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Many couples meet for the first time over beers. What better low-key date is there than plowing through get-to-know-you probes over suds at an easy-going watering hole? Jason and Melissa Romano, for example, met through friends, then had their first date at a brewpub—Arlington’s shuttered Bardo Rodeo that was a hit in the 1990s. “This is awesome,” Melissa recalls thinking. “I knew he was a keeper.”
What the budding couple didn’t know when they married in October 2001 is that 15 years later, they would open a brewery, especially since Jason and Melissa were (and still are) employed as a cyber security engineer and architect, respectfully. They’re one of a near six-pack of breweries in the region run by couples brave enough to mix love and livelihood.
The Romanos run Lake Anne Brew House in Reston, Virginia’s Lake Anne Plaza. The couple dubbed the operation a “nanobrewery” when it opened in April 2016 because they only brew about 65 gallons of beer at once (think four college party kegs). But the brewery’s small size and young age didn’t stop it from bringing home two medals at this year’s Virginia Beer Cup. Jason was particularly proud that the Reston Red took home some bling because it’s the recipe he’s been brewing the longest, primarily as a home-brewer of 20 years.
“He started doing it in college with his fraternity,” Melissa says. “He’d lager beer in the walk-in cooler in the basement.” Later in life, “it eventually took over the kitchen and the garage.” Jason is also a certified beer judge, so when the couple sought to open a business to enrich their community, beer made sense.
Melissa designed the tasting room and did the majority of the construction with the help of some able-bodied girlfriends. “Most of the sweat equity is mine,” she says. Today she runs the business, including the tasting room, while her husband does the brewing.
“It’s the rigor of the schedule that has made our family life streamlined,” Melissa says. She says her kids take pride in the family business. “It’s fun for them to see us working hard to achieve something and be a part of the community.”
Like the Romanos, Julie Verratti and Emily Bruno of Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring, Maryland, knew they wanted to start a business, but weren’t immediately sure what kind. “Something community-focused that we could do together,” Julie says. Both women felt an entrepreneurial drive, but beer was only a sliver in the rearview mirror because Julie had home-brewed during her first year of law school in the mid-2000s.
The couple met in Boston in 2004 where they were fundraising for the presidential election. They started dating a year later and married in San Francisco in 2008. Early in married life, Emily was a government consultant and later the director of research and policy for the National Women’s Business Council. Julie was working as a senior policy advisor at the Small Business Administration.
After sending their former office job lives through the shredder, the couple is now two years into brewery ownership. Emily and Julie attribute much of their success (both personal and professional) to having three founding partners. Co-founder and head brewer, Jeff Ramirez, completes the trio. As far as the breakdown of duties between Julie and Emily, Julie says, “I do all the fun stuff and Emily does all the terrible stuff.” She handles distribution and business relations, while Emily conquers the administrative operations work.
“Having clear roles and responsibilities is critical, and having a third party is also good,” Emily says. “With three people, it’s like I’m not talking to my spouse, I’m talking to my business partners.” Overall, the couple says the brewery has strengthened their relationship—citing improved communication, and increased patience and respect. There are tough days too, and work isn’t an escape. “We’re forced to face things because you can’t run away from each other,” Julie says.
Jeremy and Sarah Meyers echo the Denizens team about occasional difficulties. “It’s easily the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” Jeremy says about opening BadWolf Brewing Company with his wife in Manassas, Virginia. “It has strengthened our relationship. At times, it greatly strains it, but we’ve been married almost 10 years.”
When Jeremy met Sarah, she wasn’t into craft beer just yet. “I’ve had a penchant for it since 1997, but when I met Sarah she was a Bud Light drinker,” Jeremy says. But the stars aligned when Sarah took an entrepreneurship class at George Mason University studying for an undergraduate degree in business management. “We had to do a business model, so we chose a brewery because Jeremy thought it would be cool,” Sarah says. “It was a hit, we made some beer, got an A+, but kept it on the back burner.”
That is, until Jeremy was ready to move out of retail. “I had a day of the most annoying customers,” he says. That’s when he realized, “I’m done, I have to quit and start a brewery and she said okay. Flash forward a year, and we were about to open.”
Today, Jeremy oversees all things brewing-related while Sarah does all of the backend administration. The couple maintains a larger production facility and taproom called Big BadWolf, and the original, smaller taproom aptly named Little BadWolf.
The Meyers say they felt extra pressure because they were trailblazers in the region. “We’re not claiming we’re the best brewery, or best business people, but we were one of the first of the new breed of breweries,” Jeremy says. Specifically, BadWolf pounced on the opportunity when Virginia SB604 passed, allowing breweries to sell beer on premises without food.
Also trailblazing in the greater D.C. area are two farm breweries owned by not one, but two, sets of couples: Dirt Farm Brewing in Bluemont, Virginia, and Waredaca Brewing Company in Laytonsville, Maryland.
At Waredaca, a former day camp, Jessica and Brett Snyder run the show with Jessica’s cousin, Steph Kohr, and her husband, Keith Kohr, plus a fifth founder, Robert Lang. Keith, a former brewer at Flying Dog, is responsible for bringing beer into farm life.
“That was how the journey kind of got started,” Jessica says. “When we were doing long-term strategic planning, because that’s what family businesses do, the second generation asked the third generation to bring something new to the farm.”
On working together, Jessica says, “Starting a business with your husband is hard; running a business with your husband is easy.” Start-ups are taxing, especially with three kids. “Obviously I stand with millions of moms, but it’s hard to work full time and be a mom—one bleeds into the other.”
Jessica met Brett when she was working at the Securities and Exchange Commission in D.C. and he was doing construction in the building. She got stuck in the elevator and he rescued her. “Our first date involved drinking mojitos, not beer,” she jokes. They got married on the farm in 2000.
Janell Zurschmeide and her husband, Bruce Zurschmeide, of Dirt Farm Brewing, also married on the family farm that later added a farm brewing operation. They were the first wedding at the property, Bluemont Vineyard, which is now a popular venue for vows.
When Janell said, “I do,” she married into the Zurschmeide family, joining a tight-knit group that has been farming in Loudoun County for 40 years. After adding a three-acre hop yard and 10 acres of land for sowing grain for beer, the farm brewery opened in May 2015.
Janell and Bruce grew up miles apart in the county and met in high school where they no doubt drank their first illegal beers together. “At his house not mine,” Janell jokes, adding that at a recent high school reunion, no one was shocked to hear they were opening a brewery. But they might be shocked to learn it was Janell’s idea.
Today, she runs the tasting room, marketing, website, employee management, and other business duties, while Bruce heads up the farming and brewing with his nephews. They’re co-owners of Dirt Farm with Bruce’s brother Mark Zurschmeide and his wife Kate Zurschmeide.
Farm life and brewery ownership is all-encompassing—the Zurschmeides even have a session IPA called Work, “because we work our asses off, no joke,” Janell says. “The hardest part about the whole thing is turning off work—it follows you home, it follows you to bed, but being able to build something together that will hopefully stay in our family and we can pass down to our children is really special.” CP
Click here for more stories from the 2016 Beer Issue.