Brewer and philanthropist

Betsy Lay (BA ’04)

Betsy Lay remembers her first craft beer.

She thought it was disgusting.

At a house party near the University of Denver early in her college career, the teenager from Anheuser-Busch country wondered: Why the big whoop over this honey brown ale?

But before long, Lay (BA ’04) had found a few beverages a bit more to her liking. She was beginning to understand that there was more to beer than the beer.

“I look back on it now, and DU helped me start on that path of understanding the ways people use food and drink to gather in their communities and talk about what’s important to them,” says Lay, who earned a degree in digital media from the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. “Beer is a liquid form of breaking bread.”

Years later, Lay has perfected her own recipes for brewing beer. They’re on tap at Lady Justice Brewing Co., where she and her two co-founders are breaking into the male-dominated beer industry, using a philanthropic business model that pours money back into the local community.

“The idea came directly from a lack of funding during a recession,” Lay says, when she, Kate Power and Jen Cuesta worked at AmeriCorps. “Social entrepreneurship wasn’t a well-known concept then, so we didn’t know we were social entrepreneurs. We just knew that we spent a lot of money on beer, and we were trying to fundraise for nonprofits during a recession. So the conversation was: Why can’t our beer money go toward this nonprofit that we’re working for?”

What began with a single barrel in a 300-square-foot space near Lakeside Amusement Park has expanded to a full-fledged operation, featuring six fermenters, a mash tun, an Aurora taproom and distribution in several local liquor stores. But one of the company’s most distinguishing features is its philanthropy.

Since its establishment in 2013, Lady Justice has given almost $50,000 to nonprofit organizations that benefit Colorado and empower women and girls, aligning the brewery’s mission with its founders’ identities.

“I did not expect my identity as a woman or my identity as a lesbian to be that important to the work we were doing,” Lay says. “And we very quickly learned that it was really important to have that representation and be in the community in that way. We continue to let our identities be so closely tied to it because it seems to be something that’s still important for people to see and experience.”

While fewer than 3% of American breweries are completely owned by women, the average consumer of alcoholic beverages is increasingly female and increasingly women of color, the Brewers Association reports.

Lady Justice has taken steps to make those customers feel welcome in its taproom, Lay says, opening its doors to underrepresented communities and teaching them about local beer. 

Behind the scenes, Lay, the head brewer, bounces between the mash tun (called June Carter Mash) and four fermenters—Sandra, Sonia, Ruth and Elena—that bear the names of the first four female justices to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Two other fermenters are named for the founders’ mothers.

Behind the bar, Lay will gladly pour you a pint of Merkel’s Thursday (a commemoration of the former German chancellor’s Berlin Wall traverse) or the beer that started it all, the Sandra Day IPA.

“To me, it seems like a pretty good business idea to choose to visit your brewery or choose to buy your brand because they’re proud of where their spending dollars went,” she says. “I guess it’s a decent model for hard times. I hope it’s a decent model for good times too.”

“Mom wants an IPA”

When an email with an eye-catching subject line hit their inboxes, the three co-founders of the fledgling Lady Justice Brewing Co. had to laugh. “Mom wants an IPA? That’s a weird thing to email,” Betsy Lay (BA ’04) remembers thinking. 

“We opened [the email] up, and it was from Scott O’Connor, [retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Sandra Day O’Connor’s son,” Lay recalls. In search of $15,000 to make their dream venture a reality, Lay and her two co-founders, both lawyers, had started a crowdfunding campaign. The American Bar Association picked up on the news, noticed the legal-sounding name and publicized the effort in a blog post, asking: “What would you name your legal team’s beer?” Someone had suggested “Sandra Day O’Porter.”

Scott O’Connor had a better idea. “He was like, ‘Hey, my mom reads the ABA blog, and she thinks this is really fun. But she doesn’t want a porter, she wants an IPA. So if you want to brew a beer and call it Sandra Day IPA, we’ll let you use her name.’ And we lost our [expletive] minds, to be honest,” Lay says. 

The Sandra Day IPA became Lady Justice’s flagship beer. O’Connor’s granddaughter, who lives in Denver, is an occasional customer.

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