Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is Denizens Brewing Company’s Backyard Boogie, a “farmhouse-inspired” sour ale aged for six months in Sauvignon Blanc barrels.
Previously in Freshly Tapped: Port City’s Colossal 6; Ocelot and Meridian Pint’s Talking Backwards; Right Proper and Pizzeria Paradiso’s Maslow; Union and Ocelot’s Lucifer’s Trees; 3 Stars and Charm City Meadworks’ Two-Headed Unicorn; Aslin and Meridian Pint’s The Adventures of Audrey; Atlas Brew Works’ Dance of Days; Old Ox’s Funky Face; Handsome Beer’s White Ale; Ocelot and Bluejacket’s Raised on Promises; and 3 Stars’ #ultrafresh.
Jeff Ramirez showed up on the doorstep of Emily Bruno and Julie Verratti with three earthly belongings: a suitcase, another suitcase, and a piece of plywood.
It was January of 2014, and the brewer had traveled halfway across the country to start a brewery called Denizens with this pair of ex-federal employees who, for the moment, were to be his roommates.
Technically, they were relatives, too. Some years back, Ramirez’s older brother had wed Bruno’s younger sister, which made everyone family. In fact, it was at a Christmas dinner 13 months earlier that the married couple first approached him about opening a brewery.
At the time, Ramirez was just 26-years-old, but he had already amassed a not insignificant amount of production brewing experience. It started right out of college with an apprenticeship for a Berkeley Heights brewpub in his native North Jersey. From there, he relocated to the Philadelphia area, where he learned the ropes of brewing on a larger scale at the hub for regional chain Iron Hill. Two year later, he drifted to Colorado and wound up as head brewer for Mountain Sun Brewery, managing operations at one location and building up the barrel-aging and sour program at the other. Somewhere in there, he made time to take the microbiology and chemistry courses he had avoided as an Anthropology major at Kenyon. He even enrolled in and completed studies at the Siebel Institute’s beer program, too.
This was a fast and furious plunge into the world of brewing – especially for someone who makes the immersion sound like something that just kind of happened.
“There was nothing else really striking my fancy,” the brewer explains nonchalantly. “I was always making things, though. And, even as a kid in college, I could see that craft breweries were trying to do something different.”
Almost everything Ramirez says comes couched with a shrug. Don’t expect any epiphanies in his story. Don’t wait for him to wax poetic. Things just kind of happen. But regardless of when and why and how they do, there’s no mistaking the wholeheartedness of his commitment.
Take his experience in Colorado. He moved west not because the beer scene called to him. He did so because a romantic interest told him she had a free place for them to live together. And while neither the relationship nor the house panned out as expected, it led him to Mountain Sun for two-and-a-half years.
Or go back to that Christmas dinner. After floating the idea of Denizens, Bruno and Verratti dove into research, financial architecture, and the hunt for a space in Silver Spring. 1500 miles away, Ramirez offered technical advice and helped the two sort out the kind of operation that they envisioned – a production brewery with a taproom focus. Yet, the reality of moving back to East Coast and opening a brewery with extended family was just barely tangible.
“For six months, Jeff was like, ‘We’ll see,’” remembers Bruno. “He was waiting for us to sign a lease, and then when we did, he was like, ‘Oh, so I have to quit my job now.’”
“I didn’t really know what Silver Spring was,” the brewer admits. “I had come to visit, but I didn’t have a sense of the town or DC.”
But when Bruno and Verratti secured Denizens’ current Silver Spring space in November 2013, Ramirez indeed gave his notice, packed his suitcases and plywood, and headed to Maryland.
About that plywood. It was roughly seven-feet tall, two-feet wide, and splashed on one side with nine or so blue and green molecular blob characters. Ramirez had first encountered this painting when he was 22 and living in Philadelphia. One night, a neighborhood artist was throwing a party in his studio and invited Ramirez and a buddy in.
“He was like, ‘I have free beer. Want to hang out?’” Ramirez remembers. “He wasn’t even trying to sell his work.”
A particular painting caught the brewer’s eye, though. It was called “Backyard Boogie”, and it reminded Ramirez – a voracious consumer of pop culture, particularly movies and hip-hop – of the artwork and videos associated with DJ Q-Bert’s turntable record Wave Twisters. He bought the work on the spot for $75.
And while Ramirez would never cross paths with the artist again, he would carry that token of a chance encounter from City of Brotherly Love to the Rocky Mountains to Verratti and Bruno’s Montgomery County home.
“Jeff walked in with his suitcases and ‘Backyard Boogie,’” Verratti recalls with a chuckle. “We were like, ‘What the heck is that, man?’ He literally moved across the country with that thing. He had no furniture. He had nothing but some bags and that piece of art.”
We’re sitting in Denizens taproom in early March, and I wonder aloud where “Backyard Boogie” is now. Ramirez points across the room, where it’s tucked unceremoniously behind an air compressor on the production floor.
Meanwhile, on the table in front of us are glasses of an orange-hued beverage that’s been kegged out earlier in the day. It’s a beer that Denizens has made once before: a farmhouse-inspired sour ale aged in white wine barrels. It was the first barrel-aged beer the Silver Spring brewery produced, and now two years later, it’s the first that Ramirez has reproduced.
In a tribute to the motley hodgepodge of microorganisms that fueled the liquid’s fermentation, it’s called Backyard Boogie.
Ask Jeff Ramirez about sour ales, and he might tell you about lagers.
“I love the pilsner,” the brewer shares. “That was the one beer that I said we had to make. It wasn’t the sour stuff and all of that.”
I had been the one to bring up the sour stuff – specifically, that it seemed noteworthy to me that Denizens had produced the original Backyard Boogie within a year opening. A brewery’s first barrel-aged sour ale doesn’t happen accidentally or quickly. A mixed culture of brewer’s yeast, wild yeast, and bacteria has to be ordered from a lab. Secondhand barrels must be procured, which is easier said than done given discrepancies in the quality of such vessels and the fact that small breweries are often left to fight for scraps. And after those barrels have been filled, it can take months and months and months for the beer to mature and mutate to the right place. To state the obvious, this is an expensive and slow process. That’s why most breweries wait years to launch a barrel-aged sour program – if they ever even do, of course.
Thus, I had assumed that these beers might be a passion for Ramirez. It turns out that such passion lies with Denizens’ Czech-style pilsner, Born Bohemian.
“If Jeff could make the pilsner all day – and literally nothing else – he would do that,” Verratti quips.
But he hasn’t done that. Instead, Ramirez and his team have produced a broad range of sour and wild ales at a remarkably consistent clip. In fact, for the past two years, there’s been a new beer from the program pretty much every month. Since October, for example, that’s meant a Flanders Oud Bruin, a 100% Brett-fermented porter, a petit sour ale aged in tequila barrels, and a Baltic-style kvass.
This depth, variety, and adventurousness are unmatched in the DC area.
“Denizens’ sour program is as good as anything we can get locally,” says Dave Delaplaine, beverage director for Adams Morgan’s Roofers Union. “Their beers tend to be more intense than some of the other local stuff, but they pull it off. There’s a certain balance to them. I get a lot of Lacto acidity – that fun intensity that hits the back of your throat – but they’re not one-noted, and the barrel-aging often softens their edges.”
“Jeff has done a lot of cool stuff,” Verratti adds. “He does stuff in mezcal barrels and tequila barrels. I’m not seeing what he’s doing anywhere else in this area.”
If the man behind these beers would rather be making pilsner, why does he do it?
“My thought was that I had developed these skill sets, particularly in Colorado, so why wouldn’t I use them in a market that has less of it?” Ramirez shares. “I don’t drink sour beer at all, but it’s still intriguing to me.”
Driven by such curiosity and the savvy to notice a hole in the local market, Denizens set its sour program in motion early on. It purchased several open fermenters primarily for the production of such beer and then secured barrels from a company situated just down the street from Mountain Sun’s Denver location. And when it came time to put these high-capital investments to work, Ramirez wanted to produce a beer that, in his words, he knew would have a “promising outcome.”
“If I were to want to drink sour beer,” the brewer says, “Backyard Boogie is the one I would want.”
Backyard Boogie starts with a grist of Castle Malting’s Château Pilsen – a very light pale malt, more neutral than American 2-Row or England’s Maris Otter. To these Belgian grain, Ramirez adds a hearty dose of unmalted flaked wheat, plus a bit of malted wheat. Finally, to get that aforementioned orange hue without any caramel malts, the brewer employs a touch of black malt.
“It’s a nice canvas for all of the other things that go into the beer,” Ramirez explains. “We just wanted all of the yeast and bacteria to shine.”
The star of the show is a blend of saison yeast, several strains of the wild yeast brettanomyces, and lactobacillus bacteria. This mixed culture goes to work on the hopped wort in one of Denizens’ open fermenters, where the lack of pressure allows the farmhouse yeast to express more estery qualities and produce a fuller bodied beer. (The trade-off of using such tanks is a greater risk of infection and the pesky need to transfer beer to a conditioning tank before it’s done fermenting.)
After primary fermentation, Backyard Boogie goes into white wine barrels. Some of these French oak vessels are spiked with pediococcus, a bacteria that continues producing acidity at higher alcohol levels. (Lactobacillus, in contrast, peters out at 4 to 5 percent alcohol.)
Then, Denizens monitors and waits.
“You check on the barrels, you see where they’re all at, and you take notes,” Ramirez says. “Finally, you come up with a formula to blend before putting into a tank prior to packaging.”
The last step – mixing varying liquids from different barrels – is one that frequently goes underappreciated by craft beer drinkers. Inevitably, beer is set aside or discarded entirely during the process.
“What goes into the barrels is not necessarily all put into the finished beer,” the head brewer explains. “You want to have an inventory of barrels so you can blend back and make the flavor profile you desire. Sometimes it goes too far, and you need to blend out some of the flavors.”
“We try to make them not the most sour,” says Verratti. “We want them to have the nuance of aged sour beers while keeping them as palatable as possible. There are people who come in that don’t usually enjoy sours but enjoy ours.”
A big component of that broader appeal is the result of the barrel-aging process. Compared to a kettle-soured ale, a beer like Backyard Boogie develops more tropical flavors from the white wine remnants in the barrel and the continued fermentation of brettanomyces. And while that wild yeast consumes more sugars, the oak lends a rounding body to a relatively dry beer.
Here we note the one significant change to Backyard Boogie 2.0: While the original went into Chardonnay barrels, the new batch matured in Sauvignon Blanc vessels. The result is a beer that’s a little sharper – “Sauvignon Blanc makes some of Backyard Boogie’s characteristics pop more, while Chardonnay is a little richer of a white wine and kind of rounds it out,” Ramirez explains – but the outcome isn’t markedly different.
That’s by design, of course. In fact, Denizens received these barrels fresh but opted to run another beer through them prior to Backyard Boogie.
“We didn’t want the white wine character to dominate, because that can take away some of the oak character,” Ramirez explains. “This ends up a little more subtle. The goal was really just about balance – the tropical flavors, the mouthfeel, the head retention.”
As previously mentioned, this is the first time that Denizens has reproduced one of its barrel-aged sour. I ask why.
“Because it’s delicious,” Verratti answers with typical directness. “It’s a beer that I’ve heard people asked about over and over again since it came out the first time: ‘When are you guys making it again? When are you bringing it back?’ I think it is a really approachable beer for a barrel-aged sour. It’s refreshing, it’s light, there’s a lot of interesting flavors going on. It’s almost a gateway sour beer for people to try.”
“It’s good for the warmer weather, too,” Bruno adds.
That Backyard Boogie comes on the heels of Denizens’ potent and vinegary Oud Boy serves a neat illustration of the program’s range.
“He’s prolific, man,” says Ben Evans, the head brewer at Hellbender. “It’s incredible how many sours he’s made. Some of the ideas he comes up with are so creative, and he makes it work. He once gave me a scotch ale that he soured with the dregs of some Belgian Lambic beer and then aged in a barrel for months, and it was fantastic. I love going over there and seeing what’s new. There are stacks of barrels down there with all different types of stuff in them. It’s really his playground.”
When I ask Ramirez about this adventurousness, he deflects any sort of credit, pivoting to a philosophical view of brewing instead.
“I don’t think we’re ever really pushing the envelope,” he tells me. “We’re always trying to refine. These flavors that come out in the beer have been contrived elsewhere – not even in the beer, but in fruits and stuff like that. We don’t own these flavors. They just happen in nature. What we’re trying to do is hone those and keep recreating them in the most efficient way possible.”
Bruno, on the other hand, is more willing to give her head brewer some well-deserved kudos.
“I never doubt Jeff’s ability to make something work,” she says. “Sometimes the combinations seem weird when he first tells me, and then it tastes delicious.”
As the manager of Denizens’ tap room, Bruno will be responsible for selling the majority of Backyard Boogie.
“The nice thing about our model is that there isn’t a ton of risk about a beer being adventurous,” she continues. “Jeff might not make a beer that’s for everybody, but it’ll be good, and we won’t face pressure to move a ton of it. We’ll pour it in the tap room, and we’ll serve it at events and at the bars that we have good relationships with. It takes some of the pressure off when you’re not doing a massive release.”
“It’s like, ‘This new beers on tap. Come get it, if you want,’” Verratti says.
Thus far, the denizens of Silver Spring have been doing just that.
Many a business dream has perished at 1115 East West Highway.
Some 80 years ago, the building was constructed as a manufacturing facility for the American Instrument Company, but since the ‘90s, it has housed a number of ill-fated enterprises: a Mexican restaurant, several nightclubs, even a sports bar dubiously called Babe’s.
“It’s just too big of a space to fill with people every night,” Bruno onserves. “The rent was probably too high, and it killed them.”
Fairly or not, the space had gained a reputation as an entrepreneurial black widow.
“Denizens Brewing will be the 6th occupant of 1115 E-W Hwy in a decade, after Meredith Glass, Izora, Gallery, Babe’s, and Fajita Coast,” Washington Post nightlife reporter Fritz Hahn tweeted in December 2013 – one month after Verratti and Bruno had signed the leased.
“#Cursed,” he added for good measure.
Hahn was not the only person to tell Denizens this.
“For the first six months we were open, average people would walk in and say, ‘You guys are going to be out of business in six months,’” Bruno recalls. “It was so demoralizing.”
At the same time, though, there had been plenty of others clamoring for Denizens to open.
“There was a lot of pressure the community,” says Ramirez. “They would show up daily, like, ‘So, when are you going to open your doors? We need this open.’ So we said, ‘Fine.’”
Denizens opened in July of 2014 – a few months before it was even producing beer on site. The locals wanted it, and furthermore, Denizens could use the money. So, Denizens contract brewed a few batches of its Southside Rye and Lowest Lord ESB at Beltway Brewing, and sold beer from other local breweries.
In planting the brewery in this cursed soil, Denizens was banking on two types of people showing up: underserved beer nerds on one hand, and on the other, customers who couldn’t tell a Czech-style pilsner from a farmhouse-inspired sour ale.
“We’re really the only location where you’re guaranteed to have 100% craft beer,” the co-founder says. “It’s somewhat unfair since we’re a brewery.”
But many of Denizens’ patrons are just excited to have a multi-level space with a big, outdoor beer garden.
“A huge part of our customer base is the apartments and families that live around here,” Verratti continues. “Within a two-block radius, there are some 4,000 apartment units – and that’s data from three years ago. A lot of them are folks who are looking to go somewhere local, grab a bite to eat, grab a drink. They may not care if it’s a brewery or not. It’s a good customer to have.”
The responsibilities of Denizens’ three co-founders are neatly partitioned. Ramirez makes the beer. Verratti runs wholesale operations. (More on that later.) And Bruno manages the tasting room, which includes finances and the less-than-glamorous HR duties.
Since Denizens is open seven days a week, that means Bruno has been at 1115 East West Highway almost every day for three years. During that time, the tasting room has come a long way from serving other people’s beer from a jockey box behind the bar.
“We opened on a shoestring budget, so we were really freewheeling it the first year,” she says. “All of the furniture in the tap room was stuff that we found here and we repainted. We’ve slowly upgraded and replaced things like furniture, but we just didn’t have any money at the time.”
The seed money that Bruno and Verratti had used to parlay their small business came from the unlikeliest of places. If you were predisposed towards painfully strained clichés, you might even call it a happy accident
Back in 2009, the two co-founders were driving back from a wedding in Connecticut when a car in Pennsylvania illegally turned left in from them, forcing their vehicle off the road and into a brick wall at 50-miles-per-hour. The settlement from the collision was modest, but it was enough for a down payment on a house in Silver Spring. Years later, the two would use that money as leverage for a small business loan.
“Julie and I leveraged a really bad situation into opening a brewery,” shares Bruno. “In a way, we did get lucky. It wasn’t even a lot of money, but we got an SBJ loan and hustled our way into opening a business.”
Prior to founding Denizens, Bruno had worked at the State Department and consulted for PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“I did a bunch of DC jobs and didn’t like any of them,” she states succinctly. “I was never good at having a boss. I was never good at following structures. I hated commuting on the Metro. Like, the State Department drove me crazy.”
Bruno knew that she wanted to start a business. A brewery was less about the beer than its unique cross-sector appeal.
“I like what this business is: It’s retail, it’s wholesale, it’s manufacturing, it’s hospitality, it’s just interesting,” the co-founders tells me. “I work more than I did before, for less pay than I made before, but it’s better than working in an office.”
Overseeing the tap room, she’s proud of the team she’s assembled.
“We have a real tribe,” Bruno continues. “We just attract different people. For me, that was enormously refreshing. I worked at PwC, the State Department, and all of these very white, professional class environments, and working with people in the bar and restaurant industry is more enjoyable. There’s still ego, like there is in the political world in DC, but people are way more down to earth. I’ve learned that in this community, people are just friendly and nice and a blast.”
In a former life, Julie Verratti was Senior Policy Advisor at the Small Business Administration. And inside her cubicle there, above her desk, she had printed and hung a sign that asked one question: Is what you’re doing right now helping a small business start, grow, or succeed?
Every day, she would look at this sign for inspiration. Eventually, though, she started to believe that she wasn’t living up to its mission.
“A lot of what I was doing felt like needless paperwork,” the co-founder tells. “I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ Plus, I was meeting with all of these entrepreneurs. I wanted to step out and get my own business going.’”
Verratti had dabbled in homebrewing for a while prior to founding Denizens, but she recognized the shortcomings of her craft.
“As I get older, the thing that I appreciate the most is that I’ve learned what I’m good at and what I’m not good at,” she tells me. “I’m not very good at making beer. I’m very good at drinking it, and I’m very good at describing it and selling it.”
Since Verratti is the Denizens co-founder charged with handling wholesale responsibilities, those last two attributes are important, especially in light of Denizens’ decision to self-distribute in DC and Maryland. That means that instead of teaming with a distributor, Verratti deals with every account directly – sales, customer service, managing delivery, all of it.
“When you self-distribute as a brewery, you basically open a second business,” the Silver Spring native says. “You have to get all of the things that the wholesalers have, but you’re not able to do it at the scale that they do.”
It’s important to note here that Denizens’ decision to self-distribute is a choice and not a necessity. Approaching its three-year anniversary this summer, Denizens has clung to independence of self-distribution, except in Virginia where such a model is not allowed under state law.
“If I could self-distribute everywhere, I would,” Verratti says. “You have complete control over the relationship with your customers. If they need something, they come directly to me, or likewise, I can go directly to them. There’s no middle man.”
Cutting out the middle man means better profit margins, too. For a small, new brewery, those dollars add up quickly.
Of course, nowhere is the profit margin better than in Denizens’ own taproom. Thus, like more and more breweries these days, Denizens has prioritized the taproom experience.
One way it’s done that is by brewing – and holding onto – beer with the taproom in mind.
“Running a taproom, you need to have diversity,” Bruno shares. “When you have a neighborhood bar that also happens to be a brewery, you need to provide a lot of different stuff for people if you want them to come back a few times a month”
Sitting in the taproom in March, Ramirez starts ticking off the different yeast strains that he sees in the ten beers etched on the hanging chalkboard menu.
Lager strain. Ale strain. Saison strain. Brettanomycses. It’s the veritable hitting cycle.
“Being able to manage all of those yeast strains on a smaller system with five conical fermenters is difficult, and we knew that going into this,” the head brewer shares. “But I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. We’ve done what we’ve set out to do.”
The interesting question for Denizens is what it wants to do next.
Last year, the brewery produced 1,554 barrels of beer. (“I know it that specifically because I do all of the excise taxes,” Verratti says with a chuckle.) About 60% of it was sold in the taproom, and the remainder was sold to bars and package stores. As Denizens’ brand awareness grows, though, more and more accounts want its beer.
“I’m actually having to say no to people who are asking to buy our beer wholesale,” Verratti shares. “There’s only so much space where we are now, and the tap room is always going to be the thing that we make sure has the most beer.”
This is long way from Denizens’ earliest days, when Verratti traveled bar to bar, cold-calling beer directors.
“I went from having a job at the Small Business Administration to this,” she remembers. “I wasn’t in the industry at all. I knew zero people. I would walk into a bar with my little sales sheet and ask to speak with whoever bought the beer there.”
Now, balancing where beers goes is the struggle. It’s a better struggle, undoubtedly, but a real one nonetheless, especially as Denizens decides where and how and when to expand.
“It’s a big business question,” Bruno says. “We want to meet that demand, but this isn’t Colorado. There isn’t endless space for us to build a massive brewery and hope that people show up.”
Furthermore, as the market becomes more crowded, Denizens sees familiarity as utterly essential.
“Branding these days comes down to whether people know your story,” Bruno continues. “When I visit my family in Pennsylvania, I see some DC-area breweries on the shelf, and I’m like, ‘No one is going to buy your beer. This is just going to sit here.’ That’s not good.”
Ramirez lifts a glass of Backyard Boogie to his face and breathes in deeply.
“On the nose, I’m getting Brett, funk, earthiness,” he says. “I’m also getting a lot of Emily’s lip gloss.”
A gaping smile stretches across the head brewer’s face as he erupts in laughter. Sitting next to him, Bruno looks like someone used to this sort of comment from him.
“Lip glosses don’t have fragrance!” she retorts.
Ramirez is undeterred, though.
“It smells like lip gloss,” he insists.
“It might be one of my many other fragrances,” she concedes, “my sunscreen, my hair.”
Without missing a beat, Verratti steers us back to the subject at hand.
“It’s not super aggressive, but there’s definitely an acidic quality in the mouthfeel,” the co-founder notes. “There’s a party going on when you drink it.”
Sitting with the three co-founders, it’s hard to miss how loose and easygoing they are in each other’s company. There is a lot of laughter. Side conversations spin off repeatedly. Good vibes abound.
From the outside, you get a glimpse into this dynamic with the energetic and colorful names of Denizens’ beers.
“We try to just have fun with it, to be honest,” Verratti shares. “We try not to take it too seriously. We try to make sure that we’re not being offensive.”
Most spring from the mind of Ramirez, who often pulls from pop cultural references of his childhood and teenage years. From there, it’s up to Bruno and Verratti to determine whether a name crosses any lines, and to perhaps walk it back a little.
For example, “Ape Tit” might become “Ape Tit for $400,” just so it’s a little clearer that Denizens’ bourbon barrel-aged petit sour ale is named after an SNL Jeopardy sketch.
“We teeter on the edge every once in a while,” Verrati continues. “I don’t know, it’s beer – have a good time, drink it, it’s whatever.”
Such an approach pokes holes in craft beer’s occasional self-seriousness. At a small level, it makes that world more accessible.
There’s a time for chin-stroking, but there’s a time for boogieing, too.