Where do national chains fit in with the local beer scene?

Mellow Mushroom is known for more than its pizza and hoagies. Beer buyer Greg Kane makes a point to stock more than 30 beers, including as many local brews as possible. Photo: Elli Williams Mellow Mushroom is known for more than its pizza and hoagies. Beer buyer Greg Kane makes a point to stock more than 30 beers, including as many local brews as possible. Photo: Elli Williams

If you put any thought at all into the food and drink you consume, chances are you think “chain restaurants” are about as good for your body as a Paula Deen cookbook. But times they are a chain-gin’.

Even dollar-hungry national restaurant groups have begun to recognize that consumers appreciate well-made products. For craft beer lovers especially, that means you can have a great beer-drinking experience in a Charlottesville restaurant that’s headquartered 250 miles away in North Carolina.

Both Brixx Wood Fired Pizza and Mellow Mushroom have gotten the memo. With rotating taps, loyalty clubs, and beer events rolled out the way only well funded conglomerates can, the two pizza joints deliver an experience that’s worth relaxing your buy local standards for at least a night.

The black sheep

Brixx’s Charlottesville location has gone rogue. Visit the Barracks Road pizza pub, and you’ll get something you won’t get at any other Brixx—a paper beer menu. It’s a necessity to keep the tap list rotating, according to general manager Casey Hall.

“Corporate likes the beer menus to be printed in the actual menu, but I decided to do this because those menus have to be ordered, and I couldn’t possibly change the kegs as often as I do,” she said. “I hate that. I don’t think a piece of paper should limit our beer list.”

Brixx’s 24 taps are instead limited only by Hall’s imagination and a few house rules. She tries to keep four or five imports on and devotes one tap to nitrogen carbonation (a carbon dioxide alternative that produces a creamier draft), one to cider, and one to root beer. When the restaurant isn’t hosting massive tap takeovers—one-night events devoted to single breweries—she tries to keep a balanced list with something for everyone. That’s a change from only a few years ago, according to Hall.

“I’m a huge hop head, so in the beginning I was putting on a lot of IPAs,” she said. “Then I heard a table saying, ‘this place always has IPAs, but they don’t have anything else.’ I realized I was making a beer list for myself.”

A list just for Hall likely wouldn’t be all bad. She got started in the brew game at Pizzeria Paradiso in Washington, D.C., where she was on the ground floor of developing a world-class beer list of 12 taps and more than 100 bottles. While living in D.C., she met and started a close relationship with Devils Backbone brewmaster Jason Oliver.

The one thing the local beer hounds can’t expect from Brixx is a decent bottle list. Hall said she had to downsize that part of the menu because too many bottles were breaking in the cooler, which is “broken money.” Man, that’s corporate talking.

National brand, local focus

Mellow Mushroom was founded in 1974 in Georgia, but visit the Charlottesville location on W. Main St., and you’ll have no trouble navigating the local beer scene. The menu features hashtags next to the local brews on tap, and anywhere from a third to half of the list will typically represent #DrinkLocal.

“Beyond general good beer, we really focus on local and regional beer,” beer buyer Greg Kane said. “We always try to carry Three Notch’d, Champion, Blue Mountain. There’s so much great beer in this area.”

Case in point: Mellow had Three Notch’d 40 Mile IPA and Hydraulian Red on tap last year before the brewery’s tap room was even open.

Mellow doesn’t stop at the local, but it does essentially stop at the U.S. border. Other than Guinness, all of the 39 taps at the restaurant pour American craft brew. The pub also disses bottles, but it does everything it can to make up for that misstep.

“At any point, we have 40-50 new beers in our keg room,” Kane said. “Right now, we are rotating 200 or more beers a year.”

With that much fluctuation, it can be difficult to keep servers up to speed. Kane said the only way to do it is to encourage the staff to try new brews through comped “shift beers.”

Like Brixx and most chain beer spots, Mellow hosts a lot of tap takeovers, as many as eight a year. There is a downside to those events, though—if you hit the bar in the days after the takeover, you’re going to find a repetitive tap list.

“That is the risk you run,” Kane said. “With [our recent] Devils Backbone tap takeover, we had some of their taps on for weeks. That’s why it’s safer to do it only with the breweries you know you love.”

And of course there is only one way to figure out which breweries you love. Say, any chance customers could get in on this shift-beer action?