Reading Bon Appetite a few months ago, I was taken aback by a photo of a Budweiser can staring back at me. "Waiter, There's Amaro in My Beer!" was the name of the piece that detailed how to kick up your lowbrow lager with a little complexity. Seriously? I was in the throes of my full-blown craft beer love affair and eschewed any mass-produced nonsense. Yet this concoction was deemed worthy of "winning over craft beer nerds." I called B.S.
However, I couldn't help but recognize the schwilly stuff in some of my favorite restaurants, too. We're talking Elby winners and Garden and Gun darlings, people — and that's a gross understatement. Holy smokes, there's a Hamm's at Laura Lee's and a Miller High Life at Southbound. Part of the Drink While You Think, it comes with a sidecar of Jameson. It all begged the question: Can not-so-fancy booze live in harmony with meticulously crafted cocktails, local brews and swanky eats? Folks behind some of Richmond's finest joints say yes, so an investigation was necessary.
Straight off of Comfort's Dolly Parton-themed cocktail menu, the Ol' Handyman (Coors Banquet and a shot of Old Grand-dad) sits comfortably alongside concoctions that feature house-made herbsaint, Aperol and habanero shrub. "This is an industry standard of a shot and a beer. It's like the clubhouse handshake," says Beth Dixon, beverage manager at both Comfort and Pasture. They also have PBR and Modelo cans behind the bar. "Honestly, it's just about having something for everyone."
Lindsay Scheer, bar manager at Heritage, agrees that inclusivity is key.
"I don't ever want a customer to feel uncomfortable or intimidated by a menu," Scheer says. "What if you have a large group come in for a birthday party and one person doesn't have the disposable income to drop $12 on a cocktail? Having more accessible options is vital."
Heritage now features a rotating staff beer that they lovingly refer to as "Drink Like a Cook" on the menu. Scheer says it's usually a lighter pilsner or lager in a 16-ounce can, and it comes with a Heritage can cooler to keep. There's an appetite for the basics, she says, adding that staff beers are particularly popular during weekend late nights.
Over at the Jasper in Carytown, an establishment started by two of the city's most acclaimed mixologists, there's a shameless array of lawnmower beer. Miller Lite, Coors, Budweiser and Modelo are all available by the can by design.
"I'll have a cocktail and then I want beer, like a can of Miller Lite," says co-owner Thomas Leggett. "A location has the power to dictate how you drink and the more you talk to people, you realize that most people wouldn't choose to sit down and drink back to back fully-loaded cocktails." The benefit is twofold. Not only do you cut back on spending, but there's less of a hurt the next day.
"Sometimes people want longevity," Leggett says. "We want to show people it's OK just to have a cheap beer even though you're in a bar that has cocktails."
Co-owner Mattias Hagglund adds that sometimes folks choose a low-octane beer to balance the booze load.
"I've watched people come in and have a few cocktails, but finish the night with cheap beer. They hang out so much longer, eating food and stuff," he says. "They probably would have left an hour before if we hadn't had the basic beer."
It's hard to argue with this, folks. I recently gave that Budweiser-Amaro suggestion a go, and it was pretty awful. But when replaced with a Miller Lite, it was all right. I might be a trash animal for saying this, but if we part ways with ego and consider things like sensible cash flow, more time with good people, and a considerably better day after drinking, then cheap beer is your friend. Besides, when you make your way back to the good stuff, it tastes unbelievably delicious.