This Friday marks three weeks for Drew McCormick in her new role as Pizzeria Paradiso’s executive beer director. She is now one of just a few women in Washington, DC and its surrounding metro area, leading a beer program – let alone an award-winning one – across three locations.
McCormick took over for Josh Fernands, has moved back to his stomping grounds in Maine. McCormick worked closely alongside Fernands as assistant beverage director, helping Paradiso to a 2015 RAMMY for Beer Program of the Year win. She says her new responsibilities are overwhelming – but good.
“I’m overwhelmed by just the sheer volume of things to do but excited about putting my own stamp on it,” she said. “It’s finding the balance of getting excited about things to change but making sure to maintain the day-to-day things that need to happen – which can be fun, too.”
Aside from keeping on top of ordering for the 42 draft lines across the three locations, as well as keeping the shelves stocked with over 200 bottles at each restaurant, McCormick also puts on her creative cap to drum up events for beer and pizza lovers alike. For today’s celebration of International Pi Day, McCormick worked with Paradiso’s owner Ruth Gresser to showcase the restaurant’s marriage of artisanal pies and craft brews. All three pizzeria locations, Georgetown, Dupont, and Old Town, will be offering $3.14 off the pairing of a Savory Apple Pie special pizza and B. Nektar's Apple Pi mead made with Michigan honey, apple cider, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg.
McCormick is looking forward to launching new beer events across Paradiso’s three locations and revving up the monthly Monday Night Beer Club, her brainchild series at the Georgetown restaurant. She said her focus remains on balancing what excites her personally as a beer geek as well as what might excite customers.
“People are always looking for something new and different and fun,” she said.
Noting Paradiso’s attraction to local craft lovers and domestic big-brand drinkers alike, McCormick said she hopes to differentiate her beer program from others across the city by making the diverse portfolio of more than 250 beers, which are local, national, and global in scope, accessible to as many people as possible.
“For me, it’s really important that we are meeting people where they are,” she affirmed and, anecdotally, went on to explain, “If you love the label on this German Pilsener that I gave you because you said you wanted a Bud Light, that’s awesome. It would be really cool if you took a picture of it. This is a successful interaction. If someone else wants to sit down and talk about a particular strain of Brettanomyces, that’s also a really validating, enjoyable experience and exchange. Making sure that our staff can have both of those interactions successfully in the same breath is important.”
Her personal approach to making Paradiso’s variety of beers accessible to all begins with focusing on the customer.
“It’s all about reading your customer and trying to understand how little or how much input they want from you,” she said.
When bartending, McCormick asks customers who seem overwhelmed by the menu to share three adjectives to describe a beer they are in the mood for. From there, she narrows the selection down to a few options – and, if on draft, can pour small tastes of those beers. If her recommendations steer toward the bottle offerings, McCormick describes the beers and often refers back to the menu, which is separated by style and contains descriptions for each brew.
“At the end of the day, we’re here to help people,” she said. “Sometimes people just need you to point them in the right direction so they can make their own decision. And sometimes they just want you to tell them what your favorite beer is and why – sometimes they order it, sometimes they get a Bell’s Two Hearted anyway.”
Given the international scope of Paradiso’s beers – from Brazilian Way to English ales and Belgian tripels – McCormick said it’s also fun to do a global tour of beer with customers.
“Sometimes that will sell it for people,” she said. “If they’re looking at the menu and trying to decide between two IPAs and one is from their home state and one is from where their brother lives, people latch onto those little details and go with it … As we get in more beers from around the world, it’s interesting to see how people are making those connections.”
McCormick’s emphasis on making beer accessible extends from the customer to her staff. She believes that education is the best approach and demonstrates that by continuing her predecessor’s monthly beer class for all Paradiso staff. The next class will be at the end of the month and focus on the Craft Brewers Conference, which will bring 14,000 beer professionals to Washington, DC, from April 10-13.
“[The class] will address what is CBC, who are we working with, what are the events we’re doing, what days are they on, what do we need to know for that, and who to go to if you can’t answer someone’s question, what’s the conversation that we’re having with customers,” she said. “It’s a city-wide celebration so not only about being able to give [customers] a good experience at Paradiso but connect them to the next spot that they should go to.”
Following CBC, the city will also host the Brewers Association’s SAVOR in June followed by DC Beer Week in August. The line-up of major industry festivals is uncharted territory for most beer directors in Washington, let alone for fledgling ones like McCormick, who is still sinking her teeth into the daily demands of the job while also planning ahead for the storm of craft brewers on DC.
“It’s overwhelming but it’s also been really fun to talk to distributors and local breweries to figure how we’re going to get a particular beer here on a certain day,” she said. “It’s an excuse right off the bat to work with people, engage with them, and solve problems.”