//Betsy Lay, one of three co-owners of Lady Justice Brewing Company, at the brewery on Jan. 29. Photos by Polina Saran | firstname.lastname@example.org
Take a stroll along East Colfax Avenue near Elmira Street, and it’s hard to miss the gaze of Ruth Bader Ginsburg inside Lady Justice Brewing Company. The craft brewery has become a neighborhood bar known for breaking barriers and giving back.
Betsy Lay, Kate Power and Jen Cuesta lead the head-turning harmony of the craft brewery’s new home.
“A woman-owned brewery is unique, and a woman head-brewer is also unique,” Lay said. “We’re also queer-founded and Latina-founded. So, we hit all of these demographics that are very much underrepresented. We didn’t necessarily want that to be the focus, but we learned that representation really matters.”
An Auburn University study featured on the website of the Brewers Association shows only 4% of breweries in the U.S. have a female head brewer, and only 2% are run exclusively by female brewers.
Founded in 2014, its business model—to brew beer while making the world a better place—is a rare, altruistic find.
“We’re hopeful that if we hit the numbers from our brewery membership option, which offers exclusive beer and merchandise, we’ll be able to donate somewhere between $7,500 and $8,000 to community organizations in 2021,” Lay said.
More than a decade ago, Lay, Power, and Cuesta crossed paths in the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America program. The two-year mission aims to strengthen low-income communities and alleviate poverty. In return, volunteers benefit from opportunities to leverage their education and career. As VISTA members in Arvada making little money, the three spent their days and nights fundraising, teaching, and implementing curriculum into Colorado school districts.
“When you’re a VISTA, you agree to work at the poverty level of the city in which you serve, so we were all making about $10,000 a year,” Lay said.
Despite the small paychecks, they prioritized sharing a few beers at their favorite brewpub. And they weren’t alone. The pub was always packed with like-minded drinkers making beer a part of their weekly budget amidst the Great Recession.
During their roundtable talks, the volunteers often asked themselves why people had money to spend on beer but not on their causes tied to AmeriCorps.
“And that was the idea, what if our beer money could be used to improve our community?” Lay said.
When their service program ended, the idea of a philanthropic brewery stayed alive. Power went on to law school and developed the business plan as part of a class assignment.
“After Jen and Kate graduated from law school and moved back here, we hit the ground running. We did a lot of homebrewing, just trying different recipes,” Lay said.
Several years, and a change in locations later, Lady Justice Brewing is alive and well in Aurora, tucked between a salon and pawnshop. The brewery is named in honor of advocates fighting for women’s rights and justice.
With its beige brick exterior and exposed ductwork, the philanthropic taproom has become a safe and inviting space for anyone and everyone with a palate for craft beer and giant Bavarian-style salted pretzels.
“It’s not a brewery to me. It’s a family, and the house happens to have a really good beer fridge,” said James Ward, a regular of Lady Justice Brewing.
The bar is brimming with history and character as powerful women of the past line the walls, including Ginsburg, Dolores Huerta, and Marsha P. Johnson, created by Denver artist Chelsea Lewinski.
Colorado is home to four of the 50 largest craft breweries in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association. Still, Ward, familiar with the dizzying list of breweries across the state, finds the small and mighty Lady Justice Brewing taproom to be among the best because of its owners.
“If I could choose three ladies in Denver to hang out with, I would always choose [Lay, Power and Cuesta] because they have an infectious personality,” Ward said. “You might go in the first time as a stranger, but you will never come back as a stranger.”
From lagers and stouts to seltzers, Ward says there is magic within its walls. Lay agrees.
“It’s about making sure [the brewery industry] is representative of voices that are beyond straight white dudes. Hopefully, one day, there will be so many women in the industry that we won’t be special anymore, and that would be really wonderful.”
Lady Justice Brewery opened its doors at its new site, near the Martin Luther King Jr. public library, only to have them quickly closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Around the same time Gov. Jared Polis gave the green light to re-open pubs and restaurants in June, people hit the streets in Colorado and across the country in protest. The Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality was intensifying following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The movement was especially poignant for Aurorans, whose community lost Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old massage therapist, who died after being placed in a chokehold by Aurora police in August 2019.
In response, Lady Justice Brewery donated more than $6,000 to several nonprofit organizations owned and operated by people of color, including Dream Culture USA, Soul2Soul Sisters and the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance program.
“When the protests came about, some of our younger staff members were asking, ‘What does this mean?’ And Cleo was saying, ‘You know, we’ve been here before,’” said Hillary Harding, a spokesperson for the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance program. “So, when something like that happens, and our neighbors in our community rise up and say we want to be a part of the change and fundraise to help a Black-owned and Black-led organization, it sends a really strong message.”
Cleo Parker Robinson Dance is a women-led program that has operated in Denver for 50 years. Lady Justice Brewery’s donation helped the company keep the majority of its core staff members on the payroll as the pandemic hit.
“It’s a testament of their commitment to community and making Denver a more robust landscape,” Harding said.
This year, the brewery is focused on donating to organizations working to meet the needs of those who have been overlooked and have suffered because of COVID, and, Lay adds, all while crafting the way for future women entrepreneurs.
“As we talk with people, what we’ve learned is that being women doing this work is equally as important as the philanthropic piece,” Lay said. “And that surprised me. It still surprises me to this day, but it is really important.”
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