art in Baltimore – they are great people who make great beer, and they’ve got a taproom with several different seating areas similar to our concept.

What's one thing you wish you had known before you opened your doors?

We bootstrapped everything to start this business, and as a result were working hard right up until we opened our doors. Given a bit more time and resources, we would have liked to dedicate some more time to marketing who we are and what we are about in our brewery and taproom so our customers could understand the business model. We operate the hybrid production brewery and taproom model that is prevalent in Colorado, the west coast, and New England, where production breweries have both retail and wholesale businesses. We took for granted how well known that model is in the DMV, and we have customers who are sometimes confused by what we are doing. The recent law changes are why this model is relatively new to this region. Over the past year we’ve worked to share our story and concept with every customer that walks through our door, and it has been fun to see people get turned on to this type of brewery.

Sour programs are both en vogue and notoriously hard to do well. Assess where yours is right now. It's relatively nascent, but is it harder to get sour yeasts to do what you want than you thought it would be?

We have been happy with our first releases – Backyard Boogie barrel-aged farmhouse-inspired ale, Wee Bit Funkay Wee Heavy, and Bretty Leroy 100% Brett IPA. We’ve got more stuff in barrels, and we are excited to continue this program.  

For us, this is what craft beer is all about: it’s science, and artistry, and experimentation, and we like the process. We have experience working with wild yeasts and barrel aging.  Jeff has honed his skills with sour and wild beers for seven years in his other roles at breweries in PA and CO, and he ran the specialty and sour beer program at Mountain Sun in Boulder before starting Denizens. From his experience at other breweries, it’s possible to manage the unpredictability of the yeast and bacteria by maintaining an inventory of barrels that we can pull from. Breweries that have a consistently successful sour program will blend batches to achieve a desired flavor profile. We did that with Backyard Boogie, and we will continue to blend future releases.   

How has the BBQ-truck-as-only-food-source model worked out for your taproom?

Our partnership with BBQ Bus has gone well this past year, and they are a great company and good people. We are excited to take on the next phase of taproom operations by bringing the food service in-house this fall. We’ll be launching a new, beer-centric food program with a concise, simple, and seasonal menu that pairs with our beers. We’ll also be hosting monthly beer dinners and offering food specials that pair with new beer releases. Stay tuned for more info!

Do you have any plans to package beer?

We do! In the next year, we plan to bottle a portion of our sour and barrel-aged releases for sale during the holidays. In a few years, we will expand production in a second facility, and we will can at that time.

You've gotten involved with public policy in your first year. What motivated you to get involved with shaping the laws in MoCo? How have alcohol policies in MoCo improved for you? What hurdles do they still present for you?

We wanted our brewery to be in MoCo since we live here, and Julie was born and raised here. We knew the reputation MoCo had in relation to alcohol, but we also have experience working on political campaigns, so knew we could organize the right coalition to change the laws in our favor. Working hand-in-hand with the Department of Liquor Control, we were instrumental in shaping and passing the law changes in 2014 and 2015 in Montgomery County so we could realize our desired business model.

We actually have zero hurdles when it comes to local alcohol policies. As a brewery, we are able to sell our beer in any package or format (pints, growlers, bottles, cans, or kegs) directly to consumers, retailers, and wholesalers all day, every day. Our customers can drink our beer on-site or take it home with them in a growler or can. We can even deliver growlers. Additionally, we can sell our beer directly to bars and restaurants without using a distributor or the MoCo DLC.  To us, MoCo is brewery heaven.

What's the one beer that you brew that you think every beer fan in the DC area should know about?

We’re very proud of our Born Bohemian pilsner. It’s one of our flagships, so it’s always on at the brewery and has a dedicated line at The Hamilton, Right Proper, and Republic. Additionally, the Southside Rye IPA, named after Denizens’ location in South Silver Spring, is our best selling beer. It’s aroma hopped heavy, so it appeals to every beer drinker, including those who don’t like IPAs.

Thanks to Taylor for taking the time to talk with us. Check out Denizens' events this week!

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