At some point over the next few weeks, kegs of Founders will kick at Pizzeria Paradiso, and bottles of Wicked Weed will run out of stock. And when they do, Paradiso’s four Washington-area locations — Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Alexandria and Hyattsville — will never sell another drop.
Last month, Pizzeria Paradiso decided to only sell beer made by breweries that meet trade organization the Brewers Association’s definition of craft: “small, independent and traditional,” joining a growing number of beer bars across the country that no longer sell beers by previously independent breweries that have been acquired by worldwide conglomerates, including Lagunitas, Ballast Point and Devils Backbone, which are now owned by Heineken, Constellation Brands and Anheuser-Busch InBev, respectively.
“It’s a business decision,” says Pizzeria Paradiso beer director Drew McCormick. “In the broadest sense, it comes from the broadest Paradiso ethos: Purchasing food from local farmers, purchasing through local distributors, and trying to support small, local, independent vendors when we can.”
While the pizzeria has never carried Miller Lite or Michelob Ultra, it has continued to sell beers by Wicked Weed and other acquired breweries. But, McCormick says, the questions of independence and ownership are “becoming murky and confusing, even on our side of things,” so she and owner Ruth Gresser made the decision to go for a clean break.
“I didn’t enjoy cutting any of them,” McCormick says. “Each one, we carried for a particular reason, and it filled a particular spot on the menu for us. I’ve been having conversations with reps from those breweries. It’s not about the liquid — it’s about the business side.”
That “business side” has been the catalyst for other beer bars to sever ties with big beer. The Happy Raven in Lincoln, Neb., voted as its state’s best craft beer bar on CraftBeer.com, stopped carrying AB InBev and MillerCoors products in June.
“Our decision was based on the fact that I believe AB is trying to take over the market, and that hurts the local craft breweries that I serve every day,” says owner Matt Myers. “It’s more of a moral stance than anything.”
If a customer on their way to a Nebraska Cornhuskers game asks for a Budweiser or Coors Light, bartenders try to steer them to a local product instead. Most people have reacted positively, he says, and there’s a personal bonus: “I feel better about myself and sleep better at night knowing I’m not giving money to people trying to destroy the [craft beer] industry.”
Ken Hotchkiss, the owner of Capitol Beer and Tap Room in Sacramento, had a more personal reason for removing corporate beer brands from his taps.
“What ultimately triggered it was Golden Road setting up a taproom in Sacramento,” he says. Los Angeles-based Golden Road, acquired by AB InBev in 2015, plans to open several brewpubs in California, including one “eight or nine blocks” from Hotchkiss’s second location, the 40-tap Capitol Hop Shop.
“I felt like I didn’t need to help them grow their business,” Hotchkiss says. “We want to support other mom-and-pop bars like us. We want to support smaller, independent brewers. I like the product better, actually.”
His customers, he said, have agreed, and he’s gotten a positive reaction from independent breweries. The biggest benefit, he says, might be that removing Ballast Point, 10 Barrel and Goose Island “frees up tap handles for smaller breweries” at both locations, such as Humble Sea from Santa Cruz, Calif. “I didn’t really want to start a war with AB InBev,” he adds. “It just didn’t work with our philosophy to support big beer.”
Of the breweries that have chosen to go with craft, each has its own standards about what that means: Hotchkiss kept selling Lagunitas after 50 percent of the company was acquired by Heineken, but removed it earlier this year when the Dutch brewer purchased the remaining half. The Happy Raven continues to sell Lagunitas as well as Founders, which sold a 30 percent stake to Spanish giants Mahou San Miguel in 2014. “It comes down to, for me at least, I haven’t seen anything that Heineken does that’s outrageous and hurting the community,” says owner Myers. “I’m not necessarily against big beer — more against their business practices.”
Pizzeria Paradiso is using the standards set by the Brewers Association, which issued a “seal of independence” for breweries to use on packaging earlier this summer.
“It felt like the one we identified with most,” McCormick explains. Those standards aren’t exactly written in stone: The association has raised the maximum amount of barrels brewed annually from 2 million to 6 million to keep Samuel Adams in the craft category, and the definition of “traditional” was modified in 2014 to allow brewers to use corn and rice as adjuncts in the brewing process. This opened the door for old-school brewers, such as Yuengling and August Schell, to call themselves craft. Such shifting sands don’t bother McCormick: If the Brewers Association changes its rules again, she’ll look at whether to follow suit. “Our allegiance lies with small, independent breweries, not strictly with the changes they [the BA] make in the future,” she says.
In the meantime, as supplies of corporate-owned beers dwindle in Pizzeria Paradiso’s coolers, McCormick says she’s looking forward to talking to customers who notice that Anchor Steam, Devils Backbone and Founders have disappeared from the menu. “It leads to a larger conversation about craft beer,” and introducing people to brands they might not have tried before, she says. “I think we’re all interested to see what happens.”